Thursday, June 14, 2007

After 10 Years Curtain Rises on Rome Reborn


There's been quite a bit of publicity about the newly announced website for the Rome Reborn project at the University of Virginia this week. Naturally, I had to go up and take a look. This project originated way back in 1996. The project director, Bernard Frischer, explained his vision to the board in a meeting in the winter of 1996.


"In 1446 a truly innovative book was published by the Renaissance humanist and papal secretary, Flavio Biondo. Its Latin title was Roma instaurata, which we loosely translate as Rome Reborn. The book presented the first systematic topography of ancient Rome, based on an extensive array of sources and an intimate familiarity with the ancient ruins.

The first attempt at a scientific treatment of the ancient city, the book was frequently
reprinted and went through a dozen editions by the mid-sixteenth century. For purposes of our project, it is important to note that, for Biondo, the study of the ancient city did not concern itself with bricks and mortar alone, but also with the cultural life of the people who inhabited the city. Biondo also recognized that visualization of the lost world of ancient Rome was crucial, if his reader was to grasp, as he put it, how “greatly ancient Rome surpassed modern Rome in grandeur, beauty, and civilization.” Thus, next to chapters on the walls, gates, streets, hills, and neighborhoods of ancient Rome, there are also chapters on religious and political institutions and on the public baths, games, and spectacles. Little surprise, then, that one distinguished scholar has recently called Biondo “the founder of modern topography.”

Biondo’s book was the fruit of tours and studies of the city he made with an important
patron, and indeed its purpose was to help visitors to the ruins understand what they were seeing. Biondo was the first to express what has since become a commonplace: that the very greatness of the ancient city has made it difficult to understand. As Biondo put it, “so many and wonderful are the monuments of Rome…that they could fill up an enormous book, even if the author was sparing in his descriptions.” As an aid to the reader, he may have planned to include a detailed map of the ancient city, which, had he done so, would have been the first ever attempted in the modern period. It took another century for such a map to be published.

The Development of Visualization from Biondo to the “Plastico di Roma antica”

The need for such visual aids has constantly been felt because even highly educated
visitors to Rome report being overwhelmed by the daunting task of understanding the city. Edward Gibbon, author of the massive Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1788), was a learned man, if ever there was one. Yet he tells us the following about how difficult he found Rome on his first visit:

"My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm …But at the distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the eternal City. After a sleepless night, I trod with a lofty step the ruins of the Forum; each memorable spot where Romulus stood, or Cicero spoke, or Caesar fell, was at once present to my eye; and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation. My guide was Mr. Byers, a Scotch antiquary of experience and taste; but in the long daily labour of eighteen weeks the powers of attention were sometimes fatigued, till I was myself at last qualified…to [understand] the major works of ancient and modern art there."


Not everyone could (or can) afford to hire a fulltime guide for 18 weeks and stay in
Rome that long to learn about the city. Gibbon was fortunate that he was able to do so. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, arriving a few years after Gibbon, resembles most of us, I suspect, in having to fend for himself and in having to rely on the kinds of books and visual aids that Biondo pioneered. Upon first arriving in Rome, Goethe wrote this in his diary:

"[Rome] is something that has suffered many drastic changes in the course of two thousand years, yet we find there still the same soil, the same hill, often even the same column or wall, and in its people one still finds traces of their ancient character. Contemplating this, the observer [finds]…it difficult…to follow the evolution of the city, to grasp not only how Modern Rome follows on Ancient, but also how, within both, one age follows upon another. I shall first of all try to grope my way along this half-hidden track by myself, for only after I have done that shall I be able to benefit from the excellent earlier studies to which, from the fifteen century until today, eminent scholars and artists have devoted their lives.

As the quotation from Goethe suggests, it didn’t take long until Biondo’s verbal
reconstruction of the city in the form of a book inspired some two and three dimensional models. Thus Raphael, as supervisor of antiquities of the city of Rome at the beginning of the 1500s, is reported to have worked on a map of ancient Rome, but no trace of this survives. What we do have are many reconstructions on paper and canvass in the form of drawings, engravings, and paintings. For example, the Parisian architect Etienne Du Pérac produced a new plan of ancient Rome in 1574 and along with it a book entitled Drawings of the Ruins of Rome and How They Appeared in Antiquity. This collection went through nine editions over the next two centuries, proving yet again—if more proof were needed—that tourists and students of Rome find such aids absolutely indispensable.

By the way, a descendent of Du Pérac’s book is still in print in Rome today and is sold in the thousands at $35 per copy for the large size and $20 for the small. It is simply entitled Ancient Rome: Monuments Past and Present, and it ingeniously puts transparencies showing the ancient buildings over photos of the way things look today.

The climax of this effort to date is without doubt the Plastico di Roma antica—a 250
square meter reconstruction of the ancient city at a scale of 1:250. It represents the city at a fixed moment in time—the age of the Emperor Constantine the Great in the fourth century AD, when we think that the population had reached a peak of something like one million inhabitants. The buildings in the model are made of plaster of Paris, reinforced by vegetal fibers and metal. The hills are made of clay. Color is used, and there is an attempt to show vegetation and trees. Begun in the mid 1930s, the Plastico di Roma antica was built over the next forty years as a collaborative effort between architect Italo Gismondi, the Superintendent of Excavations at Ostia Antica, and many leading Roman archaeologists at the University of Rome. The participation of such subject experts ensured that the model was as scientifically accurate as possible.

Wonderful as the Plastico is—and I can’t say enough how much I love it and how much I use it in my research and teaching—it does have some understandable shortcomings.
First, it is a relatively low-resolution model, meant to be seen from a balcony 15-20 feet above, not from close up. Thus, most of the models of structures lack any surface detail such as doors and windows. Second, the Plastico shows Rome at a fixed moment in time and thus is not suited to show the growth and development of the city over time. It gives a somewhat misleading view of our knowledge of the city, providing only one reconstruction of each site when there are sometimes hotly competing alternative versions of the way things looked. Moreover, it is not possible for the average viewer to move around on top of the model, let along to walk down its streets or to enter its buildings. In fact, for obvious reasons, there are no interior spaces to the thousands of buildings in the model. Finally, the Plastico is fixed to one physical location—a fairly remote museum in a suburb of Rome. You can’t readily take students or tourists there, unless they are already in Rome. That reduces its utility to just a small fraction of its potential uses.

Rome Reborn: Beyond the “Plastico di Roma antica to the Virtual World of the Twenty-First Century

This, at last, brings me to Rome Reborn. One quick way of understanding what we are doing is to say that we are trying to remedy the shortcomings of the Plastico. Another way is to say that we are trying to create a VR model of Rome that represents the highend state of the art in terms of our knowledge about the city and of today’s commercially available computer technology. We think that once completed, our model of ancient Rome will change the way students and tourists think about antiquity. Filled with reconstructions of historical events, offering tours by virtual guides—some of whom will even speak in Latin—the model should not only prepare one for a visit to the actual city; it should also capture the sense of awe and arouse the sense of curiosity that travelers from Goethe and Gibbon to today feel when they see the city." - Bernard Frischer, Speech to Rome Reborn Advisory Board, December 2, 1996

Almost eleven years have passed and, although I commend Dr. Frischer's vision and efforts, I must admit to being a bit disappointed upon viewing the VR models presented on the website. I have seen more realistic models built by game companies in a fraction of the time. I think a collaboration with professional graphic artists would yield much better results much more quickly. Unfortunately, collaboration between game companies and educators has been very slow in coming. The Rome Reborn project is a prime example of a worthy activity that could benefit greatly from such a cooperative effort.
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