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The Pompey Project: Digital Research and Virtual Reconstruction of Rome's First Theatre

Author(s): Richard Beacham and Hugh Denard


Source: Computers and the Humanities, Vol. 37, No. 1, Digital Media and Humanities Research:
Selected Proceedings of ACH-ALLC 2001 (Feb., 2003), pp. 129-139
Published by: Springer
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Computersand the Humanities 37: 129-139, 2003. 129
a 2003 KluwerAcademicPublishers. Printed in the Netherlands.

The PompeyProject:DigitalResearchandVirtual
Reconstructionof Rome'sFirstTheatre

RICHARDBEACHAM' and HUGH DENARD2


Universityof Warwick,UK
IE-mail: R.Beacham@warwick.ac.uk
2E-mail:H.Denard@warwick.ac.uk

The Theatre of Pompey


In 55 B.C. the triumphal general Pompey the Great dedicated Rome's first
permanent theatre and named it after himself. This was no ordinary theatre.
Pompey's sumptuousand grandioseedifice - probablythe largesttheatreever built
- comprised, in addition to the Theatreitself (the stage of which was 300 feet
wide), an extensive "leisure-complex"of gardens enclosed within a colonnade,
and galleriesdisplayingrareworks of art.It also includeda curia (a meeting house
for the Senate), and it was in this building that Caesar was assassinatedin 44
B.C. A grand temple above the uppermosttiers of the auditorium,dedicated to
Pompey's patrondivinity,Venus Victrix,crownedthe entire architecturallyunified
monument.Although the theatrewas built upon the flats of the CampusMartius,
this, its highest point, was second in height only to the temple of Jupiteron the
capitol. According to our research,the auditorium- or cavea - beneath it may
have accommodatedsome 25,000 spectators.1Pompey's gift to the Romanpeople
was for centuries the site of many of the most importantevents in the cultural
and political life of the city.2 Nero himself performedupon its stage,3 much to
the disgust of the senatorialclass and the delight of the masses. As late as the 6th
centuryA.D., when it was restoredfor the last time the theatrewas still sufficiently
imposing for Cassiodorusto exclaim, "one would have thoughtit more likely for
mountainsto subside,thanthis strongbuildingbe shaken".4
Over five centuries earlier, when Vitruvius wrote his influential treatise, De
Architectura,his detailed account of how a "typical"Roman theatre should be
built was based upon Pompey's recently-completededifice; indeed, at the time he
wrote, it was probably still the only stone theatre in the city of Rome.5 Thus,
through Vitruvius, the Theatre of Pompey became the architecturalUr-text for
many of the numeroustheatresbuilt throughoutthe RomanEmpire.Subsequently,
in the Renaissance, through the influence of Vitruvius, the Theatre of Pompey
left its imprint upon such seminal theatres as the Teatro Olimpico at Vicenza
and the Teatro Farnese at Parma. This single theatre, therefore, had a unique

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130 RICHARDBEACHAMAND HUGH DENARD

role in shaping the characteristicsof Westerntheatricalspace - and thereby in


conditioning prevailing conceptions of theatre and theatricality- right into the
modernperiod.If we wish to understandthe impactthatthese ideas have had upon
theatrearchitecture,theatricalperformance,and indeed theatricalinnovation,then
the story of this extraordinarytheatrecannotbe ignored.But how can it be told?

