Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Villa of Crossed Destinies

Gladiator Fight during a Meal at Pompeii, 1880, Francesco Netti
from Getty Museum website
We used the space syntax analysis software to investigate accessibility and visibility of space. We also tested from which points of the villa it was easy to see the mosaic and what areas of the villa were visible standing on the mosaic. But I’ll publish some screen shots and notes on that in another post.

I stared at the plan and went through my photographic documentation, trying to image that House, in the past. The little beautiful mosaic on the threshold of the fine room. Why? Why the mosaic was there and not in any other place of the villa? What was its purpose? The truth is that we don’t know.
But is that really a problem for the audience?

Many professionals in museum and site management seem to believe that visitors couldn’t cope with uncertainty. Maybe they feel it would undermine the authority of the museum or cultural institution. I don’t think so.
Let me use an example to make this point clearer. In her popular book about Pompeii, Mary Beard complains about a famous Pompeian “fact” that I have actually found in more than one touristic guide. The anecdote is that the body of a very wealthy woman, wearing fine cloths and expensive jewellery was found in the Gladiators barracks, close to the body of a handsome fighter. It is easy to join the dots and put together a steamy story about luxurious ladies visiting their secret lovers: fearless men who faced death everyday but, apparently, were also very keen on enjoying life. The catastrophe of the Vesusius caught them in the middle of a passionate meeting. To me, it sounds like something between a Hollywood peplum and a Barbara Cartland novel. However, the story per se is quite effective and often makes the tourists smile.
Unfortunately, the story in not true. Or, at least, not complete. None of the books citing (or just repeating) the  story says that, in the same barracks, other 18 bodies have been found. This information changes the scenario completely. Assuming that they were not a club of voyeurs, it is more likely that, during the scary and confusing events of that day, people of different social status sought shelter in the same place. We could even add that she was wearing so many jewels not to impress her lover but because, as many other inhabitants of Pompeii, she was trying to flee carrying on her body at least her most valuable goods.
But this is just another hypothesis. Perhaps more grounded than the other one. What is certain is that we don’t know.

The Castle of Crossed Destiny,
Cover of the first edition
I believe that the possibility to imagine one (or more) hypothetical story, starting from the historical and archaeological information available, can be seen as an interesting task and not a limitation by the audience. As a visitor, I wouldn’t like to listen to a ready made story that is presented as “a fact” while not only it is just an interpretation but is also based on a (non declared) selection of the available information.

According to many scholars in Museums Studies and Public Archaeology (such as Witcomb, Parry and Copeland), the best way to engage the audience is to involve them in the production of meaning. Of course members of the public are not archaeologists or classicists. But if they knew what was found in an ancient place, let’s say a house or a cubiculum in the barracks, they could apply what Merriman  calls ‘informed imagination’. They can’t develop scientific interpretation. But, for sure, they can imagine stories starting from the pieces of information they have received.

That’s what I wanted to do with the dog mosaic.
When I was trying to explain my idea to my supervisor, I told him something like: “Imagine each bit of information we have about the House of Orpheus is a card. You have multiple combinations available, you have multiple potential stories.” While I was speaking, I visualised the pages of a book by one of my favourite Italian writers, Italo Calvino. The book is called The castle of Crossed Destinies and it’s part a collection of short stories, part a mind blowing essay on semiotics. A group of travellers are gathered together but, for a mysterious reason, they cannot talk. The only means they have to communicate (and entertain each other) is using a deck of Tarots to build their stories visually. 
One of the interesting aspects is that each card is used more than one time and with different connotations.

Let’s go back to the House of Orpheus.
If we consider, for example: 
the small mosaic with the dog, 
the fact that the dog does not look like a guard dog but more like a pet, 
the fact that room 9 is exquisitely decorated, 
the fact that Vesonius Primus had his garden decorated with a large fresco with Orpheus and the animals, 
the fact that he received an herm from his workers as a sign of gratitude 
we could say that Vesonius was a gentle hearted person who treated his workers and slaves fairly. He also loved poetry and nature (like Orpheus), especially animals. So much so, that he was very fond of his dog and dedicated an entire room of his house to it. When he left the House to save his life, a major cause prevented him from freeing the dog, who met a sad end. 

