Rebuilding Rome as a Virtual City

How do you say megabyte in Latin? Ancient Rome was reborn—as a virtual city—today, when a team of American and Italian academics unveiled Rome Reborn, a real-time 3-D computer reconstruction that allows visitors to navigate the ancient city as if it were 320 A.D. again. Thanks to the complex software run on PCs, modern visitors can fly over the ancient city, pan down into the Colosseum, cruise the Roman Forum and stroll into the Senate building. The aim is to provide a new tool for scholars of the ancient city to imagine how the buildings may have looked in greater detail than two-dimensional models afford.

Virtual Rome wasn't built in a day, either. The first digital real-time reconstruction of the ancient city marks the end of a 10-year effort by an academic team of architects, computer scientists and archaeologists from UCLA, the Milan Polytechnic and the University of Virginia, headed by UCLA architecture and urban-design professor Diane Favro and Bernard Frischer, a classics scholar who directs the University of Virginia's Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (IATH). Unfortunately, you won't be able to buy a copy of Rome Reborn. Frischer says the project, funded over the years by $2 million in grants from Intel, Microsoft and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, among others, lacks a business plan and the servers to distribute downloads. So for the moment, the best way to view the old city may be to click on the video clips here.

Rome Reborn, announced at a ceremony at Rome's City Hall hosted by Mayor Walter Veltroni, turns serious scholarship into cool graphics. The model depicts the city as it looked in late antiquity, during the reign of Emperor Constantine the Great. To insure accuracy, the team consulted leading scholars to refine high-resolution 3-D renditions for about 30 of the most famous buildings, inside and out. Designers based the 10,000 other buildings—apartments, baths, warehouses—on precise laser scans of the plaster of Paris model of the ancient city housed at the Museum of Roman Civilization.

The virtual Rome hopes to render intelligible what Frischer calls the often "confusing mess" of ancient ruins. A viewer can navigate through the buildings and plazas of the Forum, stroll past the Temple of Vesta, wander through the massive Basilica of Maxentius past the ship's prows of the Rostra where speakers addressed crowds, and through the Arch of Septimius Severus with its bas reliefs of beaten Parthians bowing to their Roman conquerors. At the Colosseum, visitors can cruise the stone seats, walk the arena floor or even drop below ground level to look at the elevator cages that hoisted the lions and tigers into the arena to battle hunters.

In a telephone interview with NEWSWEEK's Andrew Murr, Frischer says although Rome Reborn caps his 30-year dream to make a high-tech visualization of the ancient city, it's also "a beginning." An Italian company plans to use portions of it in a video to orient tourists at the Colosseum, and he hopes that future scholars may be able to reconstruct buildings like the Pantheon that the team hasn't modeled in detail. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: So what is Rome Reborn?
Bernard Frischer:
Rome Reborn is an international project started by Diane Favro and myself in 1996 to realize the dream that scholars have had since the Renaissance to rebuild ancient Rome, or at least to give us a sense of what ancient Rome really looked like. The project was named after [a book written] by the first person to have this dream as far as we know, Flavio Biondo. He was a papal secretary and in the 1440s wrote the founding text of Roman archaeology, and probably of world archaeology, called Roma Instaurata or Rome Restored. We made the name more colloquial, so we settled on Rome Reborn.

How does a viewer experience it?
Flavio was trying to do it with words. As time went on, scholars and cartographers used different methods like mapping and 2-D reconstructions, and then 3-D reconstructions. I'm thinking of the great plaster of Paris reconstructions started in the 1930s and finished in the 1970s (at the Museum of Roman Civilization). Our approach was to use digital technology. What we've made is a real-time 3-D model of ancient Rome in about the year 320 A.D. It's not a piece of video that locks you on a certain itinerary that somebody else chose for you. You can explore at will, depending on your desires or interests or curiosity leads you. They can move forward and back, up and down, change their angle of view. That's the beauty of what we've made.

