Home Geospatial Applications Archaeology Vitruvius Basilica in Fano, Italy, journey through the virtual space of the...

Vitruvius Basilica in Fano, Italy, journey through the virtual space of the reconstructed memory

Fausto Pugnaloni (University professor),
Paolo Clini (Researcher)

Idau, Faculty of Engineering
University of Ancona, Italy
Tel:+39 71 2204501
Fax:+39 71 2204882
E-Mail: [email protected]

“Non minus summam dignitatem et venustatem possunt habere comparationes Basilicarum quo genere coloniae Juliae Fanestri collocavi curavique faciendam cuius proportiones et symmetriae sic sunt constitutae…”. Vitruvio starts Chapter I of Book V of “De Architectura” in this way (it is the only handbook of antique architecture that has been handed down to us and it is considered a reference for Italian and European Renaissance architecture). It is a very detailed description of that legendary building known worldwide as the “Basilica di Fano”. According to the historical information we have, it is the only building that was planned and built by the great Roman architect, around 19 BC in the “Colony Juliae Fanestris”, today called Fano. Fano is in the province of Pesaro and is on the Adriatic coast of Italy. This town was founded just where the consular Flamina road meets the sea and was privileged with great splendor during the imperial era. The building has an extraordinary historical and architectural importance. The description given by Vitruvio showed that its characteristics were different from those typical of a Roman Basilica. Unfortunately nothing is left of this building. It was destroyed during barbaric invasions and a reminder of it can only be found in Vitruvio’s written text, in some of the splendid archeological remains found in Fano and in the many reconstructions made by the writers of treatises (Editio Princeps of De Architectura), who have illustrated and commented the De Architectura since 1486. An extremely detailed three-dimensional model of the Basilica, using Autocad and 3DS, has been created based on this text. The model and the images taken from it have been used to create dynamic environments in QT and VRML and to create a multimedia CD-Rom that illustrates all the paths of research. In its final version, however, it could be a great step towards the retrieval of the memory of a building that no longer exists, but can be rediscovered by means of the drawings, which enable us to explore the recesses of history and to recreate the past.

More than the history described in its material form, there is a history of a hidden, destroyed, unknown and unrecognizable architecture, which often lives on in a literary, fantastic and sometimes legendary form. It is a type of ante literam virtual architecture, which we do not pay much attention to, because we are too busy documenting the architectural heritage that we have and because to try to save what can be saved to avoid losing it. Many of the protagonists of this parallel architecture, however, have a great importance in its history and therefore merit more attention.

In order to document and know this heritage better, different approaches are required, which should be more articulated and involve more subjects. Ways of interpreting, which consider the historiographic aspect or the reconstructive one, the archeological aspect or often the philological-textual one.

The case study illustrated, regards one of these buildings, which is actually anonymous but at the same time so extraordinary that it has become a symbol of all the various architectures previously mentioned. It represents the heritage to be safeguarded and preserved just like the heritage we see every day.

We are talking about the Vitruve’s Basilica. As we have already mentioned he was a great roman writer of treatises, author of the “De Architectura”. This architectural handbook, written in the time of Augustus is the only publication to allow us to have a greater knowledge of classical architecture. It has deeply influenced and characterized western architecture from the VI Century to the present time.

The Vitruve’s Basilica

“… There are also other types of basilicas, which are no less dignified or beautiful than the one in the Colony Juliae of Fano, which I planned and built” (Vitruvio, Florian 1978). This is how Chapter I of Book V opens one of the most celebrated and controversial pieces on architecture, written by the famous Vitruvio. A synthetic but detailed description, which Vitruvio makes regarding the “factory” known worldwide as “Basilica di Fano”. According to the historical information we have, it is the only building that was planned and built by the great Roman writer of treatises, around 19 BC in the “Colony Juliae Fanestris”, today called Fano. Fano is in the province of Pesaro and is on the Adriatic coast of Italy. This town was founded just where the consular Flamina road meets the sea and was privileged with great splendor during the imperial era.

The points of view and the doubts that the historians had in the past were that this text was fruit of successive interpolation carried out after Vitruvio’s death, but now fortunately these opinions have definitively been overcome. Therefore now, our attention can focus on the history, the events and on the forms of this extraordinary but curiously often forgotten building. It was destroyed by the barbaric violence of the Goths, who invaded Fano in 540. The modern Fano was reconstructed exactly on the roman ruins, where, during the centuries that followed, grand structures of the imperial era were found. Somebody related these findings to the Basilica of Fano. It is now interesting to know how much of that building has been given back to us. It could be better to know it initially from Vitruvio, who probably drew it in the description made in the Treatise. Unfortunately these drawings together with other “diagrams” which appeared in the text were lost. This was a pity but it was this event that indirectly gave life to a very rich and precious graphic repertory, in which many famous writers of treaties, architects and historians (among others Francesco di Giorgio, Andrea Palladio, Fra’ Giocondo, Giovan Battista da Sangallo, Giovanni Poleni, Raffaello …) worked on the interpretation of the text and Vitruvio’s rules. This is actually our main subject in trying to graphically reconstruct the Basilica of Fano. Everything starts in 1486, when in Rom, for the Heralt, the first De Architectura edited by Giovanni Sulpicio da Veroli was published. These drawings and etchings are precious historiographic and documentary material. They are also an instrument that can lead to a “modern” attempt to reconstruct the building with the aid of computer technology, through the interpretation and analysis of the building made by each drawing and through the discovery of formal, architectonic, static-constructive “knots” of the Basilica.

There are numerous drawings kept in many libraries, which still have codes, editions, and translations of the De Architectura. This, together with the attention given by their authors to this building, shows the extraordinariness of this “factory” in the history of architecture and in the context regarding Vitruvio. One of the most important French researchers of the Basilica was Jean Quicherat (Quicherat 1877). He tried to gather and underline the reason for the importance of the Basilica and wrote “in the work written by Vitruvio, there are not so many interesting chapters like the one in which the Basilica of Fano is described. In this chapter we meet the theorist at work in an exceptional circumstance. Taking the Basilica as an example, he wanted to reaffirm the independence of art, which is “constructed” by established rules and he wanted to demonstrate that creativity is not incompatible with all those tiny regulations, which must be applied to architectonic practice. Vitruvio, however, did not say all the indispensable things. He left the reader to reflect and to say everything which had not been said, that is all the things that he judged could be interpreted in a description made for experts”.

In fig. 1 and fig. 2 we can see two of the most famous examples of the reconstruction of the Basilica illustrated by writers of treatise and commentators of the De Architectura.

Of course the most important information regarding the reconstruction of the Basilica is not given only by the writers of treaties but especially by Vitruvio’s text.

The description made by Vitruvio
The Basilica of Fano, as described by Vitruvio, had a central porticoed hall with a total dimension of 160 feet (approx. 47 m) by 100 feet (approx. 30 m). It had eighteen impressive columns with a 5 foot diameter (approx. 1,20 m), which went from the ground and formed, in one solution, the second order, the so called “giant order” loved by the renaissance artists such us Michelangelo and Palladio.

The Court was on the long side, according to tradition. Vitruvio said he had also added a very strange “aedes Augusti” and gave its measurements (width and depth) but they do not clearly show us where it was situated in relation to the plans of the Basilica. This unclear information represents one of the interpretative “knots” which must be resolved by the illustrators of the Basilica. The order was Corinthian. Vitruvio did not say that expressly but in an indirect way, giving the ratio between the height of the columns (50 feet) and their diameter (5 feet). In a previous text he mentioned that this ratio (10) was typical of the Corinthian order.

Besides the description written by Vitruvio, the other means of historical reconstruction come from some extraordinary archeological remains, which were discovered in 1840. The study included a systematic recognition of all the historical ruins found in those excavations and moreover new and modern research has been carried out with traditional techniques and instruments and using special photographic procedures.

The virtual reconstruction and visit
From the above brief outline (Vitruvio’s text, reconstruction by the writer of treaties, archeological and historical-literary sources) we started the construction of the virtual model, which is no longer a means of representation and communication used by architecture but – according to the logic that generated this model – it became a powerful vehicle of analysis, research, knowledge and historiographic synthesis.

From this point of view the work carried out on the Basilica of Vitruvio in Fano has and wants to have an exemplary and exemplifying value. The representation and the graphic-informative analysis of the three-dimensional models become the instruments to research historiography in great depth.

The aim of the construction of the model is the attempt to reconstruct and re-plan the lost building, gathering signs and traces, which are necessary to form a kind of “preliminary investigative drawing”, in the hidden corners of its history. At the end of this investigation it is important to have an instrument capable of giving a form and of summarizing the disarticulated knowledge. This knowledge should be easily replaceable, just like the pieces of a mosaic, not only on a sheet of paper but in a dynamic and changeable model, which is sensitive to the acquisition of the knowledge we have placed in the virtual dimension of an electronic elaborator.

The idea to tackle the complex study of an unknown building, which for many never existed, came from the above. This idea is to follow and to tie the fine threads made of drawings, reconstructions and notes about the Basilica, which accompany and significantly mark the evolution and the fortune of Vitruvio’s text. We started from the consideration that only the characteristics of the “instrument” could have allowed us to give order and synthesis to two thousand years of disarticulated and contradictory knowledge. We actually thought of a drawing, which was no longer intended to be a set of lines having the aim of giving a form or as a statistic representation of that level of a knowledge closed inside its non-modifiability, but as kind of multimedia data bank. In this data bank words and knowledge and their precarious and modifiable character are hidden by lines and signs, which are in turn precarious, modifiable and evolving. Here data is continuously updated and the drawing is no longer represented by a definite form but by an “in fieri” form, which can be modified from the inside as the knowledge increases without offering a solution for continuity.