The Castle of Crossed Destinies
Or we start from the fact that Vesonius received a herm from his workers and change completely its connotation, connecting it differently to the other bits of information we have.
We could think that Vesonius was a mean and tyrannic master. Not only he made almost impossible for his slaves to buy their freedom but also obliged them to spend a lot of money in a “spontaneous” gift of gratitude. The dedication of the herm should be read, in this case, as slightly ironic in spite of its respectful words. Perhaps Vesonius loved his dog more than his human workers (it wouldn’t be that strange for an ancient Roman) and the dog was indeed very much hated in the house as he received better care, food and shelter than many people there.
Maybe when Vesonius left the house he put one of his slave in charge of protecting it from thieves but the slave, understood the situation, escaped leaving the dog at guard of the house. With not a lot of regrets.

Combinations are almost endless. There isn’t one that is more correct than another. Probably none of them would be “what actually happened”. But that is not the point. I believe that trying to build a story is an effective way to invite the public to gather as much information as they can, to put things in context, to empathise with the people that used to live in ancient cities, to understand better what studying the past means.

By the way, we started feeling sorry for the poor dog that dies at the end of each of these stories. So we gave him a name: is called Morty :-)

Monday, 28 January 2013

The House of the Two Dogs

Plaster Cast of a Dog (from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii)
Antiquarium of Boscoreale
From the British Museum website
My main question, at this stage, became: what was the purpose of a small, elegant mosaic representing a dog (a pet? a hunting one?) on the threshold of a fine room in a quite big and wealthy Pompeian villa?
I started wandering around the department of Digital Humanities, asking people to help me making hypotheses, even the less likely. I really needed external stimuli. I received very good inputs so far, and I am confident I will receive more. But I will discuss them in another post. 
Here, I want to write about the informative value of relationships. What I am trying to do with this project is showing that you cannot really understand an object unless you put it in its context and consider the relationships with the other elements that interacted with it (animate and inanimate).

I was reading Della Corte’s records when a sentence caught my attention. Describing the House of Orpheus he says that in the Villa there were two dogs: a real one and a portrayed one. 
The latter is our mosaic, the former is the poor dog whose remains have been found during the excavation. The dog was chained so it couldn’t escape the tragedy. It is unlikely that it could have survived in any case, but,  being chained, it met a very dreadful end. The plaster cast of its remains is one of the most iconic images of Pompeii, expressing the despair and anguish that all living creatures must have experienced in that fatal day.
I knew that the plaster cast of the dog was from the House of Orpheus and it was one of the criteria in the choice of my case study. However, della Corte’s words built an immediate and effective relationship between the two entities. I got very interested in the link between the living dog and the artistic one. Did the mosaic mark an area dedicated to the real dog or usually inhabited by it? How my hypotheses on the mosaic dog changed if I imagined a real dog interacting with it? Could room 9 have been a dog’s room?

I became even more convinced that visualising the relationship between the artefact and the building is extremely useful but sometimes is not enough, especially when you are trying to “decipher” an object. 

Herm of Vesonius Primus. From 
Presuhn E., 1878. Pompeji: Die Neuesten 
Ausgrabungen  von 1874 bis 1878
Available at
What do we know about that villa and its inhabitants? The answer to this basic question proved to be very interesting as I realised that we actually have several pieces of information about the House of Orpheus. I divided them into three categories:

1) information still on site
A huge amount of information is, obviously, held by the the building itself. Through the analysis of the remains, and hypotheses developed in virtual environment, we can derive information (and possible interpretation) about shape, light, water features, visibility, accessibility, movement trough space, status of the owner, etc...
But we also have specific artefacts survived such as
the well preserved fresco in room 13
the massive fresco of Orpheus in the garden
the mosaic floor in room 13

2) information held or exhibited in museums
All the artefacts that have been found in the House of Orpheus and moved to a museum, such as
the plaster cast of the dog
the mosaic of the guard dog
the herm of Vesonius Primus and its dedication

3) information survived through documentation
graffiti and inscriptions (recorded by della Corte and Preshun)
mosaic floor of the atrium (recorded by Preshun)
fresco of room 10 (recorded by Preshun)
detail of fresco of room 15 (recorded by Preshun)

I believe that putting all these elements together would enhance the informative value of my 3D model. Furthermore, if the audience could see the relationship between bits of information that are often delivered discontinuously, I believe they would be much more engaged with the understanding of them. In my opinion, it would also help in perceiving again the Pompeian houses as places that used to belong to humans. And animals...

