Book Review
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The Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project

By Jeff Balmer (Associate Professor of Architecture) | This review examines the merits of the Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project, published online by Bernard Frischer of the University of Virginia and John Fillwalk of Ball State University (http://vwhl.clas.virginia.edu/villa/). This book review originally appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (volume 73, no.3).


Over the past twenty years, advances in information technologies have transformed how we navigate daily life, in ways too radical and comprehensive to summarize here. The same tools that have revolutionized personal communications, public records and the myriad machinations of commerce have arguably also changed the practice of scholarship: we can now download PDFs of academic articles from anywhere in the world. Conference presentations can now take place remotely, via live streaming, and social media tools have augmented the dissemination and assessment of research in ways that have broadened and accelerated prior paradigms of academic discourse.

Yet for all these changes to scholarly practices, such innovations pale next to the existing potential of digital tools in common use, and those yet on the cusp of ubiquity. Today, the same Internet browser that enables us to locate books held libraries across the globe also has the intrinsic capacity to scrutinize the contents of every page in every book. The emergence of Big Data, developed in part to facilitate the secure transfer of trillions in financial transactions daily, could also be put to use analyzing millions of archival artifacts in the same twenty-four hour period. The same computational forces harnessed to model global climate patterns and map the human genome has the power to provoke breakthroughs not just in the sciences, but just as profoundly, and inevitably, in the humanities. Such instruments stand not merely to enhance methods for the collection of data – how we retrieve and sort existing knowledge – they offer to transform the generation of new and heretofore unimagined knowledge.

The long-term impact of the information revolution upon the humanities provides rich fodder for the imagination. Yet already, projects and platforms across the nascent field of Digital Humanities provide a sufficiently tangible sense of its potentials. Among these is the Digital Hadrian’s Villa Project, the product of a broad international collaborative led by Bernard Frischer, University of Virginia, and John Fillwalk, Ball State University. Under the auspices of his Virtual World Heritage Laboratory (which also developed the Rome Reborn project, http://romereborn.frischerconsulting.com/), Frischer et al. have engineered an interface that combines the inherent hypertextuality of a web site with the depth and authority of bibliographic scholarship.

The Hadrian’s Villa web site comprises two parts: the first features a detailed map of the complex on its home page. Data is accessed either categorically, through the series of drop-down menus arranged along the top of the page, or topographically, by selecting directly from roughly two dozen areas located on the map. This option links us to a detailed map of the selected area, providing further multi-media links, tied to the location they document. Brief introductory texts accompany each of these maps, and a detailed bibliography provide extensive references to every facet of the Villa’s construction. Assembled under the menu labeled Paradata, this bibliography provides detailed notes documenting the iterative process of refining each component of the virtual model, including the vast array of sculptural works known to have adorned the villa complex. These notes are bolstered with extensive references to scholarly sources. The provision of this data reveals a ‘paper trail’ of decisions undertaken in the Villa’s digital re-construction, providing scholars with the opportunity to debate and refine its representation over time. Another menu heading provides video interviews with contemporary Villa scholars, each filmed on the specific site being described.

A second component of the project provides a rendered three-dimensional model of the villa in the state it is thought to have achieved toward the end of Hadrian’s lifetime, early in the second century. A series of linked videos document the effect of the ability to navigate through this model, permitting users to wander at will throughout the villa’s far-flung ensemble of buildings and gardens. Once provided password permission provided by the project’s administrators, the immersive simulation of this environment provides researchers and students alike with an intuitive supplement to traditional media. The ability to maneuver at will through the perspectival simulacrum provided here adds a tangible degree of spatial continuity, surely aiding our grasp of existing Villa scholarship, even if its capacity to yield new insights remains impossible to quantify.

Though purists might sniff that such efforts don’t themselves add to the scholarship about the villa, Frischer’s site provides a more broadly accessible venue for encountering the scholarly record, including its bibliographic interface that is both spatial and interactive. For scholars accustomed to text-based archival scholarship, these advantages may not be readily apparent. But for fields where visuality is an integral component, including archeology and architectural history, the merits of such a platform should be obvious. Not only does it allow for a broad range of traditional visual data – drawings & still photographs – it also provides more recent forms, including scrollable panoramas, video, and digital modeling. These tools in and of themselves do not, of course, constitute scholarship. Yet when combined with paradata, they can and do provide supplemental means for experienced scholars to parse and arrange existing research, toward further discovery and new research.

Despite the promise shown by Digital Humanities projects like the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory, the UCLA/USC collaborative known as Hypercities, and others of their kind, broad IT integration of research practices in the humanities has lagged alongside those found in the sciences. Reasons offered for this disparity are familiar: the inherent parallels between scientific practice and computational capacities, as well as differences in the criteria and extent of research funding among disciplines in their respective realms. But the biggest impediment to wider adoption is arguably found in the challenges of the initial learning curve demanded by these new practices, and skepticism on the part of many academics that newfangled tools should ever supplant the tried and true methods of archival scholarship. The reality is that these tools would not supplant existing scholarly practices, but supplement existing methods, remaining dependent upon traditional expertise, yet greatly expanding the capacity of its human investigators to collect and sort all forms of data, toward the work of current and future forms of research.

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