The Challenge
Much of the actual theatrestructurestill survives. The legacy of entropy and re-
use of the physical remainsof the edifice has in fact determinedmuch of how we
perceive the Campo Marzio area of Rome today. In the Middle Ages, the local
inhabitantsbuilt theirhouses, palaces, and shops onto and into the structureof the
theatre,buildingswhich even today preserveits remainsin theircellars and walls.
The monument cannot thereforebe extensively excavated. Consequently,in the
absence of new studies, questions of majorimportanceremainentirely open, and
highly controversial.
The archaeologicalhistoryof the Theatreof Pompey is a long and curiousone.
So manyothermonumentsof the imperialage have been "liberated"fromobscurity
or from the encrustationsof post-antiquestructuresover the years, and yet, despite
radical plans drawn up in the Fascist period (which would have dismantledthe
post-antiquestructuresto revealthe honey-combof the theatreincorporatedwithin
them), the Theatreof Pompey has been reluctantto relinquishits acquiredarchi-
tecturalclothing. The resultis that,today,the visible remainsof the theatreconsist
of numerous scatteredarchitecturalelements in basements of various buildings
between the Campo dei Fiori and Largo Argentina.The upper storeys of these
buildingscontain furtherextensive ancient structure,concealed behind their walls
and floors. The task of interpretingthese remainsis made much more difficultby
the fact that the ruins- albeit extensive- do not themselves offer a visibly unified
object. This presentsan intriguingchallenge: the knowledge and felt-presenceof
so massive and importanta monumentleave a void which imaginationstrives to
fill. For this reason, perhaps,the history of scholarshipon the theatrehas been
particularlycharacterisedby attemptseither graphicallyto reconstructthe theatre
complex as it might have been in antiquity,or at least to representthe extantruins
themselves as a unified image. Yet it is astonishingto learn that, despite its great
historical and architecturalimportance,and the interest shown in visualising its
existence, therehas neverbeen a modernscientific surveyof the theatre'sremains.
Most studies in this century are based on the limited excavations and site-plans
of Victoire Baltardof the Ecole des Beaux-Arts,working in the first decades of
the 19th-century,who himself was partlyworkingfrom the earlierstudy by Luigi
Canina.

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THEPOMPEYPROJECT 131

Figure 1. Computerreconstructionof auditoriumof Theatreof Pompey showing Temple of


Venus. a Universityof Warwick2001.

Figure 2. Theatreof Pompey: site-plan of existing state, including post-antiquestructures.


(Extantremainsmarkedin darkshading.)a Universityof Warwick2001.

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132 RICHARD ANDHUGHDENARD
BEACHAM

Figure 3. ComputerReconstructionof Theatre of Pompey orchestraand stage facade. a


Universityof Warwick2001.

Figure 4. Computerreconstructionof Theatre of Pompey and porticus post scaenam. a


Universityof Warwick2001.

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THE POMPEYPROJECT 133

The Pompey Project


The desire to know more aboutthe Theatreof Pompey is not limited to archaeolo-
gists or Romanarchitecturalhistorians.Scholarsintenton understandingthe nature
of past performanceare also drawnto it. When theatrespaces of great historical
importance,such as that of Pompey, no longer exist or have been significantly
altered, the attemptto analyse historical performancesin all their material and
ideological facts is greatly frustrated,leaving significant gaps in our capacity to
interrogatepast cultures. The advent of VR technology now enables us to draw
together detailed architectural,archaeological,pictorial and textual evidence, to
create three-dimensional"VirtualPerformanceSpaces" which contain both the
information-structureand the simulated appearanceof the lost, "Real" perfor-
mance spaces. These 3-D spaces immeasurablyenhance our ability to analyse
sightlines, stage architecture,scenery, and the organisationand use of performing
and audiencespace. When allied with otherVirtualtechnologies, they in turnopen
up further,previously impossible, avenues of analysis into the ambient qualities
of these spaces and performances,such as lighting, acoustics, and (increasingly)
movement.
In the spring of 1999, therefore,a new chapteropened in the archaeological
history of the Theatreof Pompey, when the UK's Arts and HumanitiesResearch
Board grantedProf. RichardBeacham (Universityof Warwick)substantialfunds
to coordinate, together with Prof. James Packer (NorthwesternUniversity), a
new archaeologicalstudy of the monument,and to create a reconstructionof it
using digital, 3-D technologies. The application of Virtual Reality technology
to the Theatre of Pompey is a particularlysignificant development since, as
noted, extensive new excavation is no longer possible. Moreover,as this area of
Rome becomes increasingly affluent,vital archaeologicalremains of the theatre
not infrequentlyfall prey to development. In the relatively short period of our
own work, we have seen original theatre walls with their distinctive diamond-
shaped pattern(known as opus reticolatum)disappearunder new plastering,and
sections of the theatre structurebecome obscured by modern "improvements".
Contemporaryanalysis of the site is framed by an ever-diminishingwindow of
opportunity.
The Pompey Project will result in a highly sophisticatedand integratedelec-
tronicresource,spanningthe entirehistoryof the site, from antiquityto the present.
It will include 3-D computermodels, acoustical renderings,images of artefacts,
a register of every object ever found and recordedwhich is likely to have been
containedin the complex, all known previoustextual referencesto and studies of
the site, a comparativehistory of scholarshipon the site based on 3-D models of
previousattemptsto reconstructthe theatre,and finally a 3-D comparativestudy of
the theatre-architecturalantecedentsto, anddescendentsof, the Theatreof Pompey.
The Pompey Projectboth benefitsfrom, and contributesto, a wider programme
of digital-basedresearchbeing conductedat the Universityof Warwickin which
the application of I.T. - particularlyVR - to Humanities research is being