Friday, 25 January 2013

All about my dog

House of Orpheus
Mosaic of a Guard Dog (?)
I have tried to look at the mosaic with fresh eyes and to gather as much information as possible about it. What are its characteristics? What makes it similar or different from other Pompeian (or Roman) mosaics depicting dogs?
A little warning before we continue: here follows my thoughts about the mosaic and my attempts to imagine its use and context. Although I want to be as accurate as possible, my hypotheses are currently mainly based on direct observation and educated guessing. They definitely need further investigation. 
Let's go back to the dog...
We know for sure that this artefact was not meant to be visible from the street. Nonetheless, it seems to be a communicative object, meant to be seen and to “speak” to his viewers. But what the little black dog was supposed to “say”? If we want to be realistic, the only question I could possibly answer is “what this dog mosaic says to me”.
They say an image worths 10.000 words. I believe it depends from the image and from the words. However, it is indubitably true that images are a synthetic language, able to condensate a lot of information. I’ve tried to unwrap it, focusing on different details. 
I have started with the image per se, detached from the material object that I’m going to examine later. 
The chain holding the guard dog at
the House of P. Proculus, Pompeii

Shape and Dimension: I realised that I tend to call the dog in this mosaic “the little dog”. This is not connected with the actual dimension of the support. I wouldn’t called a st. bernard ‘a little dog’, even if it was a miniature. What gave me the impression that it is a small dog? I am not an expert of canine breeds, especially in the antiquity, but if I look at the Pompeian cave canem mosaic, I would say that the dog looks quite like a big, solid guard dog of the mastiff kind. The one at the Proculus House looks more like a big doberman or a Great Dane. The cute one at the entrance of Caecilius Iucundus House, on the contrary, looks like a greyhound. The dog in the mosaic from the House of Orpheus is less easy to identify. It has pointed ears, pointed muzzle and long tail. I would say it is a middle size dog, maybe an hunting one. Generally speaking, I have the feeling it is less realistic and more ideal-typical than his companions in Pompeii.

Position and Movement: what is the dog doing? Again, Orpheus’ dog is less easy to assess than the other ones. I would say that the position of the body (all the weight on the fore legs, its bottom up, the tail erected) suggests that the dog is either barking or even greetings its owner. The other two mosaics of guard dogs seems to confirm that very scary and dangerous animals do not bark but wait silently and stare at you. I started wondering if this mosaic actually depicts a guard dog after all or if the first archaeologist might have named the artefact slightly inappropriately.

The red leash
worn by
Accessories: the mosaics in the house of the Tragic Poet and the House of Proculus are sort of advertisements. They have to convince visitors that the guard dog is actually strong and possibly cruel. What would serve this purpose better than a chain? The chain says: this dog is so strong that he needs a big chain to hold him.  You should hope it is a very resistant one. The message is quite clear and straightforward.
Orpheus dog hasn’t a chain but a leash, a red one. Small red elements are quite common in b&w Pompeian mosaics. It could be just an aesthetic choice, a pretext to introduce a red touch in the composition. However, it could also be a way to remark that this dog wears a fancy, elegant leash. 
Likewise all the other collars I’ve seen so far in mosaics with domestic dogs, this one is spiked. It was a means to protect the animal from being attacked by other dogs or other animals.

Threatening teeth of the
House of the Tragic Poet's dog
Anatomical features: unlike the other guard dogs, Orpheus’ dog doesn’t show his teeth. It was a very common feature in other mosaics and an easy but effective touch of realism. Thus, I believe their absence is relevant and makes me think even more that this is not exactly a guard dog.
The eyes are red, which is potentially a worrying detail. However, they are not half closed and threatening (like the other two guard dogs mosaics), but big and shut open. We could even say they look like puppy eyes. Definitely not aggressive or ferocious.

