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Religious geo-data and geo-information: representation and visualization on the web

Rizzo Raffaela Gabriella (University of Brescia - Italy, Dept. of Civil Engineering, Architecture, Land, Environment and Mathematics), Luca Simone Rizzo (University of Padua - Centro interdipartimentale di Ricerca e Servizi "Giorgio Lago", Italy)[1]


Nowadays the creation, storage, accessibility, interoperability of data on the web are more and more pervasive. We see the publication on the web of different kinds of databases and/or geo-databases - and other forms of given web-information – dealing with various topics (science, medicine, transport, tourism...) and based on different architectures. These can be private or public with a free access to them or not.

This contribution intends to deal with data - and geo-data - about tourism focusing on the religious ones in a period in which religious tourism is and will be considered as a significant asset for the tourism industry, for regional/local development, and not only.  Databases about religious heritage will be investigated in order to understand how they link religious data (i.e. churches, monasteries, sites of pilgrimage, sanctuaries…) with geographical and spatial information. Religious subdivisions are different from the secular one: in Italy for example dioceses have different boundaries than the Italian provinces, as well as ecclesiastical regions sometimes differ from the administrative ones.

In the era of the big data (characterized by the 5 v: volume, velocity, variety, verification and value) how can  religious databases – for instance BeWeb, www.parrocchiemap.it … - interact with the net and with Institutions and Organizations? How are religious heritage and routes represented? What is the level of usability by the web users?


Geo-information and geo-data; religious heritage; religious tourism; ecclesiastical websites

1. Introduction

Religious tourism, pilgrimages and visits to religious cultural sites contribute more and more significantly to the dynamics of the tourist sector in Europe, though not only (Trono, 2009, 2012). In Italy – a country particularly rich of religious sites and assets (Lo Presti, Petrillo, 2010[2]) – is the above even more true. Our research aims at evaluating how the cartographic representation of cultural religion heritage - the Italian catholic one -  is made available on the web. Religious tourism in general and daily trips to religious sites are indeed increasing and, with them, the need for tourists/visitors to find information about the sites they intend to visit (Rizzo L.S., Rizzo R.G., Trono, 2013). Finding websites of travel agencies dealing with such  topic is rather easy. Mostly, though, they deal with a few punctual heritage points or routes[3] and  are not able to give users a complete overview of the heritage located in the country of interest to them.

2.  Objectives of the research

The research analyses the official ecclesiastical websites and projects. Doing so has allowed us to appreciate how clerical institutions promote themselves and, ultimately, what connection exists between them and the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities[4] (MIBAC) (Cardia, 2005). In order to do so, we focused on researching the following:
·         if the Church has datasets organized in a geodatabase,  or even a webGIS
·         and, if that is the case, how heritage sites map representations are dealt with and “approached”.

3.  Methodology of the research

Methodologically our research followed these steps:

a)      first of all we reviewed the existing literature on religious tourism and on its development connected to religious heritage sites.

b)      Then, we analyzed ecclesiastical projects, inventories and websites to understand the  cartographic approach adopted – if there was any – in dealing with the heritage data inputted in the web.

c)      Lastly, we interviewed representatives of the ecclesiastical institutions (and of other entities involved in the projects examined) responsible for storing the geo-information in the inventories and for handling the process to it associated.

4. The Church and the web: religious sites and their map representation

4.1 The UNBCE and its inventories

The Ufficio Nazionale Beni Culturali Ecclesiastici (UNBCE, National Office for Ecclesiastical Cultural Heritage) of the Conferenza Episcopale Italiana (CEI) started four projects with the intention to make a survey on its heritage and create cultural commons (Hesse, Ostrom, 2009; Di Giorgio, 2012) freely accessible via web. When visiting the web page http://www.chiesacattolica.it/beniculturali/00003740_UNBCE___Home_page.html we can see at the right side of the home page under the heading “Inventari e Censimenti” (fig. 1):

  1. CeiAR (Cei Archivi): the inventory of ecclesiastical archives;
  2. CeiOA (Cei Opere d’Arte): the inventory for religious  “mobile” heritage[5];
  3. CeiA (Cei Achitettura): the inventory of diocesan churches[6];
  4. CeiBib (Cei Biblioteche): the inventory of religious libraries.