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134 RICHARDBEACHAMAND HUGH DENARD

explored.6This paper,however,will attemptto assess the specific significanceof


the PompeyProject.

VirtualReality-EnhancedResearch
Whenwe beganourwork,we tendedto view VirtualRealitytechnologiesprimarily
as a means of enhancing essentially traditionalresearch methods. While our
thinkingand methods have undergoneconsiderableevolution since then - giving
rise to some new perceptionsaboutthe natureof VR-basedknowledge (which we
discuss below) - these advantagesremainpersuasivereasonsfor undertakingsuch
research,and are exemplifiedby the Pompey Project.They include the ability to
process and manipulatehuge datasetsof severalinformation-typesin 3-D, leading
to better analysis and hypotheses; for example in calculating and documenting
degrees of probabilityin architecturalreconstructions.3-D models share certain
of the properties,demandsand advantagesof CAD drawings:both rely on precise
sets of coordinates,and requirean absolutedegree of exactitude- they are unfor-
giving in this respect. Consequentlythe dataused to inform such models must be
vigorously evaluatedand coordinated.In addition,because 3-D models requirethe
spatialrelationshipbetween objects to be calculatedin 3-D, problemsof relation,
proportion,measurement,and design, which are difficultor impossible to identify
duringthe creationof 2-D representations,become immediately,and persistently
apparent.
Furtheradvantagesbecome evident in addressingthe very problemsand ques-
tions encounteredwhen an attemptis made to constructa coherentmodel based
on existing data and hypotheses. These problemslead to constantre-examination
and reinterpretationof data, and such analysis is supportedby VR in ways previ-
ously difficult or labour-intensiveto the point of impossibility. Unlike manual
drawings or solid models, virtual models can easily and quickly be altered to
incorporatenew data, or to representalternativehypotheses. The consequences
in turnof such modificationfor otherelements in the model can instantlybe seen.
Through assessing knock-on effects, or by analysing comparativedata visually,
rival hypotheses can quickly be evaluated,and/ormultiplehypotheses eventually
made availablefor disseminationas partof the final model.
Furthermore,3-D modelling enables differentforms of model to be produced
accordingto differentmodes of enquiry:e.g. CAD drawingsfor the calculationof
volumes and measurementsof a building,or cut-awaymodels to enable the user to
investigatearchitectonicdataandhypotheses,light, acoustics,levels of probability
in the reconstruction,and the historicaldevelopmentsof space. Models prepared
of other cognate sites greatly facilitate detailed analysis of possible architectural
antecedentsand descendentsof the building, identifying and delineatingin effect
an architecturalgenealogy.Anothermajoradvantageof this type of workis thatthe
researchadvancesbroughtaboutby 3-D modelling,can enablearchaeologistsmore
precisely to determinethe locations in which minimallyintrusive,and maximally