What we have shown is Rome at the peak of development in late antiquity…(Visitors) can see the whole urban settlement within the Aurelian walls, which were built in the 270s A.D., and extend for 18 kilometers, more or less in a circle, (enclosing about 25 square kilometers). We have highly detailed models of buildings like the Colosseum, the Imperial Fora and the Roman Forum, which includes law courts, temples, basilicas and monuments. These we have actually included in the model in much greater detail, not only the exteriors, but in many cases the interiors, where there is enough evidence to allow us to do that. In addition, we have included thousands of other buildings in the background in much less detail.

How could you be sure of the details of the famous buildings you modeled?
It's not the Rome Reborn team so much that is designing the buildings. It's the scholars on our advisory committees who are doing it. The first thing we have to do in modeling a building is find the best couple of scholars who have been working on a site for many years, the recognized authorities. I can't think of anyone who ever turned us down, because from kids to senior scholars, everybody is fascinated with 3-D technology. The scholars gave us data, and we would pop it up into 3-D on the computer. Then as scholars see it, they critique it, and as they see from the way we interpreted their data, that maybe their own understanding of the building may have been deficient and needs to be revisited. Very often, the very act of making a digital 3-D model results in insights for the experts themselves.

What's a good example?
Engineers at the University of Zaragoza under the direction of Prof. Diego Gutierrez used our model of the Colosseum to study the efficiency of the Colosseum as a people mover. Their point of departure was an observation by our head modeler, architect Dean Abernathy, that there is a bottleneck corridor through which the majority of spectators had to pass. It is the only corridor that has no direct sunlight. It also had a lower ceiling and was narrower than the other corridors of the structure. Abernathy speculated that movement through this corridor would have been slow and somewhat unpleasant. The Zaragoza team populated our model of the Colosseum with Artificial Intelligence figures who were "smart" enough to know how to walk from the entrance to their seats without bumping into one another, hitting a wall or tripping on the stairs. The simulation of these AI figures walking through that narrow corridor confirmed Abernathy's hunch about the bottleneck. Before a model restoring the entire Colosseum to its ancient condition existed, no one had ever made this observation. This is not surprising since the corridor in question is closed to the public and is poorly preserved. I doubt that very many scholars have even seen it during the last hundred years. It's hard to have ideas about what you can't see.

In case of a law court in the Roman Forum, the Basilica Aemilia, we discovered that a German scholar whose work we used failed to carry a staircase through to the top floor of the building. So his reconstruction wouldn't have worked at all. This is very natural. When you are working in two dimensions you fudge things. You don't know where every window was and every doorway because a lot of the superstructure of an archaeological ruin doesn't survive. So when you have to do a section of a building you do it through the area that offers the most surviving information. But when you make a 3-D model you can't cheat, you can't cut corners. You've got to reconstruct everything. So scholars are always finding that they hadn't thought about some part of a building.

There are also problems of illumination. Where were the windows? When we did the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore (built in the 430s), scholars hadn't thought about the colors of the stucco on the inside of the church. They weren't forced to think about it. They were only thinking about the things for which there was evidence, not things for which there wasn't. At those points, the scholars either have to do new research to see if there is any evidence, however slender, or they start arguing by analogy from evidence of buildings of the same type and period that survive elsewhere. They settled on a light gray.

How does a virtual 3-D model help experts visualize how buildings like the Colosseum looked and worked?
I've been going to the Colosseum for years. And what I'm about to confess is true of a lot of my colleagues. You go to the Colosseum, you look at the remains of those underground chambers, which are what you mainly see today, and it just is a confusing mess. It's a confusing mess for good reasons. It represents the random ruins of four different phases of construction, all jumbled together. Well, there's a brilliant engineer and archaeologist at the German Archeological Institute in Rome named Heinz Beste. And Heinz took on the project of disentangling all these ruins and sorting them out. He identified the different phases and made drawings reconstructing how each phase worked. He kindly agreed to work with us and helped us to understand the fourth and final phase, which is consistent with the period we modeled. He was able to show us where were the walls, where were the corridors, where were the chambers for the animals, where were the chutes they forced the animals through and where were the elevators they forced them into through the chutes. That's how they could be brought up through the wood planking of the floor of the Colosseum through trap doors into the arena, where they would then fight each other or attack the armed hunters who in the entertainments there would try to kill the animals before the animals killed them.

