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ROME WAS! Ruins Eternal

This film has been created entirely from still photographs, many of which have been merged together with the eighteenth century engravings by Giambattista Piranesi. Piranesi has been widely recognized as Italy's most celebrated artist of engravings of views of Rome. This film is an exploration of the changes to the monumental landscape of Rome over a quarter of a millennium - well after the monuments of Rome were already in ruins. It covers a time when this landscape became recognized for its aesthetic and cultural heritage, a recognition that to a significant extent came because of the dissemination Piranesi's work over the rest of Europe during the 18th Century. This helped to stimulate the 'Grand Tour' which then lead to the stopping of the systematic quarrying of the ruins for materials for new buildings.

Making use of the opportunities of the new medium of digital photography, this show has taken this medium into new territory by taking the imagery back in time by merging it with the pre-photographic art of Piranesi and other artists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Except for a brief descriptive introduction, the commentary in the film is entirely composed of historic quotations from the history of the Eternal City. The music used in the sound-track is entirely composed by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi, all of which was inspired by the Roman urban landscape.

The digital images were created during a year-long National Endowment for the Arts 'Rome Prize' Fellowship at the American Academy in Rome in 2003.

  • Randolph Langenbach
  • Randolph Langenbach (with compiled historic quotes)
  • Randolph Langenbach
  • Motion Graphics consultant: Pad McLaughlin
    Key Cast
  • Sound Editing: Ed Rubin + Tom Bullock
    Key Cast
  • Project Type:
    Animation, Documentary, Experimental, Short
  • Genres:
    Historical, Animation, Documentary
  • Runtime:
    29 minutes 58 seconds
  • Completion Date:
    November 27, 2015
  • Production Budget:
    35,000 USD
  • Country of Origin:
    United States
  • Country of Filming:
  • Language:
  • Shooting Format:
  • Film Color:
  • First-time Filmmaker:
  • Student Project:
Director Biography - Randolph Langenbach

Randolph Langenbach first became known as a documentary photographer and writer because of his work documenting the textile mill towns of New England and landscapes of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. His groundbreaking work on the Amoskeag Mills in Manchester N.H. resulted in a series of exhibitions and the book, Amoskeag, Life and Work in an American Factory City, co-authored with Tamara Hareven, published in 1978 and still in print. Later, his exhibition in England at the Royal Institute of British Architects, and the companion book Satanic Mills, published by SAVE Britain’s Heritage, contributed to changes in British government policy away from systematic demolition of historic 19th Century textile mills. His work on this subject also extended to India, where he documented the factories still running with late 19th and early 20th century labor-intensive technology under an Indo-American Exchange Fellowship in 1981. Almost all of the factories he documented then have since closed.

From 1984 to 1991, he was Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley where he began his research project to investigate the seismic vulnerability and methodologies for the strengthening of historic masonry buildings. From 1992 until 2004 he was a Senior Analyst at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Over the course of the past twenty years, Langenbach has undertaken research on traditional construction in earthquake areas, a project that has included many sites in Europe, Asia and Central America. He has also served as a consultant on this subject (1) to UNESCO in Turkey, Georgia, India and Pakistan; (2) to the World Monuments Fund in Bam, Iran, and Haiti, and (3) to the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul, Afghanistan. Over the past several years he has been invited keynote speaker at over 30 conferences in fifteen different countries on three continents.

In 2002, he was awarded the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize Fellowship in Historic Preservation at the American Academy in Rome for his international research and writing on traditional construction in earthquake areas, and it was during this fellowship that he created and produced the photographic documentary project called The Piranesi Project, and it was from this research and photography from which he has now created the digital ‘film’, “ROME WAS!, Ruins Eternal”. His publications and earlier art work can be found on the web at www.conservationtech.com and www.traditional-is-modern.net. The website for Rome Was! is www.piranesian.com.

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Director Statement

What does the past really look like, and how do the creations of 18th century artists shape our image of the Roman past? How might digital technology intersect with the patterns of vision and ocular interpretations of the human brain? And, how can the archeological work of the recent past be documented in a manner that is deeply opinionated but yet transparent? These are the questions raised by this 29 minute digital film inspired by the art of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. This animated movie follows on Randolph Langenbach’s much celebrated work with a large format camera documenting and helping to preserve the relics of the 19th century Industrial Revolution in New England, Great Britain, and India.

“ROME WAS!, Ruins Eternal” is a work that lies between still photography and film. This digital short film is entirely made from still photographs taken of the same views of Rome documented by Giambattista Piranesi in the 18th Century, and then merged together with his celebrated engravings to form a single animated work. It departs from a conventional narrative story-line by approaching the subject as art, and in the process reveals both the continuity and the changes to the iconic archaeological landscapes of Rome over a quarter of a millennium.

This work is an exploration of the use of digital still photography on a documentary subject that is intended to take advantage of the freedom allowed by this new digital medium to combine a multiple set of images into a single print. The new digital medium enabled the merging of photographs into images that match the pre-photographic compositions and perspective of Piranesi. Many of Piranesi’s views exceed the width of what the widest of flat-field photographic lenses can cover, but his compositions, and Langenbach’s photographs, do not appear as conventional panoramas, nor are they distorted as they would be if a fish-eye lens were used to cover the same spread.

Ultimately, this project also serves as a commentary on how we preserve and interpret the relics of the past in the midst of a living city. Part of the power of the Piranesi images is how they show ancient Rome as a mysterious memory – abused and in ruins – evocative of time and decay, and yet an eternal survival of the memory of a great civilization. Today, it is remarkable to find many of the same ruins frozen in the same state of dismemberment as they were when Piranesi saw them a quarter of a millennium ago, but now stripped of the accumulated detritus of the intervening 1,500 years between his time and the fall of Ancient Rome. Even the vegetation on them at that time made them seem like part of the natural world. As John Ruskin in The Seven Lamps of Architecture had so aptly put it in 1849: “It is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, the colour, and the preciousness of architecture.” Today, the preserved scene is now fenced and protected, but it is one where the hand of the conservator is now more evident than the hand of time. In “Rome Was!” both the 18th century appreciation for the ruins and their transformation over the past quarter of a millennium is revealed – and embraced.