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THE POMPEYPROJECT 135

informativenew excavationmight take place, and assess its probablevalue. This


reducesthe amountand cost of invasivearchaeologyrequired.
The Projectalso exemplifiesthe considerablebenefitsof being able to dissemi-
nate the outcomes of scholarly researchin digital form, including the relatively
low costs and the capacity efficiently to present the complete data producedby
and for the project that incorporatea wide range of media. Through including
comprehensivedatabases,both free-standingand linkedto models, such a publica-
tion has the capacity to become a potent combination of scholarly monograph,
excavation notes, documentation,photographicrecord etc. The technology also
greatly enables modes of interrogation,varied, sophisticatedand efficient uses of
the publisheddataby researchers,and simultaneously,the possibilityof interactive
modes of reception.
This means of delivery moreover,in comparisonto traditionaltexts, has the
advantageof more fully liberatingthe "reader"of the multi-mediaelectronictext
from the critical perspectivesand agendas of the producersof the resource;such
readerscan interpretand exploit the comprehensivedata accordingto their own
needs, agendas and contexts (educational, research, museum .. .). VR technology
also provides the capacity to zoom in indefinitelyon 3-D models, yielding great
analytical and presentational advantages. In addition, it gives us the capacity to
updatethe Projectweb site in responseto advancesin scholarshipandthe contribu-
tions of otherresearchers.It can thusbecome a primelocus of scholarship,leading
to fresh conceptualisationsof the relationship between research and publica-
tion. Finally, the media employed enable the dissemination of content-dense,
interactive,moving images. These are vastly superiorto still images for educa-
tional/displaypurposes,engaging the imaginationof readersby enabling them to
interrogatethe object and associated data according to their own interests. In a
museum/educationalcontext, users could, for example, take a virtualwalk-around,
which - particularlywhen enhancedby digital audio and lighting technologies -
may providean engaging, immersive,interactiveexperience.

New Ways of Knowing


As our work has progressed,we have developednew ways both of conceptualising
and implementingourresearch.One of the most complex phenomenathatwe have
encounteredis the degree to which the productionof different forms of textu-
ality, whether real or Virtual, dictates correspondinglydifferent epistemological
imperatives.In the above outline of the Project'swork,for instance,VirtualReality
appearsas a tool that can enable, augment, and enhance traditionally-conceived
processes of research and dissemination.However, VirtualReality technologies
have also been bringing about a quiet, but profound, revolution in the ways in
which knowledge is producedand experienced.
Firstof all, the technologyboth enablesandrequiresthe Projectto be inherently
interdisciplinary.For us, that has meant the creation of a large multidisciplinary

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136 RICHARDBEACHAMAND HUGH DENARD

researchteam, linking VR modellersto archaeologists,databaseexpertsto theatre


historians,archaeologicalsurveyorsto urbanhistorians;all joined, however,by the
sharedneed to produce a Virtualstructure.In contrastto purely archaeological,
or historical,or archivalprojects,the organicnatureof this collaboration,together
with its scope and scale, gives the Project a distinctive character(and lends it a
certain significance). For the collaborators,the need to understandand respond
cooperatively to the working methods of such a range of colleagues has been
intellectuallyand imaginativelystimulating,opening up new modes of perception
and ways of thinking. Only a few years ago, these people would have had little
opportunityor reason even to discuss their work with one another,much less
engage in a process of intensely creativecollaboration.Moreover,as each collabo-
rator'sworkis integratedinto the resource,traditionalboundariesbetweendataand
interpretation,evidence and argument,researcherand technician, are undergoing
rapidand profoundtransformation.
The very fact thatthis work is drivenby the aim of creatinga three-dimensional
reconstructionof the theatrehas, itself, far-reachingimplications.The extrapola-
tion of a complete, three-dimensionalform from fragmentaryevidence, assorted
comparandaand documentaryevidence is quite differentin characterto the more
frequently encounteredproject of only documenting the existing remains of a
structure;it profoundlyaffects the ways in which knowledge about the remains
is created, documented, archived, and deployed. Archaeologists and surveyors,
for example, work to exacting standardsof evidence to enable their data to
be recreated in millimetrically-accurate,three-dimensionalform, and continu-
ally interpretevidence in the light of their ever-evolving attemptto relate each
element to theircurrentunderstandingof the "ideal"structure.Scholarsemploying
these technologies must thereforeattemptto understandthe epistemological shift
producedby "Virtualresearch"and the uniquetextualityof the medium.
This is a particularlypressingconcernfor us, since it is not difficultto see how
the task of translatingsurvey data so exactly into visual form makes the lure of a
positivist paradigmof reconstructionperilously attractive.Such positivist tenden-
cies can lead to an occlusion both of the distinctivepositionalityof methodology
and interpretation,and of the provisionalityof knowledge - an occlusion that, if
embedded in the way in which the digital text is ultimately disseminated,may
be recognised and resisted only by the most self-conscious of readers(and even
then, only belatedly). The importance,therefore,of the collaboratorscontinually
interrogatingthe implicationsof conductingVR-orientatedresearch,can scarcely
be overstated.

