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Engineering the Eternal City

Infrastructure, Topography, and the Culture of Knowledge in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome

Between the catastrophic flood of the Tiber River in 1557 and the death of the “engineering pope” Sixtus V in 1590, the city of Rome was transformed by intense activity involving building construction and engineering projects of all kinds. Using hundreds of archival documents and primary sources, Engineering the Eternal City explores the processes and people involved in these infrastructure projects—sewers, bridge repair, flood prevention, aqueduct construction, the building of new, straight streets, and even the relocation of immensely heavy ancient Egyptian obelisks that Roman emperors had carried to the city centuries before.

This portrait of an early modern Rome examines the many conflicts, failures, and successes that shaped the city, as decision-makers tried to control not only Rome’s structures and infrastructures but also the people who lived there. Taking up visual images of the city created during the same period—most importantly in maps and urban representations, this book shows how in a time before the development of modern professionalism and modern bureaucracies, there was far more wide-ranging conversation among people of various backgrounds on issues of engineering and infrastructure than there is in our own times. Physicians, civic leaders, jurists, cardinals, popes, and clerics engaged with painters, sculptors, architects, printers, and other practitioners as they discussed, argued, and completed the projects that remade Rome.

Author Information

Pamela O. Long is an independent historian of late medieval and early modern Europe and of the history of science and technology. Her books include Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance and Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Sciences, 1400–1600.


“In Engineering the Eternal City, Pamela Long recaptures the energy and efflorescence of the Eternal City in the late sixteenth century, when Rome appeared to many visitors to be a vast and never-ending construction site. During these crucial decades after the Sack of Rome popes, architects, engineers, physicians, antiquarians, humanists, and city officials devised numerous solutions to the problems of repairing an ancient city as part of making an early modern city a magnificent expression of Rome’s unique legacy as the heart of an ancient empire renewed by faith. Readers who love this city and want to learn more about it will enjoy this book.”
— Paula Findlen, Stanford University

"Pamela Long’s wonderful book brings the reader into the streets and squares of late Renaissance Rome and recreates the lost cultures of knowledge and practice that took shape there. She shows in vivid detail how scholars and engineers, artists, and prelates struggled to recreate ancient Rome and rebuild the infrastructure of the modern city."
— Anthony T. Grafton, Princeton University

Audience: Professional and scholarly;