Monday, 31 March 2014

If you love someone, let them go: the House of Orpheus and its dataset

Old undated photograph courtesy of the
Society of Antiquaries, Fox Collection
from Pompeiiinpictures
I was initially planning to work on two examples of Pompeian buildings: the Iseum and the House of Orpheus. I find them both very interesting for different reasons, and I have for them that emotional attachment that 3D modellers develop for the buildings they have been working on.
I have seen them in Pompeii, I have taken measurements and pictures, drawn maps. However, after a more practical approach to my timetable (i.e. looking at an actual calendar), I have suddenly realised that the modelling of the Iseum alone is going to take the entire 2014. There is no really room left for a second model. It wasn’t easy to give up part of my research, but it wasn’t even a choice. Although I am not modelling the House of Orpheus, I think that the amount of data I collected so far on that building (and the related artefacts) can still play a role in my PhD.

I have recently started the very hard task of drafting my ontology for cultural heritage,  having as a main reference my own model of the Iseum. I have quickly discovered how easy it is, in such circumstances, to think of something that turns out to be very much ad hoc for one single case study. Orpheus’ dataset is a good way to double check if my categories work not just for the Iseum, but can be reasonably applied to at least one other Pompeian building (that belongs to a complete different category).

On the one hand the House of Orpheus is a fairly typical Pompeian middle sized household. On the other hand, there is quite a lot of information missing. Only the ground floor survived (while the existence of at least a second floor is strongly suggested by the remains of stairs), and, for a few spaces, there is still no agreement on their use in Roman times. 

Being a more ambiguous context than the Iseum, it points out much more clearly what is the weight of the assumptions in our way to describe (or even look at) an ancient building, and it reminds me that I should try to keep descriptions and interpretations as much separate as possible. 

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Lured by the sistrum: the choice of the Iseum

Francesco Piranesi, The Temple of Isis at Pompeii
If you have ever met me in person, it is very likely that I have mentioned the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, at a certain point. Even if you didn’t ask about it. Even if, to be honest, there was little (or no) connection with the conversation topic.
To be precise, the area I’m working on, experimenting with the potentiality of RDF applied to 3D environments, is the Pompeian Iseum. The sacred complex includes, besides the proper temple, other public spaces for the cult, and the private spaces where (probably) the isiac priest(s) used to live.

There are many reasons behind my choice.
First, the digital unification of one of the Iseum’s rooms (the Ekklesiaterium) was the case study for my MA dissertation in Digital Humanities at King’s College London. The Iseum, in fact, has one of the richest and best preserved collections of artefacts and decorations that are exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Naples. The corpus is so relevant that it has a dedicated space within the Museum itself.

Besides the conclusions of my dissertation, the Iseum is certainly the groups of buildings in Pompeii I am most familiar with. Moreover, I have already collected a personal archive of digital resources, partly produced by myself (such as digital pictures and measurements) partly found in online repository, partly digitised from printed sources. While researching for my MA dissertation, I obtained access to areas of the Iseum that are usually interdict to the public (such as the interior of the temple, the interior of the ekklesiasterium and the purgatorium) as well as to documents that are relatively rare (such as the original drawings by John Soane, at the Soane Museum and the 1941’s illustrated publication by Elia and the Warbourg Institute). I thought it was a good idea to capitalise the information that I gathered and to produce a 3D visualisation able (among other things) to show and make virtually explorable, parts of the Iseum that are usually unaccessible to the average visitor.

Another reason is that the Iseum was one of the first excavated complex, so it is featured in many accounts, records, watercolours and guide books.
Imaginary interior of the Temple of Isis in the Italian movie
Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii.
In addition, when the place was dug up, the site was still personal property of the Bourbon King and he hired very skilled professional from the Neapolitan Academy of Fine Arts to produce a visual documentation of various features of the building(s) as they were when they had been unearthed. Some of these engravings (now exhibited at the Museum of Naples) are the best information we have about some elements that do not exist anymore.
The fact that the Temple of Isis and the Iseum appear so often in official and unofficial literature about Pompeii, is not merely a matter of “age”.
The temple captured the attention and the imagination of many visitors. Its Egyptianising flavor made it look mysterious, if not slightly sinister. It became quickly an iconic building in Pompeii, and it is featured in many novels (such as the hugely popular Bulwer Lytton’s one) and even peplum movies.

As interpretations and narratives connected to ancient heritage, are part of what I want to represent, the Iseum seemed to  confirm its relevance under this respect too.

The Pompeian Iseum has been very often reproduced. Francesco Piranesi, for example, has studied the place and its architecture in depth. However, it is very seldom shown in its completeness, most of the visual interpretations focusing on the Temple and the Purgatorium alone. My model aims to represent all the different components of the Iseum, (potentially) allowing the investigation of their visual and functional interactions.

On top of these very sensible reasons, there is a more irrational one: the Iseum, in its charming funkiness and lack of symmetry, simply rocks (but I can’t write that in my PhD).

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Let's get practical: a digital research journal

After a year spent reading a lot, meeting people, finding out that all my good ideas had already been much better explored by someone else, and, last, after passing the upgrade, I though it was time to start thinking of the practical side of what I am going to do with my 3D visualisation and the RDF ontology.

To prevent the terrifying feeling that hits you at the end of the third year when you are supposed to retire into a cave and spend 6 month writing no-stop (basically degrading all primary needs to a secondary ones), I have decided to take some notes during the process. Hopefully, it will make the process easier and more transparent. They are preliminary thoughts and they are very likely to be a bit green and even clumsy. All going well, they will be refined during the next two years, also thanks to the feedback I receive. So, all comments are very welcome (and actually useful).