Rome Reborn
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Written by Rick Archer
January, 2010

My trip to the Roman Forum was disappointing on so many levels.  More than anything else I was crushed to discover so many magnificent buildings had been practically leveled. 

In addition, without a guide, an audiotape, or even a decent guidebook, all day long I started blankly at abandoned rocks I was certain had history written all over them.  I was incredibly angry at myself for basically wasting the chance of a lifetime to learn more about the Roman Empire, a period of history I have been fascinated with ever since I was a little boy.

My disappointment at grasping very little of what I saw during my trip to the Forum was so intense that I vowed I would do my homework when I got back to Houston. 

As I poked my nose around the Internet plus the two books on ancient Rome I bought as an afterthought , I was delighted to find there were a lot of people who felt the same way about wondering what ancient Rome had really looked like... and had done something about it!

Rome was first recreated as a model back in the mid-Twentieth Century.  A plaster representation known as Plastico di Roma Antica was created from 1933 to 1971 complete with aqueducts and restored temples to the Roman Gods.  At the time, it was considered a modern marvel in its own right.  After all, it took archeologists and model makers forty years to complete this task!  They say Rome wasn't built in a day.  Now we had was living proof even the model of Rome took forty years.   

This project was the brain child of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. To commemorate the birth of Augustus (63 BC) two thousand years earlier, Mussolini decided to commission a model of Rome as it appeared at the time of Constantine (AD 306-337), when the city had reached its greatest size.  Fortunately, he knew just who to ask to help him complete his vision.

The Roman Forum of Yesterday

The Roman Forum of Today

Italo Gismondi was trained as an architect; however he was better known as a leading archaeologist. Entering the Italian culture ministry, he was named director of the excavations at Ostia (the ancient port of Rome), a post that he held for over 40 years.

Gismondi's architectural background enabled him to make a detailed study of ancient building practices and design.  There weren't too many archeologists who were also architects.  Gismondi discovered he was one of the few who could figure out what a building looked like based on a limited set of clues. 

With practice, Gismondi developed a knack for recreating what buildings had looked like out of fragmentary remains.  One of his legacies was putting together the first detailed map of the monuments of the Roman Forum, published in 1933, complete with drawings of what the buildings had probably looked like.

Plastico di Roma Antica

Gismondi's excellent map of the ancient Forum is what brought him to Mussolini's attention.  Mussolini had received much criticism for destroying a valuable section of the Roman Forum to put in a highway.  Now Mussolini had an idea how he could turn some of that wrath into renewed civic pride. 

Trying to make amends for bulldozing valuable ruins to make way for his Imperial Highway (including the Forum of Caesar no less) , Mussolini turned to Gismondi and proposed a model of ancient Rome on a giant scale. 

Gismondi smiled.  To him, all his previous experiences had uniquely prepared him for a project of the magnitude.  He was willing to give it his best effort.

From 1933-1937 Gismondi worked furiously to prepare the model for a world's fair in Rome.
The model received so much praise that Gismondi was encouraged to extend the model further.  He spent forty years completing his work, finishing in 1971 just three years before his death. 

Today the plastic model can be viewed in the city's Museum of Roman Civilization. The model is built to 1:240 scale.  It extends more than fifty-five feet across! 

This huge picture captures just one little corner of the structure, but gives a hint at how large it really is.  As you can guess, when seen in person, this 20 meter by 20 meter model  is a massive piece of construction.  It takes up 4,500 square feet of space! 

I wonder how people are able to view the center.  Maybe people walk across it!  (just kidding).  Ah... just found the answer... there is an elevated platform for people to use.

It turns out the artists had to work with platforms as well that were suspended just inches above the work space.  I wish I had a picture of that!

Another look at a segment of the Plastico di Roma Antica, Gismondi's Model of Ancient Rome.  The actual model is 55 by 55 feet.   Imagine this kind of detail spread out over 55 feet.  No wonder it took 40 years to finish!



A quote from Johann Wolfgang Goethe expresses what most of us would say after having to fend for himself in Rome without much in the way of guide books. 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."

Italo Gismondi's amazing life project inspired many people during the Twentieth Century.  Among those people was a man named Bernard Frischer.  Frischer first encountered the massive model of ancient Rome back in the Seventies while studying at the American Academy in Rome.  He was immediately taken with it.

At the same time, Frischer took note that Gismondi's Plastico was fixed to a very remote museum in a suburb of Rome.  Frischer understood that educators couldn't readily take students or tourists there, unless they were already in Rome.  Even then, finding this spot off the beaten path was a project in itself.  Frischer understood that the Rome model, as wonderful as it was, didn't do much good hidden away (the museum is located four miles south of the Colosseum.  It is way off the usual tourist trails).

“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 model,  one side of me said, 'hey, this is great!'  At the same time, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, nobody is going to see it here.  We've got to use technology to get this wonderful model out of this small room and bring it out where the entire world can see it!' ”

Frischer received his B.A. in Classics from Wesleyan University in Connecticut in 1971 and his Ph.D. in Classics from Germany's University of Heidelberg in 1975.  Frischer taught Classics at UCLA from 1976 to 2004.  Since then he became the Professor of Art History and Classics at the University of Virginia, where from 2004-09 he also served as Director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities.  As of 2010, Frischer is currently Director of the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.

As he climbed the academic ladder, Frischer never allowed his experience of the Rome model to drift too far away out of his memory.  From the 1970s onward, Bernard Frischer experimented with different technologies in his quest to simulate the ancient city of Rome.  While a fellow at the American Academy in Rome in 1975, Frischer met urban designer Donald Appleyard of the University of California, Berkeley.

