MOC-Discussion: Roman Forum by Tim Schwalfenberg // Authenticity as a feeling

Author: Benjamin Franz 


How our vision of the past gives us a sense of authenticity in LEGO bricks models, by Benjamin Franz.


There is this moment when you scroll through your feed on Instagram or for the older ones among us on Flickr and see hundreds of photos, but this one picture just stands out. That's the type of model we're dealing with today. Its creator is a young Canadian LEGO genius. He's best known for his incredible The Last of Us MOC, but that's definitely not the only one. There are so many incredible buildings made by him that stand out with their exceptional construction techniques.


Excerpt from Tim's Flickr Photostream
Excerpt from Tim's Flickr Photostream


Check him out: INSTAGRAM  // FLICKR



But as you know this blog here is supposed to be different to other well-known LEGO pages. We're not here only to discuss outstanding building techniques or just to adore beautiful LEGO MOCs. That's something wonderful, but I want to go further than that. After I finished my Bachelor thesis I was wondering how I could finally continue my blog. When I saw Tim’s "Roman Forum" MOC, the answer quickly became clear to me. Well not at first glance to be honest but at the second one. This MOC feels so authentic. And that's it. It's the feeling of being authentic. 


The model seems to show an excerpt of Roman history as if I was there, but that is not the case. It is not over 2000 years old, probably not even a year. I didn't travel back in time either. My feelings have a different origin which can be found in the composition of this model. As authenticity is simulated in different categories, which can btw. never really exist anyway, the most basic insight is to understand that what is perceived as authentic is authentic.


This also means that authenticity can only be derived from already known images. It can only be perceived as authentic what is already considered. A discussion that has developed strongly in the medieval fantasy or about Battlefield V .

Since none of us lived in Roman antiquity, this knowledge can only come from our modern representations. This can be derived from actual sources from that time, but primarily from pop cultural representations such as films, series, video games, literature, etc. At the same time, this also means that the feeling of authenticity does not have to coincide with the scientific knowledge of the period. The presentations can even be false but still authentic. Consequently, you do not have to be an expert to perceive something as authentic. 


Even though I am in my third year of my history studies on the level of Roman antiquity or the history of the Classical World I am actually only a starter. I only had one course on women in Roman antiquity and only "attended" to one lecture (you know what the quotation marks mean). Nevertheless, like you or an expert on this topic, I can also regard models from antiquity as authentic or inauthentic. As a feeling for the past does not have to come from an intellectual or even scientific path. Anyone can feel an atmosphere of the past. Anyone can think that something is authentic. Said that, anyone can also feel what is not authentic in their mind.


Since I engaged in the subject of historical authenticity recently, I can work out points that provide a sense of authenticity here. I would like to explain this to you in the following by using major characteristics of Tim's Roman Forum MOC.



Characteristics for authenticity

Tim's photo of his fabulous Roman Forum MOC


First of all we need to focus on the whole MOC. What does it show? 


You might think that's an easy question. That it shows a vivid Roman Forum place. The most important place of ancient Roman cities, which was the centre of political, economic, cultural and religious life.  You're absolutely right with that.

But we have to go one step further back. Actually we only see a lot of different LEGO bricks connected to each other. It's not naturally Roman architecture we see here. Only our understanding or maybe just our imagination of Roman antiquity makes us believe that these composite bricks represent an ancient Roman scenario. It's similar in photography. A photo doesn't show us the building, the street, the people or even reality, but only rays of light, which we interpret meaningfully as what we think we saw when we took the photo [1]. 


If we also consider the artist's small text on his work, we will notice that we do not randomly agree in our interpretation. The builder calls his model, his composition of various LEGO bricks "Roman Forum" and that's what we see here.


But we only look at a model. Historians like Martin Sabrow think, only a historical original could be really authentic, a model would not succeed in such a thing. I disagree with this reasoning. But let's take up their argument first. His concept of authenticity is not about factuality but always about attribution. Authenticity could not be explored as a characteristic of things, but always as the relationship between object and viewer. I agree with that. But in my opinion, Sabrow is solely looking at historical "originals" like the place where the Berlin Wall still stands today and was located back in the days, old works of art like the Mona Lisa, etc., to which he assigns a special aura into which you can feel into [2].

