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Comic artist recreates ancient Rome

A French comic book artist has brought the ancient city of Rome back to life with an immense map based on a lifetime of research and a touch of artistic license.
Gilles Chaillet with a reproduction of his hand-drawn map of ancient Rome, which was presented Thursday at the French Cultural Institute in Rome.Corrado Giambalvo / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Imagine ancient Rome before its fall: The 1,350 fountains still trickle with water, the 1,790 palaces haven’t fallen to ruins and the 240 public latrines are still in business.

In painstaking detail, French comic book artist Gilles Chaillet has brought the ancient city back to life with an immense map based on a lifetime of research and a touch of artistic license.

Chaillet dreamed up the project when he was 9 years old. Nearly 50 years later, he came to the Eternal City to show it off to the Romans.

“This was an idea I could never get out of my head,” Chaillet told The Associated Press on Thursday. “It was a bit of an obsession.”

There are no definitive surviving maps of ancient Rome, which was most of the challenge, he said.

Chaillet’s immense map is colored in with cheerful greens, russets and pearly tones by his wife, Chantal. Looking at it, you can imagine a day’s stroll in Rome circa 314 A.D.: a leisurely morning at the bathhouses, a stop at the market to buy some chickpeas and trip to the Circus Maximus to take in a chariot race.

When Chaillet was a child in Paris, he discovered the ruins of Rome through a postcard and comic books. Inspiration struck.

“I announced to my parents, ‘I want to re-create ancient Rome,’” he said. “They said, ‘Calm down and go do your math homework.’”

At one point, Chaillet’s father was so frustrated by his son’s lack of attention to his schoolwork that he set fire to some early Rome sketches.

Chaillet, now 58, made other Rome maps at age 13 and at 20, during his military service. After high school, he became a successful comic book artist in a country where everyone from kindergartners to executives reads them.

In his downtime, Chaillet visited archives, libraries and museums to research his side project.

He set his map in 314 A.D. because the majestic and well-preserved Arch of Constantine wasn’t built until around then, and he felt most Rome-lovers couldn’t imagine the city without it.

At that time, Rome had about 1 million inhabitants and was ruled by Constantine I, who legalized Christianity.

When Chaillet finally sat down to sketch the 11- by 6½-foot map, he spent 5,000 hours at the drawing board. His wife spent 3,000 more hours coloring it in.

Chaillet thinks about 5 percent of the map’s 13,000 buildings are completely accurate. About 30 percent are fairly accurate, and the rest is based on educated guesses, he said.

The map has been displayed in museums around France, and in April Chaillet published a 200-page French-language book to accompany the project, “Inside the Rome of the Caesars.”

Now, his sketches and a smaller copy of the map are on display at the French cultural center in the city that inspired his dreams.

“It’s the end of a long quest” — and probably the end of his career as a mapmaker, Chaillet said.

“There are other cities I also love, like Venice and my hometown, Paris,” he said. “But there’s not the same emotion there. ... I’d need a second life to do a second city.”