Fig. 1 – Home page of the Ufficio Nazionale dei Beni Culturali Ecclesiastici. On the right side: labels of the four CEI projects and the connected websites BeWeb and Le Chiese delle Diocesi Italiane.

In this paper we will refer to sacred buildings and artistic asset of CeiA and CeiOA. Such projects are both linked to an IT system that allows one to input data concerning catholic cultural heritage in datasets. The forms one fills in to do so imitate the models created by MIBAC. CeiOA and CeiA in particular have initially been inspired by the ICCD (Istituto Centrale per il Catalogo e la Documentazione[7]) and later integrated keeping in mind key elements or peculiarities typical of such kind of heritage. All data inputted are stored in the General Information System of the Catalog of MIBAC.

The CeiOA project and BeWeb. The project is connected to “BeWeb”[8]. The work is still in progress. 3,489,703 religious items have been catalogued on BeWeb so far. The information related to them is made accessible to users by diocese, object, author or chronology. If we look at the catalogue sheet which appears on the screen when we examine, individually, the heritage items and we analyze it from a geographical and cartographical point of view, we notice that no reference is made to the geographical context in which the heritage of interest is located. The only information one has access to concerns the diocese the heritage asset belongs to (fig. 2). This may be due to security reasons related to the heritage site and possible valuable movable assets contained in it: many are in fact easily transportable. The lack of cartographic and/or geographic information is a limitation; geo-localizing the heritage would prove useful to allow tourists to enter in relation with the territory in which the site is located.

Fig. 2 - Example of a search by diocese: an object of artistic value (CeiAR).

The only cartographic element present in the web inventory here examined is the map of the dioceses and of cultural institutes[9]. The user can find it at the bottom of the webpage: it is a Google Map of Italy linked to the dioceses boundaries; one that – via combined search options (by ecclesiastical region or diocese, for instance) – takes the internet user to the website of that specific diocese (fig. 3).

Fig. 3 - Webpage of the map of the ecclesiastic regions of Italy. On the right side of the page it is visible the search option by ecclesiastical region or by diocese and the selectable key point of interest: diocese, museum, library and archive.

CeiA and “Le Chiese delle Diocesi Italiane”– If we look now at the website of architectural heritage the geographical mark changes. On the homepage of the CeiA: “Le Chiese delle Diocesi Italiane”[10] one finds a guided search tool. A map of the Italian ecclesiastical regions allows anyone to find the desired item by ecclesiastical region[11], diocese[12], typology[13] or qualification[14] (fig. 4). The inventory covers many areas. At present it counts 63,778 churches belonging to 216 dioceses and it provides the public with 4,705 “technical” sheets containing descriptions. Such cataloguing exercise is though still in progress (Gavazzi, 2013). As soon as a single item is ready and validated, the record is made available on the web. The description can be visualized either in a synthetic form or in a detailed one.

Fig. 4 – Home page of the web site “Le Chiese delle Diocesi Italiane” with the map of the ecclesiastical regions and the guided search.

Below we give an example of the results of a query made. After one has indicated a preference (e.g. diocese of Bergamo, type: basilica), he/she gets a list of religious sites (fig. 5). On the right side of each record one finds a symbol with the shape of Italy on which to click. Done that, the user is linked to the CEI Web Map interface that runs with the virtual globe Bing based also on TerraItaly images (fig. 6). This easily shows the important effort of geolocalizing all heritage sites included in the database. The very same localization is also given in a more “traditional” way in a textual version under the heading “collocazione geografico - ecclesiastica[15]”. In this part there are both the address of the site and the religious coordinates based on the ecclesiastical administrative rules: region, diocese, parsonage and parish. Further under such description, another map is placed: the Google Map of the surveyed religious buildings located in the territory of the ecclesiastical institution of the searched site (e.g. parsonage of Clusone for the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and San Giovanni Battista in the diocese of Bergamo, fig. 7).

Fig. 5 – Research output. The figure shows the output of the research of the “type” basilica in the diocese of Bergamo. At the end of the string the button with the shape of Italy to take the user to the map of the site.

Fig. 6 – The satellite map of the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta and San Giovanni Battista (Bergamo, Lombradia Region) visualized through the virtual globe Bing.

Fig. 7 – Textual geographical – ecclesiastical description and the territory of the ecclesiastical Institution visualized through Google Map with all its surveyed religious sites.

