See ancient Rome brought to life through SketchUp and Lumion

Aug 19, 2019 | Case Studies, Lumion

Prof. Matthew C. Nicholls of the University of Reading spent 10 years building a massive, beautifully detailed 3D model of ancient Rome. Now, you can explore the splendor of ancient Roman architecture like never before.

Theatre of Marcellus. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was the 3D model of the Eternal City that was created by Matthew C. Nicholls, Professor of Classics at the University of Reading.

Constructed over the course of 10 years in SketchUp, and based on a variety of archeological, literary and other sources, the model of Rome brings students and enthusiasts to the street level of the ancient city. With rich colors, historically accurate details and the sensation of traveling through time, students are able to view ancient Rome’s incomparable architecture in a truly compelling and educational way.

The Digital Model. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

Whether for classes at the University of Reading, or for the free online course on the website, titled “Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City,” the SketchUp model and the Lumion animations and images pull students right into the heart of the city, allowing them to explore and learn from an intimate point-of-view.

“One of the goals for making this model and using it in my courses is to paint as accurate a picture as possible of the ancient city,” said Prof. Nicholls.

Digital Recreation of the Temple of Saturn. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

From the Colosseum to the Roman forum, the baths of Caracalla to the Pantheon and more, the renders of ancient Rome help students view the ancient city as it once was, full of color, texture and life.

“Rendering is like having a digital SLR camera with all the different buttons to help you get a better photograph, and Lumion is almost like turning it to auto mode and pressing “snap” and you get a nice picture. Most of the time it’s good enough. [Lumion] is such a nice workflow tool like with the sliders to control lighting and the such that you can get better results quicker. I love being in the building environment in Lumion with live navigation driven by the graphics card, and I can fly around in real-time in that.”

In this blog post, we’ll take a look at Prof. Nicholls’ renderings of Rome as it was in the 4th century AD (the model includes buildings from other time periods as well). You will also discover how 3D rendering tools like Lumion can bring ancient cities to life and serve as an integral learning tool.

Building ancient Rome from a variety of sources

Over 10 years ago, Prof. Nicholls first sat down to begin building a 3D model of Rome in SketchUp. His goal was to recreate the ancient city as it looked around approximately 315 CE and then use the model to visually support his classes and aid the educational process for his students.

Example of a building created in SketchUp – the Baths of Caracalla. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

In order to create an accurate as possible model showing even the smallest details of homes, monuments, streets and more, Prof. Nicholls relied on a number of historical sources.

“Every decision I’ve taken as I made the model is based as far as possible on historical evidence. I had to decide what date to set the model, whether to include people, the dirt and grime of the city, trees, colors, and so on,” said Prof. Nicholls.

When creating some of the most well-preserved buildings, there was a lot of historical information available and Prof. Nicholls could refer to archeological elevations, detailed reports, ancient authors who wrote about the building, ancient pictures on coins, inscriptions, reliefs, frescos and so on.

One of his favorite reference sources for the model was the Forma Urbis (203-211 CE), a fragmented marble slab that provides clues about streetscapes, texture, density, building type and building mix.

Fragment of the Forma Urbis showing the Theatrum Pompei (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

For the other buildings and the miles and miles of backstreets comprising the bulk of the city, there was little that Prof. Nicholls could use as a reference. And between these two extremes, there can be a lot of guesswork. Nevertheless, by combining all of this source material, he was able to take his findings and then turn them into the comprehensive 3D model.

If you want to learn a little more about the process of creating the model, you can refer to this talk that Prof. Nicholls gave at 3D Basecamp back in 2014.

Teaching ancient Rome with visualizations made in Lumion

Spanning the entirety of the city, from the roads leading to and from the city to the monuments that are still standing today, the 3D model of Rome is entirely editable, flexible and navigable, and it can be shared between different programs to be used in different ways.

By letting students see and use elements of this model, they can actually discover just how vast the ancient city was. They can zoom down into the finer details of buildings, check out textures and decorations up-close, view the city from above as well as street level, and so on.

Digital reconstruction of the Cloaca Maxima’s outfall into the Tiber. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

Digital reconstruction of the Circus Maximus, with detail of the decorated spina. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

Baths of Trajan with the Colosseum in the background. Credit: Prof. Matthew Nicholls and the University of Reading.

According to Prof. Nicholls, “Nobody experiences a building in a plan view; they experience it as volumes. So with 3D reconstruction, especially with something like Lumion, you can get an almost photo-realistic rendered feeling, with the proper treatment of light, atmospherics, plants moving in the breeze, all of the rest of it. It immediately gives you a sense of what the space is like.”

“The intention of the model and renders are to give someone the insight into what life was like at that time. So Lumion is a great tool for that. I also use Kubity Go to get people on their phones and other devices to explore the model themselves…when you get into the model and explore it yourself, it adds another layer to the experience.”

Lost but never gone: Lumion as a tool for exploring the ancient world

With the help of Lumion to render the 3D model, you can use interactive, beautiful visuals to take a trip in time and discover what it was like to live in the Eternal City.

You can explore the model and learn about ancient Rome in the upcoming, free course, titled “Rome: A Virtual Tour of the Ancient City,” available on