The computer allowed us to write a rich page of history on the specific theme and to re-analyze previous pages using new points of view. It is a very powerful instrument to represent and investigate historiography. The computer also allows us to look at the history of the “factory” no longer as a chronological sequence of disjointed knowledge but from a panoramic point of view. With only one “glance” we can gather 2000 years of studies and can efficiently summarize them.

So, again, the computer is fundamental. The fist step was the choice of hardware and software to be used (Hard-ware: Pentium 300 Mhz, 64 Mega Ram – soft-ware: AutoCad 12 Dos for drawing in wire frame and 3DS4 Dos for renderings). This choice allows us to explore the possibility that equipment and common and easy to use software have to create complex virtual models.

It is incorrectly thought that the drawer cannot intervene on this equipment and software because of their “non-modifiability” and due to coded rules which function internally. Actually – and this aspect was one of the themes to be studied in greater depth – the study and the creation of complex models using such equipment requires enormous analytical and interpretative efforts, in order to understand how these instruments can work for the “drawer”. The “drawer” must be able to elaborate and define new operative know-how, new work patterns, new operative hypothesis, which substitute those of traditional drawings but which lead to the same aim. The aim is to represent, intended as to “know” and to “analyze”, an architectonic object, taken in its most real dimension.

We must say that we would never have been able to reconstruct a global model of the Basilica of Fano using traditional drawing methods. The only chance we had, as seen in the past, was to take only partial aspects (plans, sections, details), which, in effect, are partial and disconnected from the formal and typological context and therefore lose their credibility and reliability resulting only in pure graphical-aesthetic exercises.

The drawing was three-dimensional. AutoCad solid modeler was used exclusively in the creation of the Corinthian capital of the order.

All other surfaces were created using “Mesh” and “3dface” and, where possible, primitive surfaces and curves contained in AutoCad. Once the blocks were completed the model was finally assembled. Because of its complexity and dimension, nobody ever intervened, on this model. It was used only to create single views to be printed with iron wire or to export for maps and renderings on 3DS4. The final model has a dimension, with exploded blocks, of approx. 50 Mega. It has 276,528 faces. It is drawn on 130 layers using approx. 150 colors, which highlights 150 different elements of the drawing. All the views to be printed with iron wire have been “extracted” from this model to create renderings and maps. At first the views “extracted” for plotting were bi-dimensional (file dxb) and then all the “dirty lines” were cleaned, treated and retouched (text, possible quotes, etc…).

About 30 views were created and exported onto specific software in order to be rendered. A Matrox with 65,000 colors and a 1024×768 VGA card has been used with 3ds.

In the following sequences we see the Plan we reconstructed (Fig. 4) an overhead view of the virtual model (Fig. 5) and various images of the Basilica (Fig. 6)

Visit to the Basilica
Using the most significant material we had, we produced a CD. It describes the fascinating path we took in discovering this building and in giving back its form… a building, which had absolutely nothing and to which we gave back its dignity and its characteristics. This CD, which is like an identification document for this building, is, because of the way it is conceived and structured, a multimedia instrument used to communicate, to spread information and also to safeguard all the data gathered about the Basilica.

It gathers all the relative documents, gives easy access to them and helps them to be spread worldwide. It outlines that memory that has been lost during the centuries and which now finds its form again on a magnetic support, which has the task of describing it and passing it on.

Videos together with automatic and interactive animation have been prepared using VRML and Quick Time techniques. The visitor can so enter the Basilica, visit and appreciate it and especially he can, in an interactive way, “read” its history and the events regarding the building from inside its rooms. Quick Time techniques proved to be very useful for this type of work.

These techniques are better known when applied to three-dimensional reconstruction of photographs of interiors or exteriors but can also be used efficiently on dwg models. They capture the viewpoints from the inside or outside of the model and give to a virtual camera located inside the AutoCad software, the same parameters that would be necessary for traditional photographic shots (height of the viewpoint, focus of the lens, angles for the shot, number of frames). The program automatically develops the planned frames, which are later corrected, elaborated and edited using Quick Time Vr on an Apple. The dynamic views (automatic or interactive) can be edited as “scenes” and therefore it is possible to create very contorted paths to follow (which can be verified with a plan) in order to visit the inside of the building. Using the mouse, the visitor can choose the path he prefers. Adding slides with texts, which can be opened and questioned by the visitor, it is possible to construct a virtual museum of the building inside the same building. In this museum the history of the building is told at the same time as this museum takes its form. The films can be seen both using an Apple or a Pc and are available on internet.


  • Vitruvio, “De Architectura” a cura di Giovanni Florian, Pisa, 1978
  • Quicherat, J., 1877, La Basilique de Fanum construite par Vitruve. In: Revue Arch