4.2 A web atlas of the Italian parishes

Parrocchiemap.it is a web site thought as a web atlas (Mori, 2010). The database stores 25,695 records on parishes and 62,922 concerning other churches and/or different ecclesiastical buildings. Up to now 77 dioceses have joined this. It is worthwhile mentioning that each church is linked to a map. The religious elements are geo-referenced in order to give the right localization of the religious point of interest. Created to provide believers with the calendar of the Masses, such website is useful to reach a church and also to plan an itinerary connecting different religious elements. Moreover, in the coming future one will be able wherever he/she is to connect tanks to the increasing use of smartphones and mobile devices.

When visiting the home page, the user is able to search a church just inputting the name of a diocese or the one of its commune or both. The output is, for example, a list of churches of a given commune; to reach one of them is associated the complete address of the church (fig. 8). The postal code is also given: this is an important element if one wants to input the point of interest in a virtual glob (e.g. Google Earth) and really have the chance to find it and visit it.

Fig. 8 – Example of the output of the research[16] of the churches: the parishes of the municipality of Lazise (Province of Verona, Itay). The webpage shows how each element of the list has its own address and map. On the left side of the page it is visible the string “Consulta l’itinerario” (“See the route”) with two points of interest stored using the flag.

Once having got the church, the site allows to store it as a preference to create a route clicking on the flag in the upper left part of the picture of each church (fig. 8). Than with the line “Consulta l’itinerario” – choosing at least two churches – the web user can visualize the itinerary on Google Map. The description of the way to follow is also given (fig. 9).

Fig. 9 – Output map of the route connecting two selected churches in the south of Garda Lake. In the right side of the page: in the upper part the description of how to follow the route and at the bottom the two religious points of interest (listed as origin-destination).

4.3 An example of a thematic survey: “Censimento Santuari Cristiani in Italia”

The inventory of the Italian Christian Sanctuaries represents the research output of an academic research project coordinated by Prof. Vauchez and titled “Censimento dei santuari cristiani in Italia dall’antichità ai giorni nostri”[17] (www.santuaricristiani.iccd.beniculturali.it). Since 1998 thirty Universities have been working on creating a database accessible on the web: one in which each sanctuary is presented on the basis of five macro areas of interest: 1) general, 2) architecture and artistic-historic data, 3) religious rituals, 4) references and 5) bibliography. A enormous amount of work has been done aside, part of it published[18] and some more is in progress carried out by the members of the Associazione Internazionale per le Ricerche sui Santuari (A.I.R.S.) (see their yearly conferences). The site is organized into four sections: public area,  managing area, research area and vocabulary area. A tourist could be interested in the “public” one, where the description of the searched sanctuary is given[19], and in the “research” one which gives a list of the database fields that one can “explore”. The information collected, shown in table 1, makes multiple queries possible. Regardless consulting the form of each place of worship selected, doubts arise only when visiting the first geographical part (“General”). In it, in fact, one cannot find an adequate localization of the sanctuary. Such section should be integrated with the georeferenced information. One can read a short information: altitude, landscape and territory. What we read corresponding to this section could sometimes lead to misunderstandings. If we look for example for the Sanctuary of Madonna del Frassino of Peschiera del Garda (Province of Verona) the database gives us the following output (fig. 10):

  • altitude: 100 meters
  • landscape: hill
  • territory: plane.

The user has no means to localize the heritage site, not even its address. Moreover how can a site be in a hilly area and at the same time in a plane?

Fig. 10 – Madonna del Frassino of Peschiera del Garda sanctuary catalogued sheet (part of). The figure shows the textual geographical localization of the sanctuary: 100 m. high, hilly landscape, countryside territory.

Usually sheets are richer in detail, anyway sometimes not so precise. It is possible to find coordinate of longitude and latitude or the reference of the IGM cartography. This last one is not always so easy for users to find out.

Macro geographical themes



Municipality, province, region, diocese, present diocese, parish, present parish,


Wood, hill, river, sea, mountain, country area, lake


Plane, city, street, village

Sites linked to a not martyr saint

Home or life place, grave, with relics, memory sanctuary

Worship site

Cave, wood, peak, spring, river, tree

Origin of the pilgrims

Local, regional, interregional, international, not in use sanctuary

Tab. 1 – Geographical items of the database obtained from the research area of the website. Source: elaboration by the A.