 The mosaic
Strongly believing in contextualisation of artefacts, I think it would be quite shallow to look at the image without considering the material characteristics of the object and all the information we have about it.

Dog's stylised teeth
Roman mosaic exhibited
at the Olearie Papali
Position: the fact that the mosaic was not visible from the street seems to suggest, again, that the dog depicted is not a proper guard dog. If it’s function wasn’t to scary possible thieves or trespassers, what was its purpose? Why such a mosaic should be placed on the threshold of a little, exquisite room?
According to my experience of Pompeii and Herculaneum, rooms with mosaics tend to follow rules. When the whole room’s floor is covered by a mosaic, the single figurative image is usually in the middle (often framed) while the rest of the room is in plain colour or simple geometrical pattern.
This dog mosaic breaks the rule. It is a figurative, framed image and it is surrounded by a white background. However, it is not central but it is positioned on the threshold of the room. Unlike other mosaics, it doesn’t mark a new use of space because it overlaps with a material threshold, making the purpose redundant.
It seems to me that the position of the mosaic mirrors the position of the other mosaics with dog but, instead of being on the threshold of the house, it is on the threshold of a single room.
This feeling could be backed up or challenged if we knew the orientation of the dog in its original context. Was the animal facing the exterior or the interior of the room? Unfortunately, we can’t know. 

The half closed, slightly red eyes of
House of Proculus' dog are, probably,
the most scary detail
Dimension: it might not be immediately perceivable looking at digital reproductions of it, but the mosaic is quite small, compared to the other examples. I haven’t measured it, but I have seen the original in the museum of Naples and i would say it is not bigger than 60 cm (roughly squared). It confirmed again that it wouldn’t have worked very well as a sign to be seen from a distance. The other two guard dog mosaics are not only quite wider but definitely much longer (according to the rectangular shape of the houses' entrances). 
If Orpheus’ mosaic was actually meant for other purposes, it is consistent that it has different dimension (and proportions). It looks almost as if it was the miniature version of a proper one. 

Age: according to John Clarke, the black and white very graphic mosaic style was a new fashion in the 1st century AD. This probably discourages the hypothesis of the mosaic coming from a former house and being moved to the new one (with a change of use: from real warning to house decoration). The practice wasn’t uncommon in Pompeii, especially after the earthquake. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Pollyanna* game: how to be happy that something went wrong

* For those who are not familiar with cheesy children literature, Pollyanna is an annoyingly optimistic little girl always looking at the bright side of things.

The famous "Cave Canem" mosaic at the entrance of
the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii
When I went to the House of Orpheus in Pompeii, I focused my attention on the place where, I assumed, the mosaic was found: the entrance.
It struck me that the entrance’s floor was sloping. So, I thought, not only the artefact is exhibited (in the Museum of Naples) on a wall when it was supposed to be on the floor, but it is also exhibited perfectly flat when it was meant to be inclined. It looked like a potentially straightforward and effective case for a 3D contextualisation.

I started investigating what you could see from the entrance, how the dog mosaic interacted visually with the other elements in the house: the impluvium, the water and its reflection, the opening on the garden at the back of the tablinum, the actual plants and the painted landscape, the columns, etc... Very exciting (to me, at least!). My attention was also drawn on the interaction between the mosaic and the entrance doors and on the possible shape and movement of doors working on a sloping floor. Even more exciting.

Then, The-Winged-Genius-of-Best-Practice seated on my shoulder and whispered in my ear: “did you check the original records? I mean, are you 100% sure that the mosaic was found at the entrance?” 
“Of course I’m sure!” I told the winged creature “where else would you put such a mosaic? Have you ever been in Pompeii?! They are ALL at the entrance!”
Mosaic of a Chained Dog, Entrance of the
House of Paquius Proculus, Pompeii
But once such a doubt has hit your mind you can’t get rid of it. So I checked the original records. And I discovered that all my research hypotheses were actually pretty meaningless if not completely wrong.
According to Matteo della Corte’s records, the mosaic wasn’t found at the entrance but in room 9, a little, beautiful, extremely decorated room just at the right of the entrance (the space that is often occupied by the porter guard).

