Its creator has called it a “virtual time machine” – a digital reconstruction of ancient Rome that yesterday became available to internet users around the world. Users of Google Earth can now see the city, down to the last aqueduct and arena, as it looked at noon on April 1 AD 320. They can navigate through the Forum, past the platform or rostra from which Cicero once declaimed, admire the statues, read the inscriptions, pry into palaces, and then slip round to the Colosseum or whisk over to the Circus Maximus where the ancient Romans held their chariot races.
There, the virtual traveller will find not the slightly disappointing, enormous oval expanse of grass that confronts the real tourist, but the huge, walled stadium that they are forced to conjure up from their imagination.
It is the “Rome of [the emperor] Constantine in which everything is new”, said Google Earth’s chief technologist, Michael T Jones, at the presentation in Rome’s city hall. “It’s new. It’s modern. It’s beautiful.”
All the awe-inspiringly detailed reconstruction lacks is people. Their absence gives a slightly eerie feel to the stadiums and temples, marketplaces and thoroughfares of classical Rome.
Some 6,700 digitally recreated structures have gone towards making up the latest “layer”, which can be superimposed on Google Earth’s images of the city. Ten of the buildings, such as the Colosseum, can be entered so users can marvel at the architecture and even gaze on details like marble floors, whose exact shape and pattern are known because their remains have survived to the present.
The first concerted effort to re-create the ancient imperial capital was made by Italian architect Italo Gismondi. Three years before his death in 1974 he finished a vast plaster model of ancient Rome in 1:250 scale that can be seen in the city’s Museo della Civiltà Romana.
Gismondi’s research played an important role in the project, begun in 1997 by Bernard Frischer, a teacher at the University of Virginia (UVA). After 10 years of work and collaboration between UVA, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Milan’s Politecnico, Rome Reborn – made up of 50 million polygons (the building blocks of three-dimensional computer graphics) – was unveiled last year.