Measure, calculate, design: the beauty of geometry

Reggio Emilia State Record Office, corso Cairoli no. 6

7 May - 3 July 2016 - Exhibitions



   Monday – Friday 09:30-14:30

   Special opening times:

   Saturday 7 May 16:30-20:00

   Sunday 8 May 09:30-13:00

   Saturday 2 July 16:30-20:00

   Sunday 3 July 09:30-13:00


A special look at the cartography of the Reggio Emilia region

Professionals such as land surveyors have always been around; they have at times been overlooked, in particularly unsettled historical periods, but soon resurfaced when the Romans taught us that tracing out boundaries for and enclosing land is one of the essential bases of any ordered society. In the extensive Po region, another great protagonist Cabreo Melli 1608competed with land to be the focal point of maps: water, the cornerstone and flowing driving force behind every human agricultural and artisan activity, a primal and essential channel of communication, the course of which, be it winding or straight, is followed by land-based roads, with the sole exception of Via Emilia.

         Maps from Reggio Emilia have long illustrated the amphibious nature of the area, depicting water, land, human settlements, residential buildings and businesses, and sometimes towns with their own canal systems.

This tradition of cartography was born from a combination of accurate knowledge of geometry and perspective, and the maps themselves offer a comprehensive bird’s-eye panoramic view of the land, viewed from a sidelong 45° angle usually turned towards the South. This emphasises the 3D effect, and every element of the land maintains its appearance. The resulting map describes the land, shows all its characteristics, makes it recognisable, and identifies it as a place, in other words as “… that portion of the face of the Earth that is irreducible to any other, …(1)».

Cabreo Zambelli-ManodoriThe design of the place must therefore replicate all the complexities of its components: water and land first and foremost, and then, where needed, houses, mills, sewers, inns and towns, which is still not enough because if land is used for agricultural purposes, the different types of crops grown on it must be “described”, and if there’s any wooded land, the various kinds of trees grown on it must be identified. True, the animal kingdom doesn’t really have a place in the map per se, but this is made up for with the first letters of the headings, which are richly decorated with birds and snakes of every kind, as well as fields of flowers and ornamental trees swaying in the wind. Ultimately, it is the living, moving land that folds in on itself, with geometric skill, to be represented in two dimensions on a plane that is nevertheless still land.

Cabreo S. ProsperoBy the end of the 18th century, cartography in Reggio Emilia was still characterised by a style that had been abandoned elsewhere. This was also due to the fact that the «Renewal of the Estense Valuation», which was set in motion in 1788 and completed at the beginning of 1792, did not provide for the drawing up of maps of parcels of land, but all around the duchy things were changing rapidly: geometric parcel-based land registers were replacing their descriptive predecessors.

Cadastral maps, with their parcels, demonstrated the consolidation of a political process that was consolidated and the management of  Cabreo Ritiro Dame people and things was regulated by centralised and uniform structures. For cadastral purposes, in other words for direct taxation purposes, only the size, quality, and class of plots of land mattered, so a place was represented as the compound of a series of shapes geometrically designed according to their borders, and coloured according to the aforementioned characteristics. The use of the bird’s-eye view disappeared of course, to be replaced by the zenithal view, that is to say the view from a horizontal plane at a defined and unequivocal height above the objects below.

Seen in this way, stripped of their defining characteristics, almost cut off from the land itself, resting on the mathematical plane of engineers, places became spaces, or rather: «… a terrestrial surface made up of components that are absolutely equal because they are measured in the same general way (2).».

Cabreo SS. Pietro e MatteoThe cabreo (a register of land) of Domenico Catellani (3) from the first half of the 19th century, already showed signs of the transformations that had taken place. The lessons handed down by the old masters had not yet been lost though. Each and every plot of land was still represented twice: first in watercolour form, from a bird’s-eye view, showing any plantations of trees, each with its own shadow; then in purely geometric form with measurements, from a zenithal view sharing a clear similarity with cadastral parcels.

The few buildings present are detailed from above, and as it was no longer an option to have animals and flowers peeping out from the initials of the headings, there was just one way of including them: reintroducing them by taking them out of the map itself and placing them in the centre or in the margins of the pages in splendid watercolours, mostly in chiaroscuro, as a reminder that those geometric shapes that came to represent the land were still also the habitats of animals, trees, the rain, the wind, houses and men who worked and measured those plots of land with the tools of their trade. Cabreo SS. Pietro e Matteo Luna

(1) Farinelli Franco, La mappa e la sintassi: l'esemplarità del territorio reggiano, in: Provincia di Reggio Emilia, Paesaggi di provincia. Cartografia e sintassi del territorio reggiano; curated by F. Farinelli e E. Cavazza (Biennale del paesaggio). Reggio Emilia, 11 November-8 December 2006. Bologna, Damiani, 2006; p. 71.

(2) Farinelli Franco, La mappa e la sintassi ... cit; p. 71.

(3) AS RE, OO. PP., Ospedale dei SS. Pietro e Matteo o dei Bastardini, n. 14 Mappe e piante, n. 2 «Possessioni e terre ragioni del Pio luogo de' Santi Pietro, e Matteo detto de' Bastardini ...», by Domenico Catellani, 19th century.

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