Cinzia Dal Maso Center for Public Archaeology Studies ‘Archeostorie’,
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Almost simultaneously, two new proposals of immersive reality allow visitors of Rome to intensely relive the past: at the Ara Pacis and at the Domus Aurea, visitors can virtually take off their modern clothes and step into sandals and togas.

Immersive virtual reality: the technology that brings us back to the times of Augustus and Nero. Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 151-152.

CC BY 4.0 © The author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

We can call it ‘a dive into the past’. The technology of immersive virtual reality applied to two quintessentially symbolic spaces of ancient Rome allows visitors to experience them just as they were in the old days. At the Ara Pacis Museum, visitors wander around the Field of Mars and then attend the sacrifice of a bull in front of the Ara, mingling among the crowd in religious silence. At the Domus Aurea, one feels just like Nero, strolling through the rooms and gardens of his pavilion, then looking at the Caelian and Palatine hills to admire the Villa in all its magnificence, and finally crying out “Now I can begin to live like a human being”— just as Rome’s most megalomaniac Emperor did. These two fully immersive experiences are the result of two site-specific projects of immersive reality.

The Ara as it was, thanks to immersive reality

The Ara as it was special night-visits with VR viewers (designed and built by ETT S.p.A) offer visitors a further opportunity: while the visit in augmented reality to the Ara’s outer reliefs remains unchanged, the introduction to the visit (which used to focus only on the two plastic models of the Field of Mars and the Ara), has now become a real immersive 360° show in front of the altar itself. It is a remarkable quality leap: the previous animation of the models left visitors with a sense of unreality, of forgery, while now we live the true reality of the past and the present. Thanks to the combination of the 3D ancient landscape scene with live shots and computer-graphic reconstructions, we truly turn into Romans of the time of Augustus, who in front of the Ara celebrated the Emperor as a victor, and a hero of peace.

Then, when visitors start walking around the Ara to admire the reliefs that virtually reacquire their original colors, their minds are as if fully immersed in the ancient reality and they are ready to imagine themselves as Romans of the past, convinced that finally, thanks to Augustus, the golden age of peace and prosperity is back. Around the Ara, virtual and augmented reality —in alternation— comment on the reliefs, highlighting protagonists and decoration patterns with a selective use of colours. The augmented-reality vision uses a 3D tracking system that makes the experience perfect, with colours and additions that flawlessly overlap with the real reliefs. The warm narrating voices of actors Luca Ward and Manuela Mandracchia make this immersion in the ancient world even more natural. What is missing? Almost nothing now; it is a fantastic visit. It would be great to find a more comfortable way to hold the viewers. For the moment, in fact, visitors have to hold them in their hands, in order to be able to remove them when moving from one location to the next. In the long run, this is very tiring —only the first show lasts ten minutes— and visitors run the risk of focusing too much on the viewer, losing the sense of immersion.

Total immersion in the Domus Aurea

At the Domus Aurea site, on the other hand, the VR viewers are worn, and the sense of immersion is total. Being only one installation, visitors do not need to bring the viewer along during the visit. It is a less complex proposal and, as such, easier to manage. Technically, there is no ‘augmented’ reality here, i.e. there is no overlap between real and virtual, but only an immersion in the virtual reconstruction of the Domus. It is an immersion in architecture without living characters. The result is truly unique and powerful, however, and here the virtual reality is even more necessary than at the Ara: at last, despite being underground, visitors will have a sense of how much light used to shine in those rooms. Just as did the painters of the sixteenth century who discovered the Domus’ amazing decorations, visitors now climb down into the Hall of the Golden Vault, where the installation is located. There, the flood of dirt that now buries the Domus Aurea gradually withdraws, the foundation walls of the Trajan Baths —built later above the Domus, thus sealing it— dissolve, and suddenly the dark room begins to shine as the sun hits the marbles and golden coatings. Visitors look around, go out into the large garden and under their eyes the term ‘Golden’ regains all its true meaning. Wonder prevails, maybe the same awe that felt those happy few Romans Nero admitted into the Palace.

A video at the entrance surveys the ancient and modern history of the Domus Aurea. The projection uses an immense wall for its majestic narration, on the same scale as Nero’s own dream. The two stations, designed by KatatexiLux, are part of the guided tours to the restoration site of the Domus. In fact, a truly unprecedented archaeological intervention is taking place: to avoid that water infiltrations, tree roots, and the weight of the earth from the garden above completely destroy the Domus and its frescoes, archaeologists have decided to ‘uncover’ the 16 thousand square meters of buried buildings, protect them with insulating materials, and then cover them back with new greens. It is a titanic, five-year long enterprise, which complements the work of consolidation of the walls and is the essential precondition for the actual restoration of the stucco and frescoes. This time, hopefully, they will not deteriorate in a short time as they did after the extensive restoration carried out for the Jubilee of the year 2000.

Meanwhile, the work on the gardens has led to a series of discoveries that are helping in the reconstruction of the history of the Oppian Hill from antiquity to today, from pre-Domus buildings, to late antique burials and eighteenth- century vineyards and orchards. At the end of the work, therefore, virtual reality will have a new and very long story to tell.

L’Ara Com’era, The Ara as it Was:

Montagna, L., 2018. Roma Capitale: AR e VR come progetto culturale. In Montagna, L., Realtà virtuale e realtà aumentata. Nuovi media per nuovi scenari di business, pp. 167-71. Milan: Hoepli.

The project was shortlisted on the Heritage in Motion 2017 multimedia competition:

Pantile, D., 2017. Enhancing artworks using Augmented and Virtual Reality: the “Ara As It Was” project. Avail- able at: entries-2017 (Accessed February 6, 2018).

L’Ara Com’Era is open to the public on Friday and Saturday evening only, from 7.30 pm to 11 pm, and for a maximum of 400 visitors per day. It is open every day during the Holidays and in the Summer months. From its opening in October 2016 until 31 December 2017 the total number of visitors has been 35,312.

Domus Aurea:

D’Alessio, A. et al. 2017. Domus Aurea la reggia di Nerone. Archeo. n. 386 (april 2017): pp. 76-98.

Visits to the Domus Aurea restoration site are available only on Saturdays and Sundays, from 9.00 am to 4.45 pm (only 75 minutes guided tours, with a maximum 25 people per tour). In 2017 the total number of visitors has been 52,120.