Monthly Archives: April 2008

Monuments of unageing intellect

I wrote the post below for another blog, but think of the educational uses, a couple of years down the road, of virtual field trips to ancient cities. I know that that sort of virtual experience is what constructs like Second Life are aiming for, but I’m a lot more interested in projects like the one below, which strive for a high level of historical accuracy.

I’d like to embark upon a brief ekphrasis of a unique website, byzantium1200.com.

Some of my favorite poems by my favorite poet dwell on the splendor and mystery of Byzantium. I’ve always been fascinated by the Eastern Roman Empire, and not entirely out of Gibbonish dispassionate historical interest, but for some of the more romantic reasons that I assume attracted Yeats: the enticingly tragic idea of a vanished civilization; the strange and fascinatingly odd persistence of a shard of the Roman Empire into the 1400s as a shadowy, besieged offshoot made strange by ecstatic Christianity and Eastern pomp; golden mosaics and clockwork songbirds.

As such, my idea of Byzantium is usually the sort of thing that regrettably looks less interesting the more closely you investigate it. Each new book I read about the history of the place threatens to diminish the allure of my romantic preconceptions. However, today I stumbled across something which is securely grounded in the actual history of the city yet which also, I feel, shares something of Yeats’s Platonic, clockwork-and-mosaics sense of wonder.

The website is nothing less than some driven person’s attempt to make a virtual reconstruction of the entire city of Constantinople. For some reason they decided to pretend to focus on the year 1200 A.D., but obviously the virtual edifices tend to have a timeless, golden-age quality. Over sixty buildings have been resurrected from nothing but dust, documents and the few stones which remain.

It’s not a museum exhibit, scholarly paper, movie backdrop or a video game, but something which intriguingly combines aspects of those more familiar types of project.

In fact, if you ask me this isn’t just an elaborate exercise in simulated 3D architecture. It’s a work of art that spits in the faces of Time and Ruin, and an example of mankind’s ability to put a heartbreaking amount of energy and effort into any sort of imaginative pursuit, no matter how clumsy or prosaic the tools involved might have seemed when they first appeared. Honestly, when you first saw Tron or played Pac-Man, did you think that in a decade or two people would be conjuring long-dead cities into minutely detailed virtual existence – for fun?

The site’s links section points to several other, similar online projects. I have a feeling I’m going to be spending the next couple of days perusing these – and wondering if I could ever do something similar with my pitiful skills in SketchUp.

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