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Deciphering the Land: An Unknown Estate Survey Book from Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Century Italy


The following is a guest post by Margherita Pampinella, an Associate Professor of Italian at Towson University in Maryland. An expert in the poetry of Dante, I introduced her to this collection of completely unstudied manuscripts and cadastral surveys several years ago and she was hooked. Since that time she has spent countless hours deciphering the paleography and tracing the lives and names of those mentioned in the documents. This kind of historical geography provides the foundation for the study of the everyday lives of those involved in agriculture and food production during the late Renaissance and early modern periods.

Many of the paths and fields mentioned in the manuscripts still exist, and Margherita will travel to Tivoli in the coming months for some fieldwork, taking her inspiration from the French medieval historian George Duby, who, in his research on the agrarian boundaries and field patterns of early medieval Macon, noticed the same phenomenon, writing that, “no technological revolution had yet radically transformed the agricultural system in my region, and forty years ago the network of paths was still much the same as it had been in the year 1000.”

Getting outside and looking at what still survives allows the historian to experience the surprises that landscape holds and to start seeing them as dynamic constructions, with each community of inhabitants and each generation imposing its own cognitive map on an anthropogenic world of interconnected morphology, arrangement, and meaning. Although this seems obvious, many historians ignore the landscape and therefore miss an important window into the spatial  and temporal conceptions of those they are studying. To use the landscape this way requires a re-imagining of historical evidence as something not only found in archives but also, as George Duby wrote, “open to the sunshine”.

This is the first publication of images from the cabreo and research relating to these documents.


The estate survey book commissioned in 1661 by the congregation of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Tivoli, Italy, and found in the collections of the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, is a beautiful example of illustrated cabreo. Cabrei were private cadastral accounts commissioned by large estate owners, such as families and religious or secular organizations. Illustrated cabrei became very popular between the end of the XVII century and the end of the XVIII century, and were not only inventories of properties, but included as well detailed maps and drawings of plots of lands, vegetation, crops, and buildings. Cabrei were updated regularly to record any changes to the estate, resulting from acquisitions, sales, and leases of land or buildings, and therefore constituted a useful tool for the owners in the administration of the estate, and in the settlement of potential disputes. The wealth of information that can be gathered from illustrated cabrei, about the land and its owner, and even about the land surveyor and his work, proves invaluable in documenting the evolution of landscape, economy, cartography, and social life throughout the centuries. (page 2, frontispiece)

Frontispiece for the Cabreo from Tivoli, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The page 2 frontispiece of the cabreo from Tivoli. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The congregation of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Tivoli was a society of lay citizens who devoted themselves to religious and charitable services. They operated under the patronage of the religious order of the Society of Jesus, and were supported by private donations. Their estate wasn’t large; they managed a few small olive groves, a couple of vineyards and gardens, some plot of lands, a handful of houses, and limited funds. They commissioned land surveyor Gismondo Stracha in 1661 to put together an illustrated cabreo. Gismondo Stracha, who defined himself simply as a misuratore (measurer), didn’t just measure the land, expertly using the tools required by his profession (as he drew in the lower portion of the frontispiece, and as a recurrent decorative element in many other pages of the book); in fact, he also drew maps to scale, elegantly decorated and painted with watercolors the frontispiece and all pages of the book, and showed artistic flare in his meticulous attention to the architectonic details of the buildings he included in his maps. (page 24, detail of the ancient Roman aqueducts in the top right corner)

Page from Cabreo from Tivoli, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Page 24 from cabreo from Tivoli. Note the drawing of the remains of the Roman aqueduct in the upper right-hand corner. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Illustrated cabrei didn’t serve only a practical purpose, but, as Francescantonio Filonzi claimed in his 1775 manual on agrimensura (land surveying), combined utility with great pleasure. The pages authored by Gismondo Stracha show, in fact, a unique artistic approach that quite differs from the less ornate style characterizing the later pages in the book, which were compiled by a different land surveyor. (page 47, by land surveyor Giovanni Francesco Regnone in 1711). Illustrated cabrei were indeed works of art, perceived by the commissioners not simply as administrative documents, but rather as the books that represented the commissioners themselves, and painted a picture of their history, power, and impact on their physical and social surroundings.

Page 47 from the Tivoli Cabreo. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Page 47 from the Tivoli cabreo drawn by the land surveyor Giovanni Francesco Regnone in 1711. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The illustrated cabreo of the congregation of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary in Tivoli narrate, celebrate, and immortalize the story of the congregation, and its ties to the land and the people of Tivoli. The officers of the congregation added to the book everything that pertained to the life and fortune of its members, from explicatory notes regarding a trivial dispute over an olive tree, to a brief history of the congregation itself. The congregation was suppressed in 1681, reconstituted as the Company of the Immaculate Conception under the patronage of the Cathedral Church in Tivoli, and ultimately suppressed in 1752, not without a fight from its members. A fraction of the estate was then passed on to the Chapel of the Holy Conception within the Cathedral Church, which was able to continue some of the charitable work initiated by the congregation.

The complexity and visual interest of the cabreo is increased by the different hands, not always as expert and attractive as the original one, that characterize the record updates throughout the years. The layering of information is at times messy and difficult to decipher, precisely because the new information is literally layered, written over or next to previous notations that had become obsolete, so that the physical position of the records on the paper, and the chronological placement of the hand responsible for the updates, are sometimes the only available elements in reconstructing the history of the estate. (page 4)

Page 4 from the Tivoli Cabreo. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Page 4 from the Tivoli cabreo. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The most recent updates in the cabreo of the congregation of the Nativity in Tivoli date to 1807, and contribute to draw a very different picture, one that we can still compare, though, with the original one drawn in 1661 by land surveyor Gismondo Stracha, thanks to the layered, continuous, and inclusive nature of illustrated cabrei.

2 Comments

  1. Mike Rhode
    February 19, 2016 at 9:55 am

    Beyond that, this is a very neat collection, and a nice research topic (and blog post).

  2. Lea Ramsdell
    February 19, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    The illustrations are truly lovely and the explanations crystal clear.

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