New Possibilities

For archaeology and theatre research, the unique textuality of Virtual Reality
offers unprecedentedpossibilities. VirtualReality can enablethe formationof new
knowledges: by making knowledge visible (for example, by translatingarchaeo-

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THEPOMPEYPROJECT 137

logical survey data into three-dimensionalform), it offers new ways of knowing;


and by making visible the unknown (for example, by enabling researchersto
hypothesize, in three dimensions, possible reconstructionsof lost or hidden
areas of a structure),it promises to make knowable things that hitherto were
unknowable.
By the same token, however,VirtualReality also offers new challenges, above
all, the challenge of learninghow to readthese 3-D models. Forthe knowledgeable
interpreter,this new kind of text is a source as much of anxiety,as of information.
In bringingtogetherboth the informationstructuresof the originalbuildingand a
simulationof its decorativeelements, 3-D models acquirea seductive"persuasive-
ness" that can easily render invisible to the viewer crucial distinctions between
known fact, scholarly deduction, and creative (albeit educated) guesswork. As
suggestive indices to a possible architecturalpast they function quite well, but
unless they can in some way display to theirusers the state of knowledge thatthey
trulyrepresent,theirvalue as instrumentsof scholarlycommunicationis ultimately
dubious. Alongside our eagerness to tap the extraordinarypossibilities offered by
the Virtualrealm, therefore,has been a concern to explore how digital technolo-
gies can provide an adequateantidoteto the "uneamrned" persuasivenessthat these
ineluctably provisional reconstructions can appear to claim. Fortunately,it has
quicklybecome apparentthatVR technology can be harnessedjust as persuasively
to address,as to give rise to, such concerns.
While our work to date has, of necessity, concentratedon producingmodels
of the main researchhypotheses in orderto facilitate the researchprocess, as we
bringthe Projectcloser to publicationwe areincreasinglygeneratingmodels which
representmultiplehypotheses,or varyinglevels of probability.The very inclusion
of interdisciplinaryscholarshipwithinthe projectimplies a heterogeneityof critical
perspectives,and this multi-focal approachvisibly militates againstthe formation
of a methodological or interpretativeorthodoxy, thus serving to underminethe
apparentclaim of any single text within the resource- whetherliteraryor graphic
- to the statusof definitivetext.
More importantly,at every stage of the project, we are deploying a range of
technologies to assert the interrogative,analyticaland interpretativenatureof the
work- to demonstratethatevery on-screenimage is neithermore, norless, thanan
informedand closely-arguedinterpretationand/orhypothesis.For this reason, the
PompeyProjectincorporatescomprehensivedocumentationsettingout the investi-
gative, methodologicaland interpretativeprocesses thathave led to the creationof
each element of each model.
A furtherstrategyis to incorporate,at an equal level within the information-
hierarchyof the resource,variantreconstructivepossibilities of sections or aspects
of the complex for which the archaeological evidence is insufficient to reach
firm conclusions, and where comparandasuggest a numberof equally plausible
options. We hope that, in time, these models will respond to post-publication
feedback from users and experts, creating graphic representationsof alternative

