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Research Recreates Ancient Roman Virtual Reality with 21st Century 3-D Technology

Originally published 20 May 2003

The remains of Pompeii’s ancient villas show that the Romans decorated their villas with extravagant wall paintings of theatre scenes that used tricks of perspective to impress guests with what seemed at the time an early version of virtual reality. Now, researchers at the University of Warwick are transforming these ancient forms of perspective painting into the 21st century version of virtual reality using 3-D digital models that allow viewers to tread the boards of long-lost Roman theatres.

The ancient wall paintings of stage-sets suggest 3-D architectural structures on 2-D surfaces. The technique of perspective scenic painting, or skenographia, first evolved in 5th century BC Greek theatre and embellished flat fa?ades of stage buildings. Later, the Romans adapted the skill to decorate their homes.

The project, carried out by The University of Warwick’s e-lab in conjunction with Professor Richard Beacham and Dr Hugh Dernard from the University’s School of Theatre Studies, combines the Roman wall paintings and state-of-the-art computer modelling to transform our understanding of ancient stages. From the ancient ornate wall paintings, the structure and scenes of the actual stage buildings are recreated, so researchers can explore 3-D theatre models and provide insights impossible to obtain from a flat diagram or book.

Professor Richard Beacham, from the University of Warwick, said: “We’ve created the world’s first computer generated 3-D models of early temporary wooden sets from paintings. These are used to recreate virtual performances, and virtual actors can be put on the stages, so you can see what it would have been like to be a member of the audience. The reconstructions enable viewers to step into and navigate ancient stages. Space and time are dislocated as viewers zoom around 3-D fly-throughs of ancient images.”

The original Pompeiian and Herculaneum stage set paintings are used as evidence to develop virtual reality models. Photographs, ancient texts, depictions of deteriorated or lost frescos and interpretations of Roman stage formats help generate historically accurate stage-sets.

One challenge is to discern the real stage image within the impossible and fantastic painted architecture embellishing it. By revisiting the paintings with computer modelling it is possible to pull out the real architecture and then work out what the actual theatres looked like.

Drew Baker, from e-lab at the University of Warwick, said: “Theatre was an integral part of Roman culture and the wall paintings enable us to understand theatre, politics and culture during the transition from Republic to Empire. The new virtual ‘theatre museums’ open up new possibilities, and are more engaging than conventional museums. Until now, museum visitors were expected to appreciate the art and history of the theatre by examining static displays, miniature stage sets, and two-dimensional photographs or drawings.”

The technology can also restore lost or dispersed paintings to their original locations within particular houses in virtual form.

Contacts: Professor Richard Beacham, School of Theatre Studies, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 523020/ 02476 523021, Home: 01926 312 173 Drew Baker, e-lab, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574272 or Jenny Murray, Assistant Press Officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 02476 574255

Note for broadcasters: VNR style footage of the 3-D models and interviews will be broadcast on the new Research TV service via Reuters on 20th May. See:

Visit e-lab’s website: