The "Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome"

Digitization of the "Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome": Volume 1 & Volume 2.

Whether on the occasion of his first visit in the 1930s or during the more extensive stay in Rome that followed his American adventure (on this, see his biography), Nash’s understanding of the city was greatly conditioned by the groundbreaking work A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome—written by Samuel Platner, revised by Thomas Ashby and published in 1929. That handy guide to classical buildings in the city inspired Nash, whose keen eyes noticed its most glaring lacuna: The book was largely unillustrated. Here, then, was an opportunity to improve the study of classical architecture and archaeology. By bringing his interests and knowledge to the table, Nash strove to provide an illustrated postscript to Platner and Ashby’s classic tome. But more than that, Nash saw an opportunity to conduct historical studies using a medium that went beyond the traditional stuff of scholarship, namely written texts and drawn surveys.

Nash was not only instrumental in stimulating the acceptance of photographs as valid documents, but in adopting the medium in revolutionary ways. Paul Zucker, a contemporary reviewer of Nash’s work, noted that: “[Earlier] photographers… tried all too often to get an axial and frontal point of view… almost like an elevation. …The result in most cases is extremely boring, pedantic and lifeless, since the plastic values are almost abolished.” As users of this website will have occasion to note, Nash was constantly in search of the dynamic angles with which to capture the spirit of a building.

In direct acknowledgment of Platner and Ashby's gold-standard publication, Nash called his work The Pictorial Dictionary of Ancient Rome. It was issued in two volumes between 1961 and 1962, and contemporaneously published in German as Bildlexikon zur Topographie des antiken Rom. The tomes were produced with support from the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut (German Archaeological Institute) in Rome. The book declared itself (on increasingly hard-to-find dust jackets): “The first systematic pictorial survey of all Roman monuments and buildings, containing pictures of every extant relic in the Eternal City, some of which have never before been photographed.” Because Nash focused only on buildings that left a physical—photographable—trace, his dictionary was far less comprehensive (286 entries) than Platner and Ashby's work (circa 1,500 entries).

The dictionary publishes 1,338 of the 1,500 photographs taken by Ernest Nash while in Rome during the 1930s and '50s and supplements them with concise historical and architectural descriptions. Curiously, six monuments which lack any physical remnants were arbitrarily included and illustrated not by photographs of ruins, but by images of coins and fragments from the Forma Urbis—the second-century marble map of the city that survives in fragments. That strategy could have been adopted for more than just a parsimonious selection of sites, as some contemporary reviewers noted.

A survey of academic reviews will attest that the volumes were received with high praise. Some reviewers noted how Nash emphasized new monuments that had come to light since Platner and Ashby’s 1929 publication. This category included 400 photos out of the total illustrations. Another recognized value of Nash’s publication is the up-to-date bibliography, which—at least for the monuments treated by him—made up for over 25 years’ worth of scholarship. In the days before resources such as WorldCat, Nash’s bibliographical research was a handy offering. Indeed, attempting to fully update Platner & Ashby’s work was a truly audacious task, one that would not be undertaken until Richardson’s A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome (1992) and by the authors of the multivolume series Lexicon Topographicum Urbis Romae (1995-1999). Any negative critiques of Nash's magnum opus were focused on the absence of a map in the books and on the cost of the two volumes ($75 or over $600 in today's currency), which one reviewer deemed “beyond the means of any scholar who would very much wish to possess it.” By offering both a map and public access, this digital publication of Nash's photographs responds to those early criticisms.

Written by Nicola Camerlenghi.