The mosaic was actually flat, there was no relevant visual interaction with the garden, the impluvium or any other architectonical feature. Actually, the mosaic is not even visible from the street.
I was misled by my experience of the site and by own cultural background according to which such signals (proper or whimsical) are always put in a place where everybody can see them BEFORE entering or approaching a house. So much so that, according to what I have read, a house owner might have even found a “beware of the dog” mosaic more affordable (and almost equally effective) than an actual dog.
Being the function of such artefacts usually to warn and scare visitors (or potential offenders), it was quite sensible to assume that they were placed in the point of the house that is most visible from the street. Nonetheless, I shouldn’t have assumed it.
The fact that the other mosaics with dogs survived in Pompeii are at the entrance doesn’t mean that they ALL used to be placed at the entrance.

Mosaic of a Sleeping Dog, Entrance of the
House of Caecilius Iucundus, Pompeii
I was quite disappointed. My supervisor reminded me that things that do not follow the rules may lead to very interesting new discoveries. The dog mosaic from the House of Orpheus is certainly a curious exception and, if I was doing my research in a traditional academic environment, I would have been enthusiastic about this unexpected oddity. However, I was trying to build a tool for the general audience and I thought that, for that purpose, it would have been much better to show the rule and not the exception.

So, what was I supposed to do? It was too late to choose another case study. I had to sort out something with what I had got: a small mosaic of unknown function found in a room of unknown function. I know, it doesn’t sound great...

Actually, the more I tried to understand this artefact and its context, the more it won my interest and attention. In the end I was completely absorbed by this little pseudo-mystery. So I told myself: “it wouldn’t be perfect if I could make the audience as engaged as I am with the understanding of this artefact?”. 
And that became my new plan...

Friday, 11 January 2013

You need a circle to build a house

The plan of the House of Orpheus was the first one I drew directly in 3D studio max. 
Initially, I considered using Adobe Illustrator (a software I used quite often in my previous job) but then I realised that now I am more comfortable with Max than with any other graphic software. Furthermore, a plan drawn in Max will be entirely compatible with the 3D model (avoiding some of the problems that imported files may cause).

My plan of the House of Orpheus in 3D Studio Max

At the beginning, I was quite clueless about the methodology to use but Drew, my supervisor, thought me a very effective method based on an initial assumption and the use of circle shapes (or 25 sided n-gon which, in this context, is pretty much the same).
Our initial assumption (arbitrary as every assumption) was that the atrium of the HoO is a regular rectangle. Although I really doubt that there is any really straight wall in an ancient Roman house, the assumption is mandatory as a starting point. Moreover, the atrium is actually a fairly regular space.
Then, using the data we collected on site, I designed circles with the same ray as the dimension I wanted to represent. The very handy thing is that, being every point of the circle at the same distance form the centre, the circle is still a precise mark even when the adjacent element turns out to be not completely aligned.

Why did I need such a feature? They say numbers never lie, but in my experience they never completely match either :-)
Material errors during transcription, different layers of plaster, non regular shapes. I can think of a number of variables that may affect the measuring operations. Or it’s just a kind of useful curse to remind 3D modellers that they are not reproducing “the real thing” but only a representation of it. Actually, I encountered a similar issue when I was working on the Temple of Isis. Not only I have never seen two plans with identical measures but sometimes it was difficult even to find two sources that roughly agreed on something. Now I can easily imagine the headaches that Francesco Piranesi or John Soane suffered!

My plan of the House of Orpheus in 3D Studio Max
(all the working layers visualised)

Considering the basic level of fuzziness (usually between 2 and 7 cm) embedded in my data, using circle shapes was extremely useful and allowed me to deal with that fascinating jigsaw of walls, doors and columns.
Here are few things I should say about this digital plan, in order to make it more transparent.

