Space-age technology reveals hidden secrets behind world masterpieces in COFORM project

Ruth Hazard | 09 August 2012

Professor David Arnold holding a ushabti - a 3,000-year-old Egyptian funeral figurine - about to be captured in the dome by Dean Few, the technician for 3D COFORM© Cultural Informatics Research Group
Exhibition: 3D COFORM, University of Brighton Gallery, Brighton, until August 25 2012

Carving out the intricate detail of his marble masterpiece, David, it is unlikely that Michelangelo conceived of a future where scientists would be able to produce a digital 3D image of the sculpture, enabling them to study the chisel strokes he was at that moment creating.

Using cutting-edge scanners containing 11 cameras and 158 lights, the team behind the 3D COFORM project took 25,000 different angled shots to create such an image of the sculpture, enhancing our understanding of the techniques employed by the great artist himself.

The scanning project provided the team with an unparalleled glimpse into the chisel markings of both David and the previously uncredited Pieta di Palestrina, the identical nature of the strokes suggesting that these two sculptures, despite variances in aesthetic, were almost certainly carved by the same hand.

The exhibition uses this pioneering technology to wade in on other arguments dividing art historians, such as the authorship of a painting depicting Flemish artist, Anthony van Dyck, the origins of the Pisa Griffin that arrived in Italy as part of a treasure booty and the relationship between a series of medieval vases (in the end proven not only to be from the same studio, but also to have been cast from the same mould).

Scanners are used to map digital images of historical artefacts© Cultural Informatics Research Group

Of course, the display doesn’t contain the actual David sculpture or the griffin from the roof of the Pisa Cathedral. But it does provide interactive touch screen exhibits, allowing visitors to look through the digitally mapped images and explore the ground-breaking research for themselves.

This digital archive is innovative not just for the scope it provides to explore historic artefacts, but also in its ability to make them globally accessible.

The visible fractures in David’s marble legs, the painted grooves of the van Dyck and the Islamic inscriptions on the Pisa griffin can now be appreciated from anywhere in the world, irrevocably altering the vision of our museums and their collections in the future.
“What you see at any given time in a museum is only the tip of the iceberg,” explains project director Professor David Arnold.

“There are many more things in storage than on display. With 3-D scanning, everything a museum holds could be recorded and made available for viewing at any time.

“Moreover, with 3D technology you will be able to see details impossible to see on a museum visit.”

And the technology is not just transforming the way we enjoy museum exhibits, but historical sites too. 

The Abu Simbel temple in Northern Egypt has been mapped out in 3-D and recreated virtually, allowing the public to explore its parameters without physically steeping inside.

Visitors of the Brighton exhibition are invited to enjoy this privilege, being asked to don 3D glasses and command their way around the ancient structure, peering inside hidden tombs and attempting to decipher inscriptions engraved on the walls.

There is also a chance to look in detail at these incredible scanners, on loan from the V&A and universities of Bonn and Leuven, with accompanying explanations providing the nitty gritty details of how the team managed to capture the images on display.

Visitors can also set the technology to use by bringing in their own objects to be digitally scanned and reproduced in 3D, revealing the intricacies of their personal treasures in unrivalled microscopic detail. 

The exhibition hints at a new future for museums. The project, in partnership with institutions from across the world, has the ability to change the way we enjoy and appreciate our cultural heritage. This display offers the fascinating first imaginings of what this kind of future might look like.

  • 3D COFORM was at the University of Brighton Gallery, Brighton, until August 25 2012
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