In 1816, Lord Byron left his home in England and, after traveling through Belgium and Switzerland, eventually made his way to Italy, where he encountered, among other things, the Roman Colosseum. “A ruin—yet what ruin!” he wrote in the fourth canto of the long poem “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage.” It was the decay and emptiness that particularly appealed to him: the “seats crush'd,” the “walls bow'd,” and “the arena void” in which he heard the echo of his voice.
That void has now, in a sense, been filled. In June, at a public ceremony in Rome, scholars from three institutions—the University of Virginia; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the Politecnico di Milano—presented the results of a 10-year collaboration: a 3-D computer model of ancient Rome. Called Rome Reborn 1.0, the project draws on archaeological evidence, literary texts, and artistic representations through the centuries to recreate what the city looked like at its peak in A.D. 320.
Rome has been modeled before. A plaster representation known as the Plastico di Roma Antica was created from 1933 to 1974 and can still be viewed in the city's Museum of Roman Civilization. Bernard Frischer, a classical scholar who is head of the Institute of Advanced Technology in the Humanities at U.Va., first encountered the massive model—which stretches to a length of some 50 feet—more than 30 years ago, while studying at the American Academy in Rome. He was immediately taken with it. “I grew up in a family that had humanists in it,” says Frischer, “but we had engineers among us as well. When I saw the Plastico, I thought, ‘Wow, we've got to use technology to get this wonderful model out of this room.' ”
Rome Reborn is the culmination of Frischer's threedecade-old dream. The computerized model includes monumental buildings, temples, houses, aqueducts, streets, and bridges, many of which you can see online (at www.romereborn.virginia.edu) in a series of images and video clips. An interdisciplinary team of specialists—archaeologists, architects, structural engineers, and textual scholars—contributed to the project, which was headed by Frischer and Diane Favro of UCLA's classics department. In addition to the Plastico, the team relied on archaeological data, literary sources, and ancient plans and catalogs, such as the Severan Marble Plan of Rome (from the third century) and two fourth-century catalogs of landmarks and structures known as the Curiosum and Notitia.
The laws and principles of ancient architecture served as logical guides. “The diameter of a certain column base,” says U.Va.'s Dean Abernathy, an architect and the project's director of 3-D modeling, “would determine the column's height, and that would then help determine the entablature, and so on. In a building like the Pantheon, there's so much evidence in the brick walls, for example, in the holes that tell you where and how the beams were socketed.”
The model gives scholars a “more robust understanding,” Favro says, of such buildings as the Roman Senate House, which is located in the Roman Forum. Today, after centuries of decay, the interior of that structure is spare, the mosaics and painted stucco that once decorated the walls long gone. In the model, however, the colors pop, not only on the walls but also on the floor, with its stylized rosettes and vivid greens, yellows, and reds.
“The idea wasn't to make a hyper-realistic recreation,” says Favro, “but rather a representation based on what scholars know about the buildings of fourth century Rome. We didn't put in certain elements if we couldn't confirm their existence. We might know that a certain building was painted, but we might not know which walls contained paint, or the colors.”
In many cases, the computer model has actually changed the accepted scholarly opinion about what a particular building looked like. While modeling the Basilica Aemilia, whose monumental gallery bordered the square of the Roman Forum, the team relied on a two-dimensional reconstruction done by a German scholar named Heinrich Bauer. But when the 3-D computer rendition was completed, it turned out that Bauer had misplaced a staircase. Abernathy says that such revelations, both small and large, are regular occurrences. “I would be surprised if there was no debate,” he says. “So much of this work is subjective.”
That inherent subjectivity points to the advantages of a digital model over any two-dimensional representation. “This isn't an exact science,” Favro says. “We can never know exactly what a building looked like in antiquity. Someone can make a beautiful ink drawing of a site, but then somebody else will find a new column that belongs to the site that wasn't known before, and now you have to revise that drawing. With digital models, you can incorporate changes easily. You can have multiple versions of a site. The model is always growing.”
The name Rome Reborn 1.0 suggests that versions 2.0, 3.0, and 4.0 will be released in the future. The next technical challenge, Favro says, is making the website interactive in real time, allowing visitors to navigate their way through the city's ancient streets, lingering upon a temple frieze or statue. And the model will eventually move beyond A.D. 320, to document how Rome changed over time, from the late Bronze Age until the fall of the Roman Empire.
“We think we have a technical solution for running the model in real time on the internet,” Frischer says, though it depends on an as-yet unofficial promise of a two-year grant from a federal agency. Putting the model online would allow hundreds of thousands of people around the world to freely explore a virtual Rome on their PCs.
Today, if you visit the Colosseum or the Roman Forum in person, you can use a handheld device—called the “Time Machine”—on which the Rome Reborn model has been loaded. Using it to navigate through the ancient structures provides “an immersive experience,” Frischer says, allowing you to visually impose long-vanished architectural features on the ruins.
Rome Reborn is not meant to replace a visit to Italy. “There's a certain poignancy to a ruin,” Favro says. “These models are not substitutes for going to a Roman site, where you can feel the wind and smell the smells.” The future Byrons of the world could hardly be disappointed at that.
Sudip Bose is the senior editor of Preservation magazine.