Yes, those places and the atmosphere of those artifacts are special. I feel it everytime when I'm visiting a museum but does that mean that anything not "original" can't feel authentic? I highly doubt that. So it is far from enough to limit the study of the relationships between viewers and objects to historical originals.


But we have to consider models are something artificial, so they contradict the authenticity character, which refers to originality. This fact is not ignored when creating a model that should look authentic. On the contrary, it is successfully counteracted. How? Let's see.


So in the following I will show chosen by 4  aspects (architecture, colours, nature, agents & actions) how authenticity is created here. Or at least a feeling for it.



1. Architectural style & details


A major point we are facing is the architecture and its style. Despite the fact I am not an expert in this field, I can say that the detailed facade of the building is intended to create an aura and a feeling of Roman antiquity.  This can be seen in the fact that well-known pictures of ancient Roman architecture are used, such as the columns and the white limestone.




Also the diversity through the different columns you can see bring a sense of genuineness. A particularly impressive construction technique was used in the base of the model to make the columns thicker. Last but not least the door frames, which give a certain depth through their different levels. This gives the whole build a stronger impression. 




2. Colours


Especially the white LEGO bricks used are an exciting point for the colouring. They create a genuine feeling for the Classical World.


Yet we don't even know whether these buildings were really colorless in antiquity. The phenomenon we encounter here is called ancient polychromy. A piece of knowledge that is not very widespread (yes, I also didn't know about it). But that doesn't matter we all know the Classical World's buildings as mostly colourless. And if it were represented differently, then, although it could be historically proven, it would maybe be perceived as inauthentic. So as I told you before we all can perceive something as authentic but it highly depends on our state of knowledge about a topic what we actually perceive as authentic.


The white building is contrasted with a dark red roof. This colour can be found in the entire model exclusively for it. This can have the effect that it should be a special colour only for this segment. The use of Dark Orange for the ground of the square is also unique. While the natural part is designed with different colours of green, brown and above all dark tan. This contrast represents the unspoiled nature which is harder to control. Contrary to this, the man-made surfaces are neatly and strictly separated by colour. Only white buildings and a grey statue stand out. There is no color mixture here. On the one hand this could make clear that this forum, as you actually see, is still under construction and has therefore taken less damage so far. On the other hand, it also reinforces the effect of the artificiality of a model.


The colouring here represents a double-edged sword between authenticity and the typical separation of the model, possibly even owed to the medium.



3. Nature


Just mentioned briefly, it is worth to go into the natural representations a little deeper. The contrast between the man-made and the natural contributes strongly to the feeling of an authentic reflection. 


In addition to the mixed colours, the building techniques are also remarkable. The artist works with flextubes, which represent thin unruly tree trunks and thick roots. He also uses slopes and not only in the classical way, but he mixes the vertical positioning of the building blocks with the snot technique, which is horizontal. This mixture of two well-known building techniques gives the underground on which the trees stand a stony, even rocky effect.


In my opinion this works very well. In contrast to the buildings, we see here rough and unstable surfaces that give us the feeling that they have hardly been touched by humans so far.


It should also be mentioned, however, that here, too, a colour coordination can still be seen. Single spots in grey, black or other tones are absent besides the wilderness of the area. A colour overload, however, would also counteract the idea of aesthetics, since it would appear artificial. It would be an attempt to impose something on the medium that it cannot achieve in its composition and scale. It would simply no longer look beautiful but messy and that could cause into the effect of losing the authentic feeling.


A perfect example how a messy look with mixed colours expecially for the ground works can be seen by ww2legostoryteller's MOCs. So I guess it depends on the intention of the creation whether a messy building can be perceived as authentic or not. It is not surprising that this case concerns models of WWII.



4. Agents & Actions


Let us now focus more on the figures and their actions in this model. Without understandable actions of individual figures taking precise roles no authentic scene can be created.


But do you see great actions of minifigures here? No, that wouldn't be in the sense of the scenery either. Here we see everyday actions in Roman antiquity. Or at least what we can imagine and represent with LEGO.