When did you first think you wanted to make a digital 3-D model of ancient Rome?
I can still remember when I got the idea. It was when I was a fellow in the American Academy in Rome, and I went out to the Museum of Roman Civilization, and I saw the great plaster of Paris model of ancient Rome, the Plastico Roma antica, made by Italo Gismondi and a team of model makers from 1933 to 1973. I was seeing it in 1976, so it was just finished. I was there with an urban designer or planner from Berkeley named Donald Appleyard. He said, "I'm doing something at Berkeley that could really help here. We've developed a video editing system that allows us to composite video of real places with models of proposed buildings that will be inserted into those places." He said this visualization system is very helpful to planning commissions and the general public and even to architects in trying to see what the impact of a new building would be on a city. He said we could take that same system and capture the Plastico. That gave me the idea that we could [use] technology to get this breathtaking model of ancient Rome and get it outside the walls of the museum and get it into the hands of students and scholars and the general public. Unfortunately, Donald died a few years later, before we could get started …

I'm always fascinated and amazed that I've lived to see this. I still find it very moving. You never become indifferent to it. It still sends shivers up my spine.

You are unveiling this in Rome. Will it be available there in some fashion?
It will be available, because a company based in Rome called Past Perfect Productions has secured the worldwide license from the Regents of the University of California, who own it. Their intention is to open an orientation theater across the street from the Colosseum, which they have purchased in recent months, and convert an old playhouse into an orientation center, where people coming to Rome can, very quickly, by seeing the model, understand what it is they are about to visit, either across the street at the Colosseum, or up the road at the Roman Forum or up the hill overlooking the Roman Forum at the Palatine.

How will they present it?
You should talk to them, but as I understand it, their latest thinking is to have a work of fiction that involves some sort of movement through the central city and by having an entertaining story to keep people interested but to also implicitly do a lot of instruction.

There's also already in service in the Colosseum and the Forum a handheld device that weighs only two pounds with a very luminous and big screen of five inches that has GPS and wireless sensors in it (so) it knows your position. And as you move around the Colosseum, it puts on the screen views of the model that are appropriate to your position. This they call the Time Machine. It can already be rented at the ticket office to the Colosseum and to the Palatine, that central archaeological park that overlooks the Forum. It has images that exactly correspond to your position and the thing you are looking at. This is a wonderful device that was developed at the University of Bologna in the department of electrical engineering and then licensed to Ducati Systems. … In this area of 3-D modeling and applying the technology to tourism, as far as I know the Italians are really the leaders in the world. I think this device is a good example.

What other applications do you envision?
Good question. Not too much has come to pass yet. We're still in the mode of creating the models, and the applications can really only come once we have a collection of models. Our institute at IATH has a National Science Foundation grant to develop a database of scientific models of cultural heritage sites around the world and we call it SAVE, for Saving and Archiving Virtual Environments. Right now your readers can't download and use the Rome model. But if SAVE is implemented in a few years, they will be able to, and they will be able to download many other cultural heritage sites around the world. I like to think of SAVE as sort of Google Earth with a time bar. You have a model of the earth, and you move the bar back to 1500, and little red dots appear every place where there is a model. Or 500 B.C. Same thing. Then you can fly down from outer space into the models the way you can with Google Earth. I think that's coming.

One has to wonder whether the next application of this might be in the context of Second Life of Linden Lab. SAVE could be a kind of island which you could call "Past Life." Second Life is now very hot among technologists and the general public, but it's also very hot among educators. A number of universities have bought islands. Certainly a number of companies have. It would be interesting to see there's any way if we could port over this Rome model and other models to Second Life, where there is already this enormous, growing virtual community of people who wander around and build things. Wouldn't it be nice to build up the detail of the Rome model by allowing the public to contribute? We might be able to get all that added detail that we want in other time periods much, much faster that way. And if we had a sort of Wiki approach, a Wikipedia approach, even though there would be unqualified people contributing and messing up a building in Rome, the research of the Wikipedia suggests that any terrible errors would be detected and corrected by this self-policing and self-correcting virtual community.

Rebuilding Rome as a Virtual City | Culture