Rome Reborn

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A review by Dave Connors, written for HIST 5V71 in Fall 2011

The Rome Reborn project, a digital masterpiece, began with a traditional plaster cast model of the Eternal City. This model of Rome was constructed by a team working under the direction of Italo Gismondi over a forty year span from 1933 to 1974. The Plastico di Roma Antica was considered to be the quintessential view of the capital of the Roman Empire for decades after its construction.[1] Bernard Frischer had been captivated by the sculpture during his time studying in Rome in the 1970’s and had undertaken a personal project to capture the entire miniature city on film, taking hundreds of 35 millimeter photographs of the model. In the 1980’s, Apple approached him to make a videodisc of the Plastico, to demonstrate the features of their new Macintosh computer. Unfortunately, the absence of distinct features on many of the thousands of tiny buildings Gismondi’s team had created eventually derailed the project. The images revealed up close what the human eye could not discern from afar, that they were repetitive buildings without clear differences.[2]

Undaunted, Frischer began to imagine a true recreation of the ancient city but this time instead of simply recording the impressive Plastico model of Rome, Frischer envisioned an architecturally and archaeologically accurate representation of Rome that digital tourists could experience. Preparation for the initial construction in the virtual world began in 1997. The opening phase of the project involved a detailed build of twenty-two of the archetypically Roman structures of the period over a 3 year period.[3] The Flavian Amphitheatre and the Forum were painstakingly plotted, measured, researched and recreated to give the center of the city that would become the foundation of Rome Reborn 1.0. The series of temples and structures within the Forum itself would take years to produce digitally, in part due to ensuring that the placement of each structure was historically accurate as they would have appeared to a resident of Rome in 320 CE. This process took years to complete, but with advances in computer processing speed and the support of Institutions with digital humanities departments such as the Universities of Caen and Bordeaux-3 in France, it was time for Frischer and his team to consider the remainder of the ancient cityscape.

The solution was a return to the Plastico model in order to topographically map the most exact representation of the city during that period. The Museo di Roma Antiqua would not allow the digital team direct access to the model, so they were forced to set up their laser scanners on the viewing balcony above the massive 16 by 17.5 meter city created by Gismondi.[4] The model was known to have anomalies that the digital team would have to adjust for, but the plan was to have a mesh model of the entire model which could be updated as further versions of the city were built. The initial scan was completed in 2005 by a team from the Politechnico di Milanio, but they had less than satisfying results as the errors that showed up in the digital mapping of the Plastico created massive distortions in the geometric shapes of the buildings and other structures represented. Using a program to isolate the common shapes in the buildings, members of the scanning team were able isolate 38 repetitive building forms on the Plastico that could be combined in a variety of ways within the computer model to give the impression of a truly random cityscape. These new models were recreated by hand in much the same way that Gismondi had built the original, then scanned and textured before being added to the geography of the Rome Reborn project to replace the distorted structures.[5]

The initial Rome Reborn digital model was completed in June of 2007 and it was composed of two classes of buildings. Class one buildings were fully researched and accurate recreations of structures that were known to have been in Rome in 320 CE. The research team had verifiable information on three hundred such buildings that could be placed within the city at that time, but due to time and financial constraints only a tenth of these made it into the final build. The class two buildings were reminiscent of the majority of the blank structures in the Plastico model. These buildings were accurate for the time period, but lacked the research data that class one structures had in order to place them accurately or to finish the architectural details with any degree of certainty. The show pieces of the first version were of course the Colosseum and the Forum which were built with extensive contributions from archaeologists whom had spent a large part of their academic careers studying these iconic architectural structures. With this information, the Rome Reborn team would be able to avoid the pitfalls that befell the Carnegie Mellon team that had built a virtual Pompeii. That model, while aesthetically pleasing, contained too many errors for scholars to accept as accurate. Having an archaeologist such as Frischer heading the Rome team ensured that the city would be constructed digitally to reflect the most factual representation that academia could produce.

The fact that only thirty-one of the nearly seven thousand buildings of the Rome Reborn 1.0 structure had fully textured exteriors and architectural detail meant that when navigating the structure, many streets had a nearly featureless appearance. Another drawback was that it was not available online (it was originally designed to be projected in an immersive theater at UCLA).[6] That innovation would have to wait until Rome Reborn 2.0 was designed. This upgrade allowed the developers to go even further in their construction and by teaming up with the designers of the CityEngine software (which had been used ironically for the Pompeii project), Rome Reborn 2.0 allowed for the texturing of the class two buildings.[7] The CityEngine also allowed for the randomization of the design of these structures. By using the same period specific buildings, CityEngine would randomize the placement of windows and doorways to allow the Rome Reborn 2.0 team to have a truly varied city that users would not tire of by it’s repetitive similarity. The new software also cut down the time necessary to enter the information to weeks from the years that the original build had taken. Even more impressive is the fact that once all of the data had been input, the CityEngine was able to render the entire city in two hours. Pascal Mueller, the designer of CityEngine, was able to say: “Thus, Rome was actually built in one day…or at least this portion of its digital component was.”[8]

Many different partners have collaborated on this project including the UCLA Experiential Technology Center, The Reverse Engineering Lab at the Politecnico di Milano, The Ausonius Institute Of the CNS, The University of Bordeaux-3, The University of Caen and the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory at the University of Virginia. All collaborated on the project in a variety of ways, from digital mapping of the Plastico model (Milan) to reverse engineering that map (UCLA) to improvements and new generations of the project (University of Virginia). Each institution continues to collaborate with the University of Virginia and adds new Class one structures to each version of Rome Reborn.[9]

Rome Reborn is now available online through the University of Virginia and also on Google Earth, where visitors can walk through the city streets and experience the glory of Rome at the apogee of empire, circa 320 CE. The digital tourists can not only fly-by the various buildings, but thanks to the wealth of information provided by the scholars involved in this project, they can enter the Forum, the Coloseum and a host of other Roman structures that have been recreated in full and glorious detail. This same process is now being applied to Colonial Williamsburg by Bernard Frischer, in addition to the pyramids in Giza and Mayan ruins in Peru. The ability to see the entire development of Rome from 1000 BCE to its collapse as a civilization in 550 CE may also soon be possible, if the academic community continues to support and take interest in projects such as these.

[edit] Notes and References

  1. Karen Moltenbrey, “History in the Making” Computer Graphics World 31, no. 12 (2008), 17.
  2. Moltenbrey, 19.
  3. Meg Sullivan “Digital Lab Reclaims Cultural Heritage Sites” Online via University of Virginia [1] (October 24, 2011).
  4. Gabriele Giudi et al. “Virtualizing Ancient Rome: 3D acquisition and modeling of a large plaster-of-Paris model of imperial Rome” (2005) Online via University of Virginia [2] (October 24, 2001).
  5. Moltenbrey, “History in the Making”, 20
  6. Rome Reborn, 2010, [3] (October 24 2011)
  7. Procedural, 2011 [4] (October 2011.)
  8. Moltenbrey, “History in the Making”, 22.
  9. Rome Reborn, 2010 [5] (October 24, 2011.)
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