The Digital Michelangelo Project

We learned about this Stanford University project from David Eagleman. We won’t loose any of the priceless art that they have already scanned to 1/4mm resolution. The David scan comprises a billion 3D polygons, taking about a month to complete the scan.

Recent improvements in laser rangefinder technology, together with algorithms developed at Stanford for combining multiple range and color images, allow us to reliably and accurately digitize the external shape and surface characteristics of many physical objects. Examples include machine parts, cultural artifacts, and design models for the manufacturing, moviemaking, and video game industries.

As an application of this technology, a team of 30 faculty, staff, and students from Stanford University and the University of Washington spent the 1998-99 academic year in Italy scanning the sculptures and architecture of Michelangelo. As a side project, we also scanned 1,163 fragments of the Forma Urbis Romae, a giant marble map of ancient Rome. We are currently back in the United States processing the data we acquired. Our goal is to produce a set of 3D computer models – one for each statue, architectural setting, and map fragment we scanned – and to make these models available to scholars worldwide.

The motivations behind this project are to advance the technology of 3D scanning, to place this technology in the service of the humanities, and to create a long-term digital archive of some important cultural artifacts. Our sponsors are Stanford University, Interval Research Corporation and the Paul G. Allen Foundation for the Arts. Our collaborators, a mix of computer scientists and art historians, include the Italian museums and institutions whose names are listed below.

It is very unlikely that these treasures will be completely lost like those of the Library of Alexandria. If for example a tragic earthquake turned all of the Italian treasures to dust, future generations could still know the sculptures through 3D-printer replicas. BTW, I thought Ceasar caused the burning of the Library, but the truth is more elusive:

(…) So who did burn the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist or deist who liked very much to blame Christians and blamed Theophilus) to Bishop Gregory (who was particularly anti-Moslem, blamed Omar) all had an axe to grind and consequently must be seen as biased. Probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library’s holdings. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added. For instance, Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library long after Julius Caesar is accused of burning it.

It is also quite likely that even if the Museum was destroyed with the main library the outlying “daughter” library at the Temple of Serapis continued on. Many writers seem to equate the Library of Alexandria with the Library of Serapis although technically they were in two different parts of the city.

The real tragedy of course is not the uncertainty of knowