Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project

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Principal Investigators

  • Marc Levoy (Director, Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project)
  • Natasha Gelfand
  • David Koller
  • Leo Guibas
  • Jennifer Trimble
  • Tina Najbjerg
  • Laura Ferrea (Curator, Musei Capitolini)


The Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project provides digital scans of 1,186 fragments of the Severan marble plan of the city of Rome known as the Forma Urbis Romae. The investigators created three-dimensional scans of the existing fragments and have inserted them into a digital slab map. The project is ongoing and has not yet reached its conclusion.

Using GIS technology and accepted scholarly methods, this multi-disciplinary project intends to create a layered history of Rome by updating Forma Urbis Romae, the cartographic masterpiece of ancient Roman topography published in 1901 by archeologist Rodolfo Lanciani. This extremely accurate map measures 25 by 17 ft and uses an innovative graphic system that represents Rome’s historic urban fabric as a series of transparent layers from ancient to modern. The map remains the standard archeological reference for Rome even though it does not incorporate archeological discoveries uncovered since its original publication 100 years ago.

The end result will highlight the continuity between ancient and modern and reveal how ancient buildings shape subsequent urban form. It will also show the evolution of the archaic city of the hills into the Renaissance city of the flood plain and then the merging of the two into modern urban form. While classicists would find recent scholarship of ancient Rome, anthropologists and urbanists would learn more about the physical transformations of a vibrant city. On the other hand geographers would witness the application of a new tool for describing and assessing the development of the largest city of the ancient world.

Taken from the project site (accessed 2016-06-01):

The idea of using laser scanners and computer graphics to visualize the fragments of the Forma Urbis was first suggested to us in January of 1997 by Susanna Le Pera of the Archeological Superintendency of Rome. The idea of using computer algorithms to also piece the map together the map was our own idea, but it was naive. We initially thought that it would be a simple matter to search among digital photographs of the fragments for matches between their border shapes or the incised designs on their top surfaces. Unfortunately, these top surfaces are often eroded, reducing the effectiveness of such an approach. Moreover, scholars have spent 500 years searching for matches among these incised designs; it seems unlikely that we will find many more. On the other hand, the fragments are several inches thick, and fragments that do fit together usually mate intimately across at least a portion of the interface surface between them. Our idea, not yet tested, is to develop compact signatures for these border surfaces and to search among the signatures for matches.

We believe that the best hope for piecing the map together lies in using computer shape matching algorithms to search for matches among the fractured side surfaces of the fragments. In order to test this idea, we need 3D geometric models of every fragment of the map. To obtain this data, during June of 1999 a team of faculty and students from Stanford University spent a month in Rome digitizing the shape and surface appearance of every known fragment of the map using laser scanners and digital color cameras. (see photo essay on Scanning the Fragments). Thanks to Laura Ferrea of the Superintendency in Rome, 23 additional fragments, excavated in 1999, traveled to Stanford in the spring of 2001 and were photographed and scanned. Our raw data consists of 8 billion polygons and 6 thousand color images, occupying 40 gigabytes.

The technological goals of the Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project are threefold: to assemble our raw range and color data into a set of 3D (polygon mesh) models and high-resolution (mosaiced) photographs - one for each of the 1,186 fragments of the map, to develop new shape matching algorithms that are suitable for finding fits between 3D models whose surfaces are defined by polygon meshes, and to use these algorithms to try solving the puzzle of the Forma Urbis Romae. Whether or not we succeed in solving the puzzle, one of the tangible results of this project will be a web-accessible relational database giving descriptions and bibliographic information about each fragment and including links to our 3D models and photographs. Our long-term plan is to make this archive freely available to the archeological (and computer graphics) research communities, educators, museum curators, and the general public.

An important secondary goal of this project is to explore the scientific utility of detailed three-dimensional computer models. For the art historian or archaeologist, 3D models provide a tool for answering specific geometric questions about artifacts. Trying to solve the jigsaw puzzle posed by the Forma Urbis is one obvious example.


Stanford Spatial History Project: