Bernie Frischer, a digital archaeologist and one of the first to use 3D computer modeling to reconstruct cultural heritage sites, leads the Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project. Frischer launched the project in November at the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC, US. The simulation explores a 3D virtual world that models the Roman emperor Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli, Italy. The project’s website documents the state of the site today and provides scholarly background to enhance modern understanding.
Frischer directs the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing in Bloomington, US. He partnered with the Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts at Ball State University in Indiana to develop the ability for visitors to take on the roles of historically accurate avatars – from imperial court members and Roman senators to soldiers and slaves. Using a live 3D multi-user online learning environment, visitors can interactively explore the entire villa complex.
The villa, located about 20 miles east of Rome, served as a retreat for Hadrian and his court. It included what is considered to be the greatest Roman example of the integration of architectural, landscape, sculpture, and water features. The villa also included palaces, temples, libraries, banquet halls, staterooms, and guest and slave quarters, and was home to innovative buildings such as the Maritime Theater. Surrounded by a private moat, the latter is thought to have been the emperor’s private getaway.
“A user can select from a variety of avatars – representing class, gender, and ethnicity – including courtiers, senators, scholars, freemen, soldiers, and slaves,” explains Frischer. “The avatar system is based on scholarly studies of the circulation and flow throughout the villa. The goal was to make everything evidence-based, from the avatars’ costumes to their gestures.” Non-playing characters also populate the virtual villa, carrying out daily activities that would have taken place during the final years of Hadrian’s reign from 117 to 138 A.D.
“First and foremost this project offers a test bed for experiments in Roman cultural geography, but just as important is the opportunity for virtual world projects like this to become the new textbooks for evidence-based learning,” says Frischer. “What you are experiencing is an immersive learning environment created through the integration and deployment of commercial products, custom software, and the knowledge offered by some the world’s leading experts on Roman history and culture.”
The project website includes a comprehensive and meticulously documented collection of aerial photographs, historical renderings, video interviews with architects and scholars, and real-time, 360-degree panoramas of 32 different sites on the villa grounds. Frischer’s team captured the original images on film. The project is the fruit of an international collaboration of dozens of academic institutions, museums, and the Archaeological Superintendency of Lazio, a unit of the Italian Ministry of Culture.
The Institute for Digital Intermedia Arts, directed by John Fillwalk, played a key role in creating the expansive, multi-user 3D simulation. The lab also implemented Frischer’s concept of a solar tracker, which enables visitors to place the sun in the sky at historically correct locations. “The collaboration with Ball State was crucial to the success of the project,” Frischer says. “We are glad that Ball State is continuing to work with us on a new grant sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which will enhance the work done thus far, and permit us to make the Unity simulation available to the general public, at no cost, over the next 12 to 18 months.”
- Amber Harmon