Ancient Roman houses—at least those of the wealthy—were built not just for comfort but also to impress. Many design elements and “tricks” were employed to enhance or hide specific parts of the house from the gaze of visitors. This aspect of Roman architectural design, though known to scholars from historical records, is a challenge to study from existing ruins. But now researchers have reconstructed a Pompeii home in virtual reality to study and analyze this optical display element of Roman house design by tracking the eye movement of volunteers. Their research has been published in the journal Antiquity.
Designing to Impress in Roman House Design
The researchers cite literary sources that establish gaze-fixing as being a prime motivation of Roman domestic architecture. To understand the way in which the Romans designed their houses, scholars have studied the remains of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum from this perspective. They have found that optical axiality was indeed of great significance in the Roman house design and had a socio-political function.
“Work and daily activities were intermingled during the day,” said Danilo Marco Campanaro, a PhD candidate from Lund University and co-author of the research. “The house communicated to people about the personal power and status of the owner and his family.”
However, hundreds of years of neglect, weathering and volcanic eruptions have damaged many of the eye-catching elements built into Roman homes. This has meant that many questions about Roman house design from a visibility studies perspective have so far remained unanswered.
Virtual reality technology has been employed to try to address the problem. (Campanaro & Landeschi / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Technology to the Rescue: Using Virtual Reality to Understand Ancient Spaces
To overcome these challenges, scholars in the last 15 years have begun to enlist the help of modern technology such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), 3D modeling and virtual reality. Campanaro and his co-author Giacomo Landeschi have taken this approach a step further to explore the possibility of integrating GIS data relating to visual attention in 3D. An eye tracker is used to measure this data, which is then analyzed to show which parts of a fully reconstructed Pompeii house draw the attention of the user moving in virtual space.
This integration of 3D eye-tracking and GIS data is an emerging technology and Campanaro and Landeschi profess theirs is the first published study to employ it. And to good effect. “Eye-tracking technology and virtual reality do now provide unprecedented opportunities to assess the visual qualities of ancient spaces,” Dr Landeschi stated. In this case, they were able to use it to estimate which parts of the reconstructed house caught the visual attention of volunteers as they wandered through ancient Roman houses in virtual reality .
Exported data are visualized in ArcGIS PRO as point shapefiles. The path of the user exploring the virtual environment of the reconstructed Pompeian house is displayed in the right spatial relation with the original building. (Campanaro & Landeschi / Antiquity Publications Ltd )
Virtual Reconstruction of the House of the Epigrams
What the volunteers participating in the study were exploring is the virtually reconstructed Pompeii House of the Epigrams, first excavated in 1748, then again in in 1875 and fully in 1908. Lavish frescoes once adorned its walls and under many of them in a small room to the north of the colonnaded peristyle were Greek inscriptions. The house owes its name to these inscriptions. It was destroyed in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, which covered Pompeii and many of its inhabitants in a layer of ash and other debris to a depth of more than 9 feet (3 meters).
The house, complete with its paintings, was modeled in 3D and imported into the videogame engine Unity to explore in virtual reality. “The results of this study show how the owner of the house stimulated the visitor’s senses to convey a message about its power and wealth,” Campanaro stated, referring to the paintings.
Earlier studies have brought out other architectural devices used by the Romans to catch the eye and impress visitors with their homes. Angled walls and raised floors that gave an impression of a larger interior to people looking in through the front door were some of the other design tricks employed by the Romans.
Campanaro and Landeschi’s study has revealed some of the eye-catching techniques used in Roman house design . It has shown the promise that this new technology holds for exploring other ancient environments. However, the authors are already talking of making the virtual experience even more productive by tracking audio and olfactory senses as well. “The next step in this study could be to overlap the results with multisensory research that includes olfaction and auditory involvement,” explained Landeschi.
Top image: Analysis of Roman house design in virtual reality, with eye-catching areas highlighted. Source: Campanaro & Landeschi / Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Sahir Pandey