Rome is a city filled with cultural heritage. Every building, statue and column has a story to tell but it takes a vast amount of knowledge to piece together the city’s nearly 2,800-year-old history. “Ci vuole una vita,” people commonly say – it takes a lifetime to see Rome – and even longer to understand it. With monuments and archeological relics scattered around every corner, where do you even begin? Maybe by letting the stones speak for themselves through the city’s latest virtual reality tours and experiences.
There’s a digital renaissance underway in the Eternal City and it is helping to shed a light on the past – quite literally. From video projections cast upon ancient walls and multimedia light shows to virtual reconstructions revealed through 3D visors, technology is being used to help tell the story of Rome in a more concrete and compelling way.
A large part of this trend can be attributed to the pioneering work of Paco Lanciano, a Rome-born physicist with a passion for cultural communication and a keen understanding of the learning process. Namely: if you make education fun, it sticks. “You need to strike a balance between creating something spectacular to hold an audience’s attention while also helping them learn in the process,” Mr. Lanciano tells me. “But it is easier said than done.”
Together with Piero Angela, a leading Italian television host and science journalist, Mr. Lanciano designed an immersive multimedia visit of “Le Domus Romane” within Palazzo Valentini over a decade ago – the first time technology was used to enhance an archeological site in the capital. During the virtual tour, visitors can see baths, furnishings and decorations brought to life through digital projections that enhance the archeological site without compromising it.
“The experience was surprising because these two worlds – technology and archeology – had never overlapped before. In Italy, there has always been a separation between science and the humanities, but science is part of culture, too. The purpose of science is to understand, just like the purpose of archeology is to understand,” Mr. Lanciano explains. “There is no reason to separate these two fields and in fact, bringing them together can yield very positive results.”
He took inspiration from Frank Oppenheimer’s Exploratorium in San Francisco, the first museum to promote hands-on exploration and immersive experiences in 1969, as proof that the worlds of art and science were deeply intertwined and could be leveraged to foster more understanding, inspire curiosity and stimulate new ideas.
After the success of Palazzo Valentini, Mr. Lanciano and Mr. Angela worked together again to create Viaggio nei Fori, two popular shows that cast the stories of Emperor Augustus and Julius Caesar onto the ancient forums each evening during the summer months. These screenings have become a mainstay of Rome’s summer entertainment and are on view this year from April 21 to November 11 2019.
Now Mr. Lanciano has turned his attention to an even more ambitious project with Welcome to Rome, a 30-minute introduction to the city, through a stirring film and 3-dimensional models of some of the city’s major landmarks. The show begins thousands of years ago when Rome is home to a handful of tribes scattered across its seven hills and takes the viewer on a journey through the Roman Republic, the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and then finally the present day. “It was quite a challenge to synthesize the story of Rome, but the feedback has been very positive.”
“This is precisely my method: to let people experience the pleasure of discovery and understanding,” Mr. Lanciano says with enthusiasm. “Experience is the basis of learning so it should be enjoyable. I always want to encourage people to learn more.” The fundamental idea behind Welcome to Rome is to provide a framework that helps visitors understand the city and makes their sightseeing more gratifying. Mr. Lanciano laughs as he says, “There’s nothing more tedious than something you cannot understand. Boredom is my enemy.”
Mr. Lanciano is optimistic that digital innovations will continue to help archeologists and historians share Italy’s history with the wider public. “Now that technology has been unleashed in the world of cultural heritage, it will certainly bring about many interesting results,” he says.