This means that on the one side we see free Roman citizens in their toga, meeting at the forum. Among them are men and women in different coloured toga dresses who talk to each other. Only a single soldier, the guard, can deviate from this pattern. All other figures on the left side of the model talk to each other or look around. They form the center of the model and the picture. 



In contrast there are working figures. They are working on a new building to expand the forum. Many of the little Lego men are bare at the upper end. This is to illustrate the hard muscular work they have to do. They lift stone blocks and load them onto a kind of cart and an antique version of a crane. A short research via Google has revealed that this is supposed to be a Polyspaston which is a kind of threadwheel crane. The existence of this crane in the Classical World is well documented. It is found, for example, on the relief of the tombstone of Haterius Antigonus from the Trajan period. 


Different figures taking different roles are acting within a scene that is supposed to represent a historical situation. The forum will be expanded. It's not finished yet. Will it ever be?


A Roman crane and working figures are used for this expanding. On the other hand, the Roman citizens are interacting on the already created side of the forum. This contrast brings dynamism. It is a development that the photo of this model wants to show us. Something is being created here, it is far from finished. Historically, you should always ask yourself the question, can there actually be such a thing as "finished"? Can an action or a place ever be complete? The time we live in, the time people from the past lived in was just a time and it always continued. None of them could have ever guessed how the 21st century would look like. In fact we also don't know how the world will look like in 2000 years ahead.


History is always about change. And this is where it gets difficult: a single photograph of a model can show no change. But it can suggest it, as here, by showing that other buildings are being built for the Forum. So we have the expectation that something will happen here, that there will be a development that will change the look of this model in a very short time. If it would build itself. And this is from my point of view very important to get a feeling of authenticity.





In the end we see a composition of different kinds of symbols that form our feeling for authenticity. Only the interplay of these characteristics let us perceive the MOC as authentic. 


If only one was missing, the feeling would already be different when looking at it. But wouldn't it feel authentic anymore? That depends on it, a completely green building or a black floor would hardly give us a credible feeling of Roman antiquity. But what about the people or the actions? For example an Austronaut minifig would banish the model to the realm of fantasy (history is always a bit fiction itself). Well, Astronauts and antiquity simply don't fit. But what about less radical changes? What if you could see a working figure being whipped? Regardless of whether it existed or not, it wouldn't bury our sense of authenticity, would it?


So Tim's model could have looked different. It's not a coincidence how it looks, but the range of action of a portrayal of Roman antiquity that would still have been considered authentic is large. Sociologists call this phenomenon "contingency". Something is not like that by chance, but it could also be different.


Finally, the question arises: did the artist intentionally implement these characteristics in his model? Yes and surely also no. He certainly had to research some details like the crane, which was not chosen by chance. Also he has showed before that he has a good feeling for atmospheres as we can see it in his "The Last of Us" Moc but I still think that many symbols responsible for the effect of authenticity have subconsciously flowed into the model. Everyone knows that the Classical World was white despite the fact that it's not even true. 


But that's not the point. Authenticity doesn't necessarily care about historical "facts". It cares about an illusionistic effect that is created by the composition of the above explained characteristics and by the audience who perceive it as authentic. Our vision of the past defines what is authentic. And it does. The feeling of authenticity isn't lost just because I researched that maybe antiquity wasn't so white. Who knows that and who cares about that and who is reading this blog post? What counts are all the well-known symbols in the form of the white columns, the building itself, the figures, their actions, their clothes, etc. which give us the feeling that we are looking at an authentic representation of the past. Even if it actually comes from the 21st century.


Massive thanks to Tim who created this MOC and gave me the opportunity to try myself on a new and unclear topic.




[1]: Sabrow, Martin: Die Aura des Authentischen in historischer Perspektive, in: Sabrow, Martin / Saupe, Achim (ed.): Historische Authentizität, Göttingen 2016, S. 32.

[2]: Ebd., S. 33.



+ I highly recommend you to check out Tim Schwalfenberg's Flickr Account and enjoy his beautiful LEGO buildings. 

+ Listen to the Podcast episode from Anno PunktPunktPunkt about temporary use of space on the Roman Forum. (For German speakers)