ROME — Buried for many centuries, two patrician villas unearthed here recently have been brought to life through an on-site multimedia reconstruction that plunges the spectator into the heart of ancient Roman life.
A video tour of patrician villas unearthed by archaeologists in Rome.
Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press
A glass catwalk over a thermal bath.
Experiencing the archaeological site, which opens to the public on Saturday, is a bit like passing through a classically themed amusement park. Lasting roughly a half-hour, the computer-generated sound-and-light show offers plenty of opportunities to ooh and aah as the villas take physical form.
At one point a virtual wall dissolves to show what the residents of one villa might have seen when they strolled out from their door in the fourth century A.D.: a bustling city, the busiest in the ancient world, with more than a million residents vying for space, a narrating voice recounts.
The multimedia tour, overseen by officials of Rome Province, was conceived by Piero Angela, a prominent journalist and the host of popular television programs about science on the state broadcasting network RAI. It is the first multimedia initiative of this kind at an archaeological site in Italy.
The narrator explains that congested traffic on the capital’s narrow streets was an issue then, just as it is in today’s Rome , and prime downtown real estate was every bit as sought after as it is now.
“That’s why Romans built up, creating multistory homes,” said Antonella Lumacone, an archaeologist who worked on the excavation of the ancient site under the 16th-century Palazzo Valentini, the seat of Rome’s Provincial Administration.
Beyond envisioning what the world might have looked like “700,000 moon rises and moon sets ago,” as the tour’s narrator says, the discovery of the homes has yielded deeper insight into the topography of ancient Rome.
“We knew a lot about the important monuments but much less about their connective tissue to the city,” said Eugenio La Rocca, who oversaw the dig as cultural heritage curator for the Rome Council.
The video portions of the reconstruction — cheering crowd scenes of victorious centurions, a glimpse of a chaotic food market, a mugging in a dimly lighted back alley — were provided by Lux Vide, a production company based in Rome that specializes in historical mini-series for television. It has produced several programs set in the ancient world, including a 2003 mini-series about the Emperor Augustus.
The archaeological exploration began in 2005, after builders stumbled onto the ruins during repair work in the underground areas of the Palazzo Valentini.
“The fact is, gold flows under our feet in Rome,” said Enrico Gasbarra, the president of the Provincial Administration. “Our economy thrives because of this.”
The two villas, which measured some 20,000 square feet overall, were next to Trajan’s Forum. In one virtual reconstruction, a second-story window opens onto a view of Trajan’s Column, the 125-foot-tall testament to that emperor’s victories in the Dacian Wars in the second century. At the tour’s end, visitors spill out into Trajan’s Forum after passing through a series of tunnels and air-raid shelters dating from 1939.
Archaeologists surmise that because of the villas’ location, as well as the wealth of the mosaics and marble decorations that have been unearthed, their owners were probably high-ranking members of Roman society, perhaps senators or magistrates.
“They were living off the memory of their glorious past,” Mr. La Rocca said. (By the fourth century the center of power had shifted to Constantinople.)
Along with monumental rooms in the two villas, the archaeologists found the remains of a private thermal bath dating from the third century, now visible under an immense glass floor. Other remains, including statues of a senator and a young man, date from the second century A.D.
Yet because the villas are largely fragmentary, officials said, the multimedia reconstruction is basically a composite of fourth-century villas in Rome.
“It’s hypothetical, based on the general layout of what was found,” said Fabrizio Oppedisano, a historian who collaborated on the project. The red walls in the reconstruction, for example, were based on “ a few centimeters” of red fresco found on one of the walls, he said, adding, “The operative word is ostensible.”
Free tours are given daily in various languages, but must be booked in advance.
“Archaeologists are satisfied with what they see with their eyes,” Mr. Oppedisano said. “But for people who are not experts, this can be a valuable experience.”
Digging continues in the area, and a patch of modern road is being demolished around Trajan’s Column to expand the excavations.
Palazzo Valentini is at 119 A via IV Novembre, near Piazza Venezia, Rome; www. provincia.roma.it.
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