For the first time in history, visitors to the Vatican Museums are playing an Etruscan video game. That is, a pan-European team has created a walk-in, virtual-reality replica of the famous 7th-century B.C. Etruscan tomb known as the Regolini-Galassi. Located at seaside Cerveteri (ancient Caere), north of Rome, the tomb is otherwise off limits to the public.
Etruscanning 3D, as the project is known, won the top award at the international Archeovirtual exhibition in Paestum, Italy, last November. Its creators wanted to explore the possibilities of applying “new visualization techniques” to complex archeological and historical sites. Another goal was to re-create, on a scientific basis, the original context of the Regolini-Galassi tomb as it likely looked more than 2,600 years ago. Motion sensors allow visitors to wander through the site while standing in front of a three-meter-wide, high-resolution screen, and a menu lets them choose nearby artifacts to examine more closely, from Egyptian-style sarcophagi to a black ceramic inkpot to a large golden fibula, or brooch, decorated with lions.
A richly endowed, subterranean burial vault with multiple chambers, the Regolini-Galassi was discovered intact in 1836 by local priest Alessandro Regolini and retired general Vincenzo Galassi, who were excavating a hillside necropolis at Caere. At the time, the territory on the Tyrrhenian coast belonged to the papal state, which had passed Europe’s second-oldest heritage law in 1822. As a result, after two years of negotiations, the rich trove of burial objects became Vatican property.
The findings—and particularly the elegant gold items that once belonged to a princess—caused a sensation. “It was the discovery of a lost world, known until then solely through ancient literature,” says Maurizio Sannibale, director of the Gregorian Etruscan Museum, a smaller museum within the Vatican Museums.
“Most unusually, experts arrived to make drawings of the objects,” Sannibale continues. “However, their descriptions were often contradictory and gave no indication of where the precious objects were found.” The designers of Etruscanning 3D attempted to remedy this omission by placing the treasures in what is thought to be their rightful places within the tomb. And through photogrammetry and computer imaging, many existing artifacts have been “digitally restored” to revive worn-out or missing details.
In addition to the Vatican Museums, the project involved the Allard Pierson Museum at the University of Amsterdam; the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden; the Gallo-Romeins Museum in Tongeren, Belgium; the National Research Council of Rome; the Belgian architecture and heritage firm Visual Dimension; and the Archeological Superintendency of Southern Etruria.
Remarkably, the new virtual-reality tour had a precursor in 1837 London. One year after the uncovering of the Regolini-Galassi tomb, three brothers named Campanari, who had been excavating at Vulci, reconstructed an Etruscan tomb for an exhibition at Pall Mall, thus spurring an English fad for collecting Etruscan objects.
Judith Harris is the author of Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery.