School of Architecture's DHARMA project sheds light on Roman Forum

Author: Susan Guibert and Kara Kelly

Considered one of the most celebrated meeting places in the world in all of history, with a built history that spans more than 2,500 years, the Roman Forum and its built landscape is the most densely layered and complex sites known to man today. Lying in the heart of the city of Rome, the Forum was the political, religious and cultural epic center of the Republic and later Imperial world.

Scanning team documenting the Roman Forum at extreme high resolutions (Courtesy Taylor Stein) Scanning team documenting the Roman Forum at extreme high resolutions (Courtesy Taylor Stein)

The site is not only large but also topographically complex, due to its incremental evolution over time. While the city had a humble beginning, its continuous development resulted in a palimpsest of architectural monuments both great and small. Today, the ruins of majestic statues, monuments, shrines and temples surround what was once the Roman Forum, and for decades, these structures have been the subject of dozens of historical architecture studies.

Thanks to sophisticated scanning technology — Digital Historical Architectural Research and Material Analysis (DHARMA) lab — a University of Notre Dame School of Architecture student research team led by Associate Professor of Architecture Krupali Uplekar Krusche is able to document the Roman Forum and other World Heritage Sites employing the latest optical technology: high-definition surveying lasers like the Scan Station and C10 along with GigaPan photography. The team has been able to document the existing state of the site in an unprecedented detail. Traditional methods of hand-measuring and photogrammetry are also being conducted to supplement the data gathered through this digital technique. (Watch the video)

Combining 3-D documentation with meticulous hand measurements, the students on the DHARMA team can create blueprints that document these monuments and their urban settings in an unprecedented detail. If the landmarks were ever to completely deteriorate or be destroyed, this information would be essential to their reconstruction.

The technology also has the potential to keep such a catastrophe from happening in the first place, identifying otherwise invisible areas of deterioration, allowing for repair and prevention of further damage.

“The goal of our research since 2006 and of our work in the Forum since 2010 has been to strengthen the disconnect that exists between scholars of various fields working on the World Heritage Sites, the outputs they produce and the relevance of it to tourists and visitors of the site,” Krusche says.

This method of scanning not only helps researchers visualize the appearance of structures with exceptional precision, but it recently helped correct long-held perceptions about the original appearance of one of the temples of the Roman Forum.

Comparison of the University of Notre Dame laser scan data with the reconstruction by G. Foglia Comparison of the University of Notre Dame laser scan data with the reconstruction by G. Foglia. Click for larger view

Most architectural historians believed that research conducted during the 1980s had produced renderings that precisely captured the original appearance of the whole Temple of Vespasian and Titus, a memorial to the Roman emperors who ruled from A.D. 69 to 81. Conventional wisdom among architects and historians is that the temple had a portico six columns wide. From the whole front portico, only three side corner columns remain.

But a new discovery by Mason Roberts, a 2013 graduate of the School of Architecture, calls into question the accuracy of that research. Comparing those 1980s drawings of the original temple with the work of the school’s DHARMA team, Roberts at first thought he had made a mistake.

“I aligned the columns and moldings from (the 1980s) drawings — which is considered the most accurate depiction — with DHARMA’s high-tech images, and they didn’t match.”

He showed the discrepancy to Krusche, wondering if his measurements were wrong. In fact, the laser scans that the team produced during a summer 2012 trip to Rome were more precise. The Beaux Arts reconstructions as well as the archaeological reconstruction done by G. Foglia all show the columns along the front portico to have equal spacing; however, the laser scans show that these reconstructions do not line up with the existing foundations, supporting the theory of a wider center intercolumniation.

“The precision of our technology and the abilities and skills of our students allow for holistic understanding of monuments of the past,” Krusche says. “Mason, through his abilities as an architect and a researcher, broke a widely held perception and factually came to a different conclusion.”

Mason’s findings were confirmed by Krusche by studying the spacing between the text size on the frieze of the temple. The text on the frieze detail that currently exists on the temple does not perfectly match the frieze text reconstructed by Folia, a scholar whose work helped crack the code. The text has been “squeezed” to fit in his reconstruction, thus confirming that in the additional central space, the text could have equal spacing through the frieze.

To cover this gap of public knowledge and understanding of the forum, the DHARMA team is presently working on five different outputs — an exhibit, a conference, an app, a book and a 3-D website portal.

An exhibition highlighting the DHARMA team’s discoveries will be on display at the Roman Forum from April through October 2014. “The Past and Present of the Roman Forum” will feature DHARMA-captured 3-D scans of the forum’s temples and shrines, in addition to students’ watercolors. The exhibition will include touch screens illustrating how the ancient sites have evolved over time.

Contact: Krupali Uplekar Krusche, 574-631-2314,

Originally published by Susan Guibert and Kara Kelly at on September 03, 2013.