5. Conclusions

Place, space and time: these are key concepts when we think about geography and geographical information (Farinelli, 2003). Today the correct dissemination of geo-information anchored to the aspect of geo-localization of territorial data is increasingly relentless. These data are communicated via numerous ICT tools; among them internet plays a significant role. Web-mapping allows one to access a very large amount of geographical data. These are sometimes of good quality. Often, though, are not adequate. The quality of such information is guaranteed by the institution that works in the backstage of the web: in our case, the Church and MIBAC. Even if their aims may be slightly different, both offer free religious heritage information and take advantage of the potential of the Web. As a consequence - one could say - they implement the so called “knowledge as a commons”  (Hesse, Ostrom, cit.). It would be better to use the following expression: “religious heritage knowledge as a commons”. This is true even if this particular kind of heritage – the religious sites – is not public and if it is mostly owned by the Church. Via web such heritage becomes, in a certain way, “public”.

Furthermore, nowadays we are living in an era of digitalization of data,  increasingly encouraged by the EU strategies (COM (2011) 808, def.). The Church follows its own mission of spreading the knowledge related to its worship sites. But, at the same time, it connects to the rationale behind the EU policies giving people lots of information thanks to its decision to move from printed inventories to web-based ones. From a geographical and cartographical point of view in its websites the Church makes an effort to use maps via virtual globes (Google Map and Bing) to help the user in reaching the point of interest. The choice to “combine” ecclesiastical boundaries (ecclesiastical regions, dioceses…) with Italian ones (regions, provinces…) is interesting though somewhat confusing. People may not always be familiar with them. The state of the art in the map visualization is at the moment quite satisfactory. The catalog sheet of religious heritage sites focuses never the less mainly on information which is either historic or artistic in nature and could introduce a more appropriate level of contextualization of the site in the territory in which it is integrated (with links for example). In this case more work should be done, being inspired also by the above mentioned database of the sanctuaries (§ 4.3) and simply enhancing the key elements of the geographical discipline landscape and territory. The above should be seen as a suggestion to implement further and complete the “religious heritage knowledge as a commons”. Anyway these rich databases and websites are particularly useful for different reasons to institutions or organizations such as: Regions, Universities, LAGs… or for individual users.

Bibliographic references

A.A.V.V., Puglia, De Luca Editori d’Arte, Rome, 2012.

Boesch Gajano S., Caciorgna M.T., Fiocchi Nicolai V., Scorza Barcellaona F. (eds.), Lazio, De Luca Editori d’Arte, Rome, 2010.

Boesch Gajano S., Caliò T., Scorza Barcellaona F., Spera L. (eds.), Rome, De Luca Editori d’Arte, Rome, 2012.

Cardia C., “Lo spirito della nuova intesa”, Proceedings of Convegno di studi Il patrimonio culturale di interesse religioso dopo l’Intesa del 26 gennaio 2005, Venezia 3rd-4th November 2005, in http://www.olir.it/areetematiche/73/documents/cardia_venezia2005.pdf.

Curzel E., Varanini G.M. (eds.), Trentino-Alto Adige, De Luca Editori d’Arte, Rome, 2012.

D’Agnelli F.M., “Biblioteche ecclesiastiche tra polo SBN (PBE) e Anagrafe degli Istituti culturali (AICE): l’affermarsi di un’identità aperta a nuove sfide”, DigItalia – Rivista del digitale nei beni culturali, VI, 2, 2011, pp. 118-128.

Di Giorgio S., “Cultural Commons, la sfida dei beni comuni nell’era del digitale per musei, biblioteche e archivi”, DigItalia – Rivista del digitale nei beni culturali, VII, 2, 2012, pp. 151-155.

European Commission, COM (2011) 808 final.

Farinelli F., Geografia, Einaudi, Torino, 2003.

Gavazzi L., Il censimento informatizzato degli edifici di culto, speach at the “XX Giornata nazionale dei beni culturali ecclesiastici”, Ufficio Nazionale per i Beni Culturali Ecclesiastici Rome, 9th -10th May 2013 (in: www.chiesacattolica.it).

Hesse C., Ostrom E. (eds.), La conoscenza come bene comune. Dalla teoria alla pratica, Mondadori, Milano, 2009 (Italian edition of Understanding knowledge as a Commons, The MIT Press, 2007).

Lo Presti O, Petrillo C.S., “Co-management of religious heritage: an Italian case-study”, Tourism Review, 58, 3, 2010, pp. 301-311.

Mori E., Diocesi in rete. Chiese locali, internet e social network, speach at the “Seminario nazionale di studio”, Rome, 23rd-24th March 2010 (see: www.parrocchiemap.it/parrocchiemap/pmap_presentazione_progetto.pdf).

Rizzo L.S., Rizzo R.G., Trono A., “Itinerari Religiosi come Motori di Sviluppo Locale Sostenibile in Veneto? Per una Proposta di Valorizzazione di Heritage non Consueto o spesso “Inavvertito”: i Santuari e le Chiese Minori”, Almatourism - Journal of Tourism, Culture and Territorial Development, [S.l.], v. 4, n. 7, p. 59-92, jul. 2013. ISSN 2036-5195. Available at: http://almatourism.unibo.it/article/view/3909.

Trono A. (ed.), Sustainable Religious Tourism. Commandments, Obstacles & Challanges, 26th-28th October 2012 (Lecce-Tricase-Italy), Proceedings of the second  international Conference at the University of Salento, Edizioni Esperidi, Mintironi di Lecce (LE), 2012.

Trono A. (ed.), Tourism Religion & Culture: Regional Development through Meaningful Tourism Experiences, 27th-29th October Lecce-Poggiardo, Proceedings of the  International Conference, University of Salento, Lecce, Mario Congedo Publisher, 2009.

Website references





[1] The authors wish to specify that – even if the paper is the result of a common effort – the various sections were written separately by R.G. Rizzo sections 4.1,4.3 and 5 and by L.S. Rizzo sections 1, 2, 3 and 4.2.

[2] Lo Presti and Petrillo (2010) in Table 1, p. 305 subdivide the ecclesiastic heritage in Italy into the types of heritage “Churches, shrines, etc.”: 95,000; “Monasteries”: 1,500; “Sacred mountains, houses of spirituality, bishop’s palace, etc.”: 3,000; “Libraries”: 5,500; “Archives”: 100,000; “Religious museums”: 936; “Artistic religious buildings”: 60,653, “Pipe music organs”: 12,000.

[3] Especially pilgrimages.

[4] See the Intesa tra il Ministro per I Beni e le Attività Culturali e il Presidente della Conferenza Episcopale Italiana relativa alla tutela dei beni culturali di interesse religioso appartenenti a enti e istituzioni ecclesiastiche, Roma, 26 gennaio 2005.

[5] All that kind of heritage that can be moved from one place to another: stoop, bell, altar, painting, etc….

[6] Abbey, cathedral, baptistery, library, bell tower, parsonage, chapel, church, cemetery, monastery, aedicule, museum, oratory, palace, sacred mount, sanctuary and seminary.

[7] Central Institute for the Inventory and Documentation of the Italian Ministry of Heritage and Cultural Activities (MIBAC).

[8] http://www.chiesacattolica.it/beweb/UI/page.jsp?action=home

[9] Archives, museums and libraries (D’Agnelli, 2011).

[10] http://www.chieseitaliane.chiesacattolica.it/chieseitaliane/

[11] In Italy there are 16 ecclesiastical regions.

[12] The dioceses are 225.

[13] They are: abbey, basilica, baptistery, library, bell tower, parsonage, chapel, church, cemetery, monastery, niche, museum, palace, oratory, sanctuary, holy mountain, ricetto, seminary.

[14] See the website at the tag “sciegli la Qualificazione”.

[15] Geographical - ecclesiastical localization.

[16] The search is always connected with the diocese of the church.

[17] Survey of the Italian Christian Sanctuaries form ancient times to nowadays.

[18] See note 17, p. 90: Rizzo L.S., Rizzo R.G., Trono A. cit. Up to now, besides the variuos proceedings here just mentioned, dedicated books were published by numerous authors on Lazio (Boesch Gajano et al., 2010), Puglia (A.A.V.V., 2012), Rome (Boesch Gajano et al., 2012), and  Trentino-Alto Adige (Curzel, Varanini, 2012) and Umbria (Coletti, Tosti, 2013). Ongoing work on the remnant regions will soon be published.

[19] To get the output one must know the correct name of the desired sanctuary.

Ultimo aggiornamento Sabato 24 Agosto 2013 15:06

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