* The thickness of the walls in the House of Orpheus if fairly regular. With the exception of the wall separating rooms 5 and 10, they all measure between 40 and 45 cm. Thus, I thought it was safe to assume that the walls I wasn’t able to measure because they are shared with other houses we were not allowed to enter (such as the south wall of the garden, or the west walls of rooms 14 and 15 ) follow the same rule. I also made the assumption that the walls overlooking the street are a bit thicker than the internal ones.

* The length of the viridarium (from south to north) has been calculated summing the diameters of the columns to the distance between them. Even though I have measured every single intercolumnation, I have measured only one column and I have assumed (for simplicity) that they have all the same diameter. I also assumed (again, for simplicity) that all the columns were perfectly aligned. My calculation was quite well backed up by the sum of the elements belonging to rooms 12, 4, 5, 10 and 11.

* All the traditional plans of Pompeii I have seen so far, tend to simplify the shape of the rooms and make them more regular than they actually are. I have chosen to preserve the irregularities and the oddities in the rooms dimensions because I thought they might be relevant in the visual analysis.

* The positioning of the impluvium in the present map is an approximation. It was the last element of the House we measured and we were running out of time (and light). I measured the dimensions of the impluvium itself and its marble elements but I didn’t measure their distance from the walls of the atrium.
My supervisor is quite confident that we could derive a more precise position through the photogrammetry of the atrium he ran.

* When I had little inconsistencies with my data I chose the option tending to the most regular shape.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A good recipe

Pompeii VI, 14, 20. House of Orpheus
Entrance, Photo by V. Vitale 2012
This was the first time I took hard measurements of an ancient building, so this experience was extremely useful (and exciting!) to me.
Here is a list of things that, according to what I have learnt, can give you a successful field experience: 

Permission: the House of Orpheus is actually closed to the public, so we asked for a permission to access and document the building. I am glad to say that, in spite of an easy prejudice, our permission was granted in a couple of weeks and we had no problems entering the site. I take this opportunity to thank Grete Stefani, Director of the Scavi, and all her staff for the kindness and efficiency.

A clever mate: I would also like to thank Dr. Faith Lawrence, from the King’s College Department of Digital Humanities, who kindly volunteered to assist me in the measuring operations. My final work owes a lot to her patience and precision in those days (not to mention the good company).

A sunny day (or, at least, a non rainy one): luckily, a part from some clouds in the afternoon, the light was not too bad for taking photographs.

A Code: as I discovered, transcribing measurements is not that easy. Not even if you want to annotate them on a pre-existing plan (method we used with the Temple of Isis but not with the House of Orpheus). Where would you put, for example, all the information connected to the hight of the elements? (doors, steps etc...)
You need to work out a code to register all the information. That’s why I am so happy Faith joined us. Not only she wrote the information quickly and correctly, but she also worked out on the spot a visual code simple enough to be still understandable weeks later when I actually started working on the model.

A hard covered black agenda: if you want to measure straight walls with an EDM (electronic distance measurer) you will soon find out that you have a problem! Obviously, the laser only works if it has a surface to fall on. So, my supervisor showed me that the best way to deal with this problem is to create a little extension of the wall that the laser can target. His black Moleskine perfectly served the purpose! 

House of Orpheus, Room 10
An example of the two layers of plaster
photo by V. Vitale 2012
Tolerance and flexibility: holding an EDM gives you the illusion of precision. Until you start using it. There is nothing wrong with the tool, of course. The problem is that you have to decide every 5 minutes WHAT are you actually measuring and if it is really relevant for your research. You simply cannot measure everything. The process is much more time consuming then I thought. For a big villa such as the House of Orpheus a whole day is not enough. So, you have to decide your priorities. For example, to my project, decorative elements were not so relevant because I was going to build a synthetic model.
The other major issue was dealing with the thickness of walls. Frescoes were painted on a quite thick layer of plaster of 4 or 5 cm. Furthermore, many rooms in the House of Orpheus have been re decorated. It means that a new layer had been applied on the previous one. Thus, we are talking of an extra thickness of 7-10 cm. (not to mention the plaster deformed by the exposure to the atmospherical elements). 

