Why Multimedia?

Multimedia indicates a variety of media (in this case text, images, imagemaps, panoramas and video) to be accessed by the user over the Web via a web browser.

Piazza del Popolo as an elaboration of The Borobudur Project

In 1998/9, in association with the Vizualisation Laboratory of the Supercomputer Facility, ANU, I undertook the design and implementation of a database and VRML model of the 8th-century Buddhist stupa of Borobudur. This presentation of the Piazza del Popolo, Rome, the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, and adjacent monuments, should be of interest to classicists, art-historians and architects, and serve as a tool for teaching students about interrelations and richness of context which artworks enjoy - in contract to the normal art-historical lecturing paradigm, which snatches them out of their context, to be dealt with piecemeal.

Piazza del Popolo extends the Borobudur Project in various ways:

  • it will attempt to push VRML technology much further because, whereas the Borobudur stupa deals largely in flat reliefs, Piazza del Popolo requires the location of many, much more complicated three-dimensional objects in constructed computer space. Hampered as always by machine and network speeds, it is nevertheless expected that next year's machines will be able to cope with the large quantities of extra data that the much more sophisticated Piazza del Popolo project will entail. Piazza del Popolo, like Borobudur in 1999/2000, will feature in taught units in 2000/2001;
  • to give as comprehensive a view of the area as possible, digital video and both partial and full 360-degree panoramas will be used to complement the VRML model, as will clickable imagemaps for the Piazza itself as well as for the chapels of SM del Popolo;

    Why Piazza del Popolo?

    There are several reasons for choosing Piazza del Popolo for a project such as this. Rome is indeed a club-sandwich of monuments, and other areas might have worked as well; but Piazza del Popolo has a particularly rich variety of monuments:
    1. The area offers a wide variety of artworks, incorporating painting in oil and fresco; figure sculpture (including tomb sculpture); mosaic; fine architecture of various periods; towm planning and garden design;
    2. The whole of the square and its adjacent buildings have recently been cleaned, and traffic has been banished from the centre of the square, so that the effect of this urban space can now be appreciated without the danger of being knocked down;
    3. The area is rich in monuments from many periods, including:
      • the Egyptian Obelisk;
      • ancient sarcophagi used as basins for fountains;
      • ancient tombs some vaguely some precisely in situ outside the walls of Rome;
      • the Aurelian walls of Rome;
      • Bernini's beautification of the Porta del Popolo
      • the Borghese Gardens;
      • the two "scenographic" churches of SM di Montesanto and SM dei Miracoli;
      • the systematisation of the Piazza by Valadier in 1816-20;
      • access to the Piazza Augusto Imperatore, a Fascist systematization of the area around Augustus' Mausoleum, and the nearby Ara Pacis;
    4. The monuments are of a high quality, with involvment by such as Raphael, Bernini, Algardi, Pinturicchio and Caravaggio;
    5. The town-planning aspects are impressive, with the Piazza del Popolo adjacent to the rich gardens of the Pincio (where there have probably been similar ensembles since Antiquity;
    6. SM del Popolo is especially "clear" for a Roman church. Whereas many others are of a confusing variety of dates, with a complicated building history, SM del Popolo is a Renaissance church with Baroque additions, the latter in no way obscuring the former; some 18thC and 19thC monuments help the effect, rather than detracting from it;
    7. From the practical point of view of making photographs, including panoramas, the whole square and its adjacent monuments are visible from the Pincio. (This is not usual in a city as crowded as Rome where, especially in most of the Campus Martius, a panoramic view is impossible because the monuments are crowded together;
    8. What does the ensemble lack that could be found elsewhere in Rome? There are no significant ancient monuments except for the much-battered Mausoleum of Hadrian and the Aurelian Walls; and nothing from the Middle Ages;

    Why the Web?

    1. The Web presents excellent opportunities for scholarly, detailed and satisfying presentations of materials to numbers of students large or small, on one campus or across the world;
    2. The disadvantages of the Web - boilerplating without understanding; assimilating poor-quality materials; frustration - can also be found in library use; for the same skills are required to manage either - namely discrimination, care and scepticism;
    3. For "visual" subjects such as Art History, where the Gesamtkunstwerk is important, a full suite of images together with VRML modelling is a learning boon, especially for those students who have not visited the monuments in\question;
    4. How does video compare? Video is occasionally an improvement on still photography, because it offers more appreciation of the third dimension; but it is difficult to handle over the web, and especially difficult to stop, retrace, or zoom with any good effect. That is, because of the dimensional restrictions the current state of the networks place on video, the quality is nowhere near approximating even to a TV picture;
    5. VRML, on the other hand, gives the user much better control over the manipulation of the model: as well as automatic tours, we can offer tours where the user does the guiding. The tour can be stopped to examine a relief in close up or at a distance; and the tour around the monument restarted, at whatever distance from the reliefs the user wishes.
    6. An added dimension is often provided by the construction of panoramic images which, under the control of certain viewers, can also be manipulated across the web, and allow panning, tilting and zooming. The load on the machine is much lower than for video, and the quality attained much higher;

    Why at the ANU, in the Department of Art History?

  • Part of the mission of the Faculty of Arts at the Australian National University is ...to develop ways of using the latest technology as an aid in teaching and learning ... range of methods for interactive learning (Strategic Plan II, 125-7). The same document notes the same requirement for the ANU as a whole (ibid., 273), and emphasizes (274) the role of electronic publishing. Again, The ArtServe W3 server has won international acclaim for making thousands of images available across the Internet and for pioneering the delivery of visual learning material to students (ibid., 122). In addition, we aim to produce a virtual tour of the ANU campus to aid ANU's ongoing Web publicity drive, in order to attract new students.

  • This direction is confirmed by the ANU's Strategic Plan 1998-2004, underlined by the Information Technology section of this Plan, and elaborated upon in the Strategic Issues Discussion Paper of 12 June 1998 where, under IT, we read that The ANU has been a leader in utilising and adapting IT to enhance its research, teaching and administrative functions. The University was an early adopter of the WWW as an electronic publishing platform and a number of groups within the University have achieved an international reputation based on the quality of their web publishing. The ANU will enhance its national role by building on its achievements as an essential node in this new academic network.

  • In learning specifically, this will include targettiong learning: Among the highest priority academic objectives for information technology developments is to create on-campus student learning environments as part of the foundations for future flexible delivery of courses. Such environments will facilitate students' access to course materials and the international information sources to further extend their intellectual horizons.