Appleyard had developed a system of video editing that presented models of new architectural projects within the context of the surrounding neighborhood and city. Appleyard died in 1982, but his work lived on through Fischer.  Appleyard had inspired Frischer to somehow find a way to translate Gismondi's plaster-of-paris model of ancient Rome into video form.

From 1978 to 1980, a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created the Aspen Movie Map, a navigable, touch screen tour of Aspen, Colorado, that was a breakthrough in interactive media. The team mounted four 16mm film cameras on top of a car and drove down the center of every street in Aspen, capturing front, back, and side views. The scenes were transferred to laserdisc and linked to a street plan of Aspen.

Fischer was fascinated with the work.  “My idea was to use the same approach, with miniature cameras going up and down the streets of the [Rome] model,” says Frischer. So he did some test shots of the plaster model of Rome to see if it would support a close-up view. Unfortunately it didn't work. “Eighty percent of the surfaces of buildings in that model have no detail at all,” Frischer says. “So the idea of a videodisc didn't fly. But the vision of simulating ancient Rome stuck with me.”

From 1996 to 2004, Frischer was the founding director of the UCLA Cultural Virtual Reality Laboratory.  The lab was one of the first in the world to use 3D computer modeling to reconstruct cultural heritage sites.  Thanks to his association with the talented professionals at the laboratory plus advances in computer technology, in 1996 Frischer was finally in position to begin his project in earnest.  He was excited to see if he could bring his three-decade dream of recreating Rome to fruition. 

Fortunately the advent of 3-D modeling software proved more auspicious than the Aspen/Rome project of the Eighties.  The primary source for the model of Rome turned out to be none other than Gismondi's “Plastico di Roma Antica”.   Some 7,000 buildings were scanned and reproduced using the plastic model of the city. 

Thanks to an international team of architects, archaeologists and experts that spent 10 years of hard work, the effort was successful.  Ancient Rome was been brought back to life through a unique digital reconstruction project, said to be the world's biggest computer simulation.  Soon the mysteries of what the structures looked like before their dilapidation would be unveiled to an entire world audience.

In June, 2007, 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 the 10-year collaboration: they had completed a 3-D computer model of ancient Rome titled Rome Reborn 1.0

The project amazed spectators with its recreation of what the city looked like at its peak in A.D. 320.  Asked why they chose 320 AD as opposed to the days of Julius Caesar at the height of the Roman Empire, Frischer explained, "Because 320 marked the time Rome was at its moment of greatest splendor as far as its architecture is concerned. If you went back to periods of more historical interest, like Julius Caesar's, you would not have the Colosseum, for example.  Rome as it was under Constantine in AD 320 was the pinnacle of Roman architecture plus the destruction of Rome's great buildings by barbarian invaders had not yet begun."

Frischer was asked about his first thought 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 1971.

I was seeing it in 1976, so it was just finished. I was there with an urban designer from Berkeley named Donald Appleyard.  When I expressed my desire to take this plastic model to the next level, Appleyard said to me, “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.”

Appleyard said this visualization system was 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 model.

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 …

Not everyone gets to see their project fulfilled.  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. Rome Reborn still sends shivers up my spine."

Thanks to Frischer & his team, the Temple of Jupiter lives again

Bernard Frischer and his lovely wife Jane Crawford
in a picture taken at Rome's Castel Sant Angelo

Discover Rome Reborn on Google Earth

Rick Archer's Note:  In collaboration with the Rome Reborn project, Google Earth now has a Rome 3D feature whenever you open the program. 

Having temporarily run out of 21st century worlds to conquer, Google is now travelling back in time.

In recent years, scientists, historians and archaeologists around the world have embraced three-dimensional modeling of cultural heritage sites. Information technology has permitted them to recreate buildings and monuments that no longer exist and to digitally restore sites that have been damaged with the passage of time. The results can be used in research to test new theories and in teaching to take students on virtual tours of the historical sites.

Users of the search giant's Google Earth can now add a new layer that lets them wander a 3D version of ancient Rome (or at least they will be shortly. Google has just issued a service advisory, titled "Rome wasn't built in a day", announcing a delay of 24 hours or so before the new service goes live).

The latest addition in Google's product release frenzy graphically recreates Rome as it looked 1688 years ago under Emperor Constantine. Users can take a virtual stroll around 6700 buildings, crafted in 3D in cooperation with the Rome Reborn project - a virtual reality project that saw UCLA, the University of Virginia, the Politecnico di Milano and others create a 3D model of the city in 320AD.

"By several orders of magnitude, 'Rome Reborn' is the most ambitious such project ever undertaken," Bernard Frischer said. "The 'Rome Reborn' project is the continuation of five centuries of research by scholars, architects and artists since the Renaissance who have attempted to restore the ruins of the ancient city with words, maps and images. Now, through hard work by our interdisciplinary team, we have realized their seemingly impossible dream.

"Making the models available in Google Earth is another step in the creation of a virtual time machine which our children and grandchildren will use to study the history of Rome and many other great cities around the world."

Frischer added that the next challenge is to create an online scholarly journal in which archaeologists can publish the three-dimensional models of the sites they are studying.

"Such a journal will offer an incentive to more scholars to create 3-D models of the great cities and sites in Egypt, Greece, South America, Africa and Asia," he said. "Over time, it will transform education and research. Tourists, too, will be beneficiaries."

"Whether you are a student taking your first ancient history class, a historian who spends your life researching ancient civilizations, or just a history buff, access to this 3D model in Google Earth will help everyone learn more about Ancient Rome."

More info and a download link are on Google's Ancient Rome 3D site.

As you can see, thanks to Rome Reborn and Google Earth,
here is what
The Forum of Caesar looked like
before Mussolini bulldozed the place down.

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