A Dutch Engineer in Rome

Cornelis Meijer’s Plans for Water Management in Italy

Up to this day, the Dutch enjoy worldwide recognition for being experts in water management. Nowadays, this expertise is mainly visible in the Delta Works, created in the southern part of the Netherlands from the 1950s onwards. However, the Dutch have a long history of dealing with water and their expertise was often called upon. A striking example of such a Dutch expert working abroad is Cornelis Meijer (1629-1701) who worked in Rome as a water management engineer at the end of the seventeenth century. Apart from being an engineer, Meijer was also endowed with artistic skills, which enabled him to draw sketches and technical imagery. Hidden in the special collections section of the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome is his folio-sized book entitled L’arte di restituire a Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere (1683) or, in English, The art of restoring to Rome the former navigation of its river Tiber (see fig. 1 for the title page).

Figure 1 Title page showing seagod Neptune and his consort Salacia (design by Meijer, executed by Balthasar Denner)

A Dutch engineer who became famous in Rome

When he was 45, Cornelis Meijer went to northern Italy to solve the existing problems regarding water management in the area around Venice. After becoming a water management engineer, he went to Rome a year later, supposedly having been ordered to do so by the pope Clemens X, who needed help in dealing with the recurrent flooding of the river Tiber. One of Meijer’s first achievements in Rome was redirecting the course of the Tiber. This prevented the Via Flaminia, the principal road leading north, from being flooded with water (see fig. 2). Over time, Meijer gradually gained a good reputation and he even joined the prestigious Accademia Fisicomatematica Romana, which was involved in matters regarding scientific innovation. Meijer would stay in the eternal city for the rest of his life. He undertook and planned many projects to solve difficult issues regarding water management in Italy.

Figure 2 The Via Flaminia and the redirection of the Tiber’s course (design by Meijer, executed by Giovanni Battista Falda)

Cornelis Meijer’s plans and achievements

In the abovementioned book, divided in three parts, Cornelis Meijer presents the projects that he undertook during his first eight years in Rome. In the first part, he discusses navigating the part of the river stretching from Perugia to Rome. One of the issues at stake here is dealing with solving the issue of traversing waterfalls ( fig. 3). In the second he treats the stretch of the river from Rome to the sea. In the accompanying map, it is visible that Meijer planned to create a new canal stretching from Rome all the way the Tyrrhenian Sea (see fig. 4). In the third part, more general technological issues are mentioned, such as the erection of obelisks and the design of piazzas (see fig. 5).

Figure 3 How to overcome waterfalls (design by Meijer, executed by Gaspar van Wittel)
Figure 4 The Tiber’s course between Rome and the sea (design by Meijer, executed by Giovanni Battista Falda)
Figure 5 The art of erecting an obelisk (design by Meijer, executed by Jacques Blondeau)

Moreover, Meijer includes some more ideas that the Papal States might be interested in. The most remarkable of these ideas is a method of draining the Pontine Marshes, which was a vast area of malarial wasteland, situated southeast of Rome. This plan of Meijer, however, was never completed during his lifetime. Since many centuries, several Roman emperors and popes had tried to drain these marshlands, but it was only in the 1930s that the Fascist regime was successful in completing this enormous task.

Material aspects of the book

The folio-sized book (69 x 40 cm) is richly illustrated with as many as 62 copperplate prints. Some of these have a merely illustrative purpose, others are used to show the technological ideas explained in the text, and some are of a more geographical nature. As stated on the title page, the book was presented as a gift to Pope Innocent XI. He was pope, and thus both spiritual and worldly leader of the Papal States when the book was published. At the time of the book’s publication, Meijer had spent just eight years and Rome. The book, which can be considered as an overview of Meijer’s activity, thus illustrates the great number of projects that he planned and undertook during his lifetime. In the process of creating the book, Meijer assumed the dual role of both author of the text and designer of the images in the book, which shows his ability to combine these two very diverse tasks.

The book’s audience

Lastly, it would be interesting to briefly consider the possible intended audience of this book. Taking the sheer size and weight of the book in consideration, we can safely assume that you were not meant to take this book with you on a journey. Rather, it served as a richly illustrated catalogue of the works undertaken by Cornelis Meijer. Besides the technological imagery, the book also offers several highly-detailed vedute or cityscapes, not just by Meijer himself but also by other artists. The most famous of these is the Dutch artist Gaspar van Wittel (1653-1736), who was a contemporary of Meijer. They often worked together and this book also contains a work from Wittel’s hand, offering a view over Piazza del Popolo (see fig. 6).

Figure 6 The Piazza del Popolo (designed and executed by Gaspar van Wittel)

All in all, the book not only offers a richly illustrated overview of Meijer’s plans and achievements, but also contains valuable information about the appearance of Rome and its surroundings at the end of the seventeenth century.

Jelle Klinkenberg (1993) did an MA in Writing, Editing, and Mediating at the University of Groningen (RuG) and he is specifically interested in early printed books and travel journals dating between the 16th and 18th century.

Book description

KNIR SIGNATURE: Pregiato Folio DR119

SHORT TITLE: Cornelio Meyer, L’arte di restituire à Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere, Rome: Reverenda Camera Apostolica, 1683.

SIZES: 69 x 40 cm

TITLE: L’arte di restituire à Roma la tralasciata navigatione del suo Tevere : divisa in tre parti: 1. Gl’impedimenti, che sono nell’alveo del Tevere da Roma à Perugia, e suoi rimedii, 2. Le difficoltà, che sono nella navigatione del Tevere da Roma fino al Mare e suoi rimedii, 3. Nella quale si discorre perche Roma è stata fabricata, e mantenuta sù le sponde del Tevere, e si tratta d’alcun’altre propositioni proficue per lo Stato Ecclesiastico all’emin.mi e rev.mi sig.ri li signori cardinali Azzolini e Colonna deputati sopra la Navigatione nuova del Tevere. Dell’ingegniero Cornelio Meyer Olandese Dell’accademia Fisicomatematica Romana. In Roma. Nella Stamperia della Reverenda Camera Apostolica: M.DC.LXXIII. Con lizenza de’ superiori.

COLLATION: 2°: π7 A2 and unsigned leaves pp. [72].

DESCRIPTION: Binding with decorated paper over cardboard. There are many inserted engravings, of which there are 62 in total. Some of these are a combination of etchings and engravings created by various artists. The book contains many woodcut miniatures and decorations. Quires are signed on the first two leaves only.


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Hoogewerff, G.J. “Cornelis Jansz. Meijer, Amsterdamsch Ingenieur in Italië (1629-1701.” Oud-Holland 38 (1920), 83-103.

Van Berkel, K. “Cornelius Meijer inventor et fecit. On the Representation of Science in Late Seventeenth-Century Rome.” In: P. Smith and P. Findlen (eds.). Merchants and Marvels. Commerce, Science, and Art in Early Modern Europe. London: Routledge, 2002.

Witte, A. “I manoscritti della navigazione: un’opera in collaborazione tra Gaspar van Wittel e Cornelis Meyer?” In: Gaspar van Wittel: I Desegni. Roma: Biblioteca Nzionale Centrale, 2013.