Rome: An Ancient City in the 21st Century

By Stephanie Meeks posted 06-17-2019 11:59


I will admit that walking in the dark on a glass floor suspended 10 feet over an archaeological site several yards underground gave me pause at first. But once the room was illuminated by a multimedia presentation highlighting the ancient mosaic tile floors, columns, swimming pools, baths, and more, I knew that my adventure at Palazzo Valentini was a whole new way of experiencing classical Rome.

The palazzo, once the home of an aristocratic family, lay buried for millennia until it was rediscovered in 2005 during excavation for an underground parking garage in the heart of ancient Rome, just feet from Trajan’s Column. There are many archaeological sites of significant homes, or domus, in the Eternal City, but what sets Palazzo Valentini apart is the creative use of technology in emphasizing its most significant features; “restoring” its frescoes and mosaics; and animating the ancient carving of Trajan’s Column, which celebrate Rome’s victory in the Dacien Wars.

During a visit to the Capitoline Museums, a visitor can use a tablet to dig deeper into the exhibitions. | Credit: Stephanie Meeks

Technological enhancements of the visitor experience are everywhere in Rome—so much so that a recent Forbes magazine article declared that “Cultural Heritage Goes Digital in Rome.” Whether a tried-and-true audio guide narrated by one of the family’s descendants at the Doria Pamphilj Gallery or an iPad and audio guide at the Capitoline Museums, the world’s oldest public museums, Rome’s cultural institutions are using technology effectively to share rich content and tell stories that draw visitors of all ages into another era. These efforts are often forward-looking and broad: for example, Hadrian’s Tomb (Castel Sant’Angelo) offers free audio guides in seven languages.

In a few instances, the technology is pushing new and exciting boundaries. A sophisticated augmented reality/virtual reality (VR) experience at the Ara Pacis Augustae, commonly known as the Ara Pacis, revived Emperor Augustus, the Vestal Virgins, senators, and aristocrats in a ritual animal sacrifice to the Goddess of Peace. Its nine stations highlighted the different panels of the altar, restoring color and, in some instances, missing pieces. While the technology was glitchy around the edges and the goggles smelly and heavy to hold for an hour, the experience brought this white marble monolith to life in a wholly new way that engaged both me and my teenage son.

Perhaps the most successful digital interpretation is at the Domus Aurea, Emperor Nero’s Golden Palace. At this highly sought-after, active archaeological site, visitors see the vast and beautiful complex the emperor built for himself in 64 A.D. after fire had destroyed a large part of the city and the villas on Palatine Hill. Cardboard VR goggles transport visitors back to the palace of 2,000 years ago by adding details such as color and light reflection added to its amazingly preserved frescoes, tile work, and other features. Meanwhile, the scaffolding is a reminder that this location is still being actively excavated, with new discoveries made continuously. And just one block away, visitors can experience an Oculus VR tour that brings the Colosseum, the center of Roman life in 80 A.D., to life.

In addition to interpretation at individual sites, technology is animating ancient Rome writ large. Virtual Rome, a project at the University of Reading in England, is an ambitious digital model of the entire ancient city. Rome Reborn is a 3D model that offers an intriguing bird’s-eye view of ancient Rome at its peak population of about 1 million. ScanLab’s Rome’s Invisible City, meanwhile, uses laser scanning point cloud technology to document and illuminate the very foundations of the ancient city.

Experiencing the beauty of Rome stimulates all the senses, and it can take a lifetime of study to understand this multilayered center of 3,000 years of human activity. But new advances in technology and interpretation are helping millions of people see the city in new ways, bringing its stories, lessons, and inspiration to life for a global, 21st-century audience.

Stephanie Meeks is the past president and CEO of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.