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138 RICHARDBEACHAMAND HUGH DENARD

interpretationsof the data;they may eventuallyeven permitusers to applydifferent


textures and patterns- perhapseven proportions- dependingon their preferred
interpretationof the dataproducedand publishedby the Project.
Finally, and perhapsmost significantly,we constantlyassertthe provisionality
of our hypotheses by locating them within a history of previous reconstructions
of the site. Not only are we modelling the Theatreof Pompey according to the
new knowledges arising from our work, we are also creating three-dimensional
models of all previous significant attemptsto reconstructthe theatre,and digit-
ising a considerable collection of scholarshipabout, and documentationof the
site. While such a teleological narrativemight, at this proximity, seem to be a
strategydesigned to aggrandizeour work as the final culminationof a tradition
of scholarship,we trust that scholarly and technological developmentswill quite
quickly enable our work to be read in a longer perspective,namely: as the most
recent, detailed and comprehensivestudy of this much-neglectedsite to date, and
a resourcefor futureresearch,but also necessarily- and ineluctably- provisional.
It will, we hope, restorethis majormonumentto scholarlydiscourse.
In conclusion, our engagementwith VirtualReality has impactedupon every
conceivable aspect of the Project's work. It has demonstrably enhanced the
research process in both efficiency and efficacy, and will certainly enhance the
disseminationprocess. It may, perhaps,contributeto the creationof a more open
conceptualisationof publication as feedback from users is incorporated,and as
the models migratefrom generationto generation.VR technology has also been
a hard taskmaster,requiringof the collaboratorsexacting coordinationof tech-
nical specificationsacross a diversegroupof disciplinarypractices,and exhaustive
strategic planning and communicationto ensure that the dictates and implica-
tions of Virtual Reality-orientatedresearch are fully recognised and taken into
considerationby each of the partners.
Looking to the future, we are now beginning, with the University of
Nottingham's Mixed Reality Laboratory,to make these Virtual spaces the sites
of Virtual performances.All of this enables us to reflect upon the compelling
synergies between the media and methodologies of theatre and Virtual Reality.
How will these performancesnegotiatebetween artisticand scholarlyendeavour,
real and Virtual,2-D and 3-D, persuasivenessand provisionality?Thatis yet to be
seen. Whatis clear,however,is thatas moreandmore scholarshipeithertakesplace
in, or resultsin, VirtualReality,we must face the challenge of developingways of
both creatingand readingsuch texts with a keen attentivenessto the complexity of
theiruniquetextuality.

Acknowledgements
The authors would like to acknowledge the grant support given by the British
Academy to enable this joint paper to be given at the ACH/ALLCConference.
Portions of this article have previously appearedin Denard, H. (2002) Virtu-

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THEPOMPEY
PROJECT 139

ality and Performativity: Recreating Rome's Theatre of Pompey. Performing Arts


Journal, 70 (Vol. 24, No. 1), pp. 25-43.

Notes
1 Pliny, in fact, claimed it sat 40,000 (N.H. 36.115) but this has long met with critical scepticism.
2 For an account of the theatresee R. Beacham (1999) Spectacle Entertainmentsof Early Imperial
Rome. Yale UniversityPress, New Haven, CN, ChapterTwo.
3 Dio Cassius 62.29.1; Suetonius Vitellius4; TacitusAnnales 16.4.
4 CassiodorusVariae4.51.
5 Vitruvius,DeArchitectura,5.9.1.
6 For a recent survey of work, see R. Beacham (1999) "'Eke Out Our PerformanceWith Your
Mind': Reconstructingthe TheatricalPast Withthe Aid of ComputerSimulation."In TerryCoppock
(ed.), InformationTechnologyand Scholarship:Applicationsin the Humanitiesand Social Sciences.
OxfordUniversityPress, Oxford,for The BritishAcademy,pp. 131-154.
7 There are some limitations, however: the extraordinarilyhigh detail of these models by John
Burge is such that nothing is merely "paintedon" - every contourof every capital and frieze is fully
modelled in three-dimensions- with the result that a single Corinthiancapital currentlyoccupies
some 50 Megabytes. Although Burge uses Silicon GraphicsOctanecomputerswith dual Pentium3
processorsrunningat 850 Mhz, assistedby 2 Gigabytesof RAM, even at these high (in today's terms)
specifications,it takes about an hour to renderone of these images at screen resolution (72 dpi). It
will be some time, therefore,before the average desktop computer will be able to navigate these
colossal models in real-time.In response to this loss of interactivity,VR-ResearcherDrew Baker at
the University of Warwickhas created a fully-interactiveVRML model of the theatre.The entire
VRML model occupies just 119k (20k compressed),enabling readersto walk or fly - in realtime-
to any position.

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