What are the limitations to looking at a sculpture, historical object, or even a building on a computer screen? Can we truly understand the essence of an object– its materiality and weight– through a two-dimensional reproduction? Furthermore, what is lost when we cannot move around the object– when we cannot examine it, sense it, from all sides? These types of questions have plagued art historians and art educators since the early days of printed reproductions and slide projectors. Images of objects of course have a use in art education, but to what extent? Is looking at objects rendered two dimensional “as good as we can get” or is it rather a detriment to our ability to connect, relate, and experience art?

Digital software such as Agisoft Photoscan provide the technology to move past the 2D into the 3D. 3D visualizations address many of the questions I’ve posed above: a rendering allows us to better understand the materiality of the object and how it affects form; the software develops a rendering in 360 degrees which allows us to move it around and see it from all angles. Renderings can be exported as pdf files which make it easy to embed them on websites or within power-points for educational purposes.

Seems like the problem’s solved, right? We’ve mastered 3D rendering in a 2D space! But with new technologies comes a series reflection on how they should be properly integrated into research– with new technology comes new theoretical models. What are the strengths of 3D modeling as part of research? How should it be utilized? And on the flip side, what are the limitations? What is improper integration?

There seems to be many scholars exploring these questions and critically analyzing current 3D modeling projects, which includes Virtual Reality recreations. Diane Favro explores some of these issues in relationship to VR models of Ancient Rome– the (re)imagined city in the digital space. Having an ancient city as the source for 3D modeling presents a few problems. Through historical texts (and with texts I do include visual texts), we can understand key architectural features of Rome. We can even understand basic infrastructure and urban plans. But Favro rightly notes that there are aspects of Ancient Rome that we don’t know, and that we perhaps will never know. Any 3D modeling of Rome, then, will always be speculative, at least in part. Does this weaken the integrity of a digital project overall? Some say yes while others say no.

Favro provides her insights on another theoretical debate with 3D/VR re-creations: how much attention should be given to aesthetics when trying to produce a factual visualization of the past? She states:

The Virtual Reality models of Ancient Rome admittedly have an aesthetic content, but the raison d’etre is not to create pretty pictures: the proposed strategies for minimizing aesthetic considerations of the re-creation models were selected for their potential to stimulate new avenues of research about both the digital models and the ancient city. With these goals in mind, it must be underscored that attractiveness is not a sin.

Favro, 332

Creating an aesthetic enriched experience is not, and perhaps should not be the main purpose for scholarly re-creations, but yet Favro emphasizes that aesthetics do not negate the integrity of the project. I appreciate her consideration, but find that it stills propagates a hierarchy among aesthetics and fact within 3D visualization theory. For me, as an Art Historian, the aesthetics are just as important as factual accuracy– and in a way, even more important in creating an embodied and immersive VR experience. Sure, any scholar would want their re-creation of an ancient city to be as accurate as possible (limited only by a lack of primary source material), but aesthetic consideration should be part of that accuracy. Cities, especially ones like Ancient Rome, weren’t sterilized from beauty or harmony. The intrinsic qualities of a building (line, texture, form) cannot be divorced from their physiological or transcendental capabilities. In other words, any recreation of a city will be inherently aestheticized because any physical city is aestheticized. Thus, the job of the scholar-designer is not to minimize or negate these aesthetics, but rather ensure that the aesthetics of a 3D recreation match (as best they can) the aesthetics of the original.

Diane Favro. “In the Eyes of the Beholder: Virtual Reality Re-Creations and Academia.” In Imaging Ancient Rome, edited by Haselberger, Lothar Williams Symposium on Classical Architecture and John H Humphrey, 321–34. Supplementary Series 61. Portsmouth, R.I.: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2006.