Civita Immaginata: Mapping a Historic Landscape

SHARON MENTYKA is a graphic designer, writer and educator. She holds a BFA in Visual Communications and an MFA in Writing from the Whidbey Writers Workshop. Since 1994, she has been co-owner and creative principal at Partners in Design, a diversified design consultancy in Seattle that offers a full range of graphic and interpretive design services to clients in the cultural, arts and public services sectors. As Adjunct Instructor at Cornish  College of the Arts, she has developed and taught classes in design, professional practices, and writing for interpretation. Both her writing and design work are grounded in the concept of literacy—the ability to read, understand and interpret the art, philosophy and visual thinking of the past in order to create design or stories that reflect those ideas and place them in a current context. She is the author of two books of fiction for middle-grade readers and numerous short pieces for children, represented by Sara Crowe of Harvey Klinger Agency in New York City.

Often, most of what we imagine when we think of traditional maps depicts conventional reality—freeways not bird migrations; shopping mall footprints instead of lost buildings. But this narrow view of maps denies their potential—rarely does it tap into our subjective memories or take advantage of the natural, if unconscious, strategies our brains use to organize information and make sense of new places we encounter.  But creating a sense of place goes well beyond mapping the physical environment. What if wayfinding was envisioned to allow visitors (actual or virtual) to enter new worlds on their own terms—to examine, question, visualize and add to environments on multiple levels? Maps then, might serve not only as tickets to actual territory but as open-ended invitations to go beyond what is visible on the surface, examining instead the many interconnected layers of meaning, culture, and history that invariably exist in one locale.

Graphic designer and writer Sharon Mentyka will present and describe her 2012 NIAUSI Fellowship project “Civita Immaginata,” an unconventional approach to mapping the Italian hill town of Civita di Bagnoregio, designated a World Monuments Fund site in 2008, through specific and distinct lenses running the gamut from imagined. Using the graphic designer’s tools of image and typography, these storytelling maps combine to extend and interpret narratives, graphically representing Civita’s story in its own context.


Our discussion begins with the natural methodology our brains employ when trying to make sense of new places, essentially building personal cognitive maps of our environments. To accomplish this, we do two important things. First, we simplify, looking for patterns and symbols in geography and structure in order to make connections to what is already familiar. Second, we attach meaning and emotions to what we see and observe in order to make new information more understandable within the constructs of our pre-existing worldview. Once we have filled our cognitive mind-maps with familiar markers of meaning, we naturally feel more comfortable and less threatened. A hands-on exercise will demonstrate this fluid and abstract cognitive coping mechanism we all possess.

The session will then examine the various methods that can be employed in order to consciously “map” a landscape or site in this way, including determining the various categories we draw upon to organize a body of information, such as discovering, navigating, symbolizing, describing, recording, documenting and preserving. These mapping techniques provide new ways for architects and other planners to communicate diverse information about projects and sites in diverse and visual engaging ways.

During a two-month period in Civita di Bagnoregio, a variety of historic and architectural elements were mapped including: doors and passageways, religious and vernacular iconography, important civic figures and treasures as well as less tangible factors such as sounds, civic character and the passage of time. The organizational principles for these maps will be explained, including why specific stylistic decisions were made and how the pairing of content suggests the countless further ways a place can be described. A discussion follows on how this methodology invariably changes how we think about any “place,” inviting us to search out the multiple layers of our environments that carry meaning for us—discovering in each the mix of history, culture and storytelling that naturally follows.

Learning Objective #1: Participants will consider how the specific geography of a place can influence how its history and culture are depicted in present-day storytelling and the ways in which the site is perceived and experienced today.

Learning Objective #2: Participants will examine and discuss what subconscious methods people draw upon to make sense of new places they encounter. What pre-existing constructs and categories serve as the underlying methodology we rely on for wayfinding or to make a place our own?

Learning Objective #3: Participants will examine how the manner in which mapping information is envisioned and arranged can extend beyond simply offering factual content but can express an emotional component as well.

Learning Objective #4: Participants will consider the various styles and approaches that mapmaking and wayfinding may take and how these stylistic decisions can be matched to content to enhance usage and storytelling.