The point is that the plaster didn’t survive in all the rooms and, within the same room, it didn’t survive on all the walls. So, in more then few occasions, I had to decide if I wanted to measure the length of a wall with or without the remains of the plaster. Some other times I just couldn’t decide because the wall was entirely covered by or entirely devoid of the plaster layers.
I wanted to be as much consistent as possible and I decided, when I had the choice, to measure the dimensions WITH the plaster layers because I thought it was a better approximation of the dimensions of the spaces as they were perceived by people (which is my main interest in this case). However, it implies that a discrepancy of 7-10 cm is very likely to appear in many of my measurements. As I was not interested in such a level of precision for my present research, I believe my plan is still a very reliable starting point for the model. Moreover, I assume that the architects who drew the previous plans had to deal exactly with the same issue.

House of Orpheus, room 7
The Plaster Dilemma: where to target the EDM? To the surviving plaster bits or to the masonry?
Photo by V. Vitale 2012

A foresighted supervisor: taking hard measurements is something that you shouldn't do on your own. You need at least one more person to write things down (or hold your Moleskine when you use the laser measurer!). It is even better if a third person (let’s say your supervisor, for example) independently retake some of the measurements allowing you, days later, to double check your data. It is easy to get confused when you spend a whole day writing down numbers. A series of second measurements is a priceless back up.

A camera (possibly a good one): sometimes you have to model buildings that do not exist anymore. Sometimes you have to model buildings you’ve never seen with your eyes. Some other times you are lucky enough to be able to go on site and take loads of pictures. I took more than 300 and I thought they were enough. I was wrong: they are never enough! 
Pictures have been crucial for the drawing of the plan and the modelling. When I had a doubt, I went to check my pictures. I also took full advantage of both the contemporary and the historical pictures available on pompeiiinpictures and I definitely want to contribute to this very precious service myself. I will be more than happy to share my photographic documentation with all the archeologists and modellers who are interested in it.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Orpheus has a new plan

VanderPoel's plan of the House of Orpheus
Highlight in orange: the south wall of the garden
In order to model a visualisation of the House of Orpheus, I decided to make a new plan of the building, based on the hard measurements we took on site.
Why? What is the added value of such an effort? Wouldn’t have been more sensible to start from a good pre existing plan, such as Presuhn’s or Vander Poel’s ones?
I had basically two reasons for that.

First, maps and plans are simplified visualisations of places. Thus, they are «models», ie artificial objects created to represent and study reality. This implies that they cannot represent all the aspects of reality but have to choose what is relevant for a specific purpose. To make it simpler, I wanted a plan made ad hoc for my purpose, and the only way to have it was, basically, to make my own.

For example, if we compare Presuhn’s and Vander Poel’s plans we’ll notice that they are slightly different. In the latter, the south wall of the garden is slightly divergent from the north one, while in the former the south wall converges to the north one quite dramatically.
Who is right and how did it happen? In my opinion, the point is that all maps start from some artificial assumptions. The first assumptions affect the entire visualisation of the data. Presuhn and Vander Poel probably started from different assumptions, thus their plans (which are both not «the real place» but a representation of it) are not identical. However, if their purpose was (as I think) to visualise the relationships between buildings and their arrangement in the city plan, the maps are both useful and both «correct».

Presuhn's plan of the House of Orpheus
Highlight in orange: the south wall of the garden
However, my purpose wasn’t to examine the House of Orpheus in a relational perspective. Actually, it is very relevant to me if a wall like the viridarium's one is straight or not because it would definitely affect the information about visibility of spaces.
Eventually, I decided to build my own map relying on my hard measurements, photographic documentation, previous plans and satellite photographs as the ones offered by google maps and google earth.

Second, Johanson says that there is no better way to understand an ancient building than rebuild it, at least in a virtual space. I discovered it when I started modelling and this relationship still deeply fascinates me. In my previous experience, I always started from someone else’s plan. At the beginning, I saw the need to draw my own one “only” as a challenge and an opportunity to learn new skills. 
Then, when I started working on the plan I realised how much I was already learning about the building itself, the relationship between spaces, the orientation, the proportions, the position of doors, the balance (or lack of it). When I finished the plan, I already knew crucial information about the building even before starting the proper modelling.