McAlister on Terpstra and Rose, 'Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence: Historical GIS and the Early Modern City'

Nicholas Terpstra, Colin Rose, eds.
Victoria L. McAlister

Nicholas Terpstra, Colin Rose, eds. Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence: Historical GIS and the Early Modern City. Routledge Research in Digital Humanities Series. New York: Routledge, 2016. Illustrations. 236 pp. $170.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-138-18489-3.

Reviewed by Victoria L. McAlister (Southeast Missouri State University) Published on H-Environment (October, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

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This readable tome might be better subtitled to reference its unifying theme: how the digital humanities (hereafter DH) tool DECIMA can recreate a bodily experience of the early modern city of Florence. Early modern Florence is a well-trodden subject thanks to its famous residents, some of whom, the Medici, were responsible for the historical data used by the authors. The Decima was a 1561 census of Florence’s population and resources. The government surveyors described the spatial relationship of the buildings forming the organizational basis of the census, and this is what has enabled the geo-referencing of this written data with the 1584 map of Florence by Stefano Buonsignori. The result is DECIMA, a historical geographic information sciences (HGIS) tool that unites project collaborators from across Europe and North America.

It must be noted that since this book was published in 2016, reviewing it in 2020 provides a rare opportunity to assess a DH project in hindsight. This is valuable to DH studies, as the field continues to struggle with the issues of project longevity and technological relevance. In this regard, the DECIMA initiative, and its related DH projects, offer a good case study. The URL provided for the main DECIMA database in the book is now redundant (broken and out-of-date links are a bugbear of DH practitioners) in favor of a more pithy and relevant link: Hidden Florence (, an offshoot project, is a virtual app-based tour of the early modern city, led by a fictional wool worker. Hidden Florence is discussed briefly in the introduction and then developed into its own chapter at the end. Hidden Florence is available to download for free and, five years out from its reference in the book, still provides a fun and informative visual counterpoint. It has more recently been added to by the augmented reality app Hidden Florence 3D: San Pier Maggiore and seems to have inspired Hidden Cities ( Johann, the 1686 paper merchant from the resulting Hidden Hamburg now follows me and a few hundred others on Twitter and has announced there that his smartphone app tour will be available later in 2020. DECIMA has therefore showcased how an international collaboration, essentially open source in nature, can result in a long-lived and relevant DH experience that is also not tied to the vagaries of individual and limited funding sources.

The edited volume is split into three thematic parts clearly justified in the editors’ introduction. Each section builds on the preceding to present an increasingly complex spatial world. This structure works very well and creates a natural flow of content and ideas as the reader progresses from theory to social history examples in practice to complex emotional responses. There is some repetition regarding background across the essays, but this means that each contribution can be read independently.

Editors Nicholas Terpstra and Colin Rose (Rose is also credited throughout the volume for much of the HGIS infrastructure) explain how the project came into existence. This introduction ties the wider project development as “designed from the outset to be a collaborative tool that would become available online at the earliest possible opportunity” with the book content (p. 6). The introduction closes with the ultimate goal of the interlinked efforts, to “generate open-access tools that allow detailed comparative analysis on population and occupational distribution, economic development, social stratification, and mobility without losing a sense of the city as a lived and living environment rich in sensory dimensions” (p. 11). It is also here that the distinction between the city and the duchy of Florence is articulated; the book focuses on the former, as defined by Buonsignori’s map.

Part 1 opens with Rose’s single authored essay, which outlines the thought processes and methodology behind the book. Three geographical scales illuminated through DECIMA are discussed: the liminality of parish churches within parish boundaries, the economic background of weavers in a Florentine quarter, and a summation of street-level occupancy. All three are themes regularly returned to in subsequent chapters, particularly the spatial layout of parishes, which Niall Atkinson later explains did not create spatial manifestation of communal bonds, as we might expect. Leah Faibisoff next recreates the “circuits” or “routes of governmentality” used by the Decima surveyors. This forms a component part of the theoretical underpinnings of the HGIS. Eduardo Fabbro provides another methodology essay, explaining how the manuscripts of the Decima became the database DECIMA. Daniel Jamison’s examination of institutional landlords, that is, convents, churches, and other corporate entities, provides a timely example of how the database and map can be used in practice. The first major conclusion about the composition of sixteenth-century Florence is made here: “few institutions were large enough to dominate entire neighbourhoods,” and Jamison explains how lay versus church landlords affected the type of properties leased (p. 64).

Entering part 2, Sharon Strocchia and Julia Rombough use DECIMA to connect the Decima to another Medici documentary undertaking, a census of convents, used to assert control over civic resources. There is a decade-long gap between the two sources, but despite this the authors try to trace the geographical connections between nuns living in four convents (one from each city quarter) and the communities surrounding the cloistered walls. Strocchia and Rombough aim to show what can be accomplished by combining DECIMA with other datasets. Control of women is a subtheme within the book, as Terpstra analyzes the attempts to spatially control prostitution. Another affliction of the early modern city is tackled by John Henderson and Rose—plague. Plague is also discussed in Nicholas A. Eckstein’s contribution in part 3, and the fascinating treatment of this perpetually relevant disease is possible here because Florentines “saw a direct relationship between the built environment and disease” (p. 129). Eckstein notes that the Decima can be combined with letters created by Florence’s health magistracy. Attention should be paid to the second half of Henderson and Rose’s essay, as it gives an extremely useful and adaptable methodology for dataset merging. Likewise, Eckstein makes the widely applicable point that in creating HGIS outputs we need to focus on the content rather than let ourselves be distracted by the expression of it. Eckstein’s conclusion that walking is the key element to understanding early modern Florentines’ perceptions of their city presents how a walking tour app was a logical next step in the intellectual development of the project. This forms Fabrizio Nevola and David Rosenthal’s final chapter, whereby DECIMA came to influence a pedagogical tool and public outreach tool—Hidden Florence. By the closing pages of the volume we make a satisfying return to the central messages of the book: that the “spatial turn in early modern studies can also be said to have taken a ‘mobility turn’” and ample evidence is provided that DH for public outreach serves “as a worthwhile research practice in its own right” (p. 203). That the Hidden Florence app presents a social history of Florence to a public audience is particularly commendable. While Terpstra and Rose conclude that the book is merely a “static map,” the collaborative approach ensures it nonetheless has longevity, as spinoff and expansion projects are conceivable within the project structure (p. 210). 

Although the book’s contents articulate much that is relevant to early modern studies (the urge to document and thus control the landscape will be recognizable to scholars of early modern cartography and state formation), it is a bit disappointing to have little from the authors themselves expressing how they see their Florentine-based conclusions as relevant to broader research. Some essays combine the data contained in the Decima with other early modern era documentation, including from the 1540s (Strocchia and Rombough) and 1630s (Henderson and Rose), so the framework for greater geographical relevance already exists. More problematic considering the HGIS essential to the subject are the black-and white-illustrations. These are numerous but many are difficult to comprehend, as the shades of gray remove nuance in the map visualizations. Some contributors’ figure descriptions suffer from too much brevity so that the reader must read quite widely around the figure to understand what it seeks to depict. Some additional maps combining layers discussed in both the second and third parts of the book, since both consider marginalized communities, would be illuminating. This is done in Atkinson’s contribution where it is an effective addition. In conclusion, this is an informative and readable academic account of a successful long-term DH project that hopefully will continue to expand in the coming years.

Citation: Victoria L. McAlister. Review of Terpstra, Nicholas; Rose, Colin, eds., Mapping Space, Sense, and Movement in Florence: Historical GIS and the Early Modern City. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. October, 2020. URL:

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