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A new view of perspective

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A fresco discovered in Rome this March is extraordinary both for the strange city it depicts and for its graphic techniques. Found at the end of an 80m tunnel during excavations on the site of Nero's villa, it was overbuilt some 80 years later with Trajan's Baths. Archaeologists have little doubt that it dates from the first century ad.

In its graphic technique we see perspective drawing, shadow-casting, reflections in the water and an almost-photographic quality of realism. The city is pictured from a vantage point so high that it may have been a nearby hill, or perhaps imagined.

We cannot of course be certain the city depicted ever existed. There is no agreement yet on the the empire to which it might have belonged, let alone a specific location. Particularly unusual are the tall towers in the city walls with their bell-shaped tops. We see also stone or earth buildings, a forum, a theatre, garden sculptures and large areas of water within the city walls, with boats and the reflections of the buildings.

acs Studio, working with the City of Rome, Sony and Silicon Graphics, has created a virtual-reality experience of travelling down the tunnel to the fresco, including a cad model in the foreground to aid interpretation. Fabrizio Funto of acs Studio is apologetic about the first cad model shown here, made in two weeks, now being refined as more detail is established. The fresco itself may well extend beyond the tunnel walls, offering other images.

To help get beneath the surface grime, photographs of the fresco are being clarified with image-enhancement software normally used for enhancing pictures from satellite cameras.

The excavations are off-limits to the public. But you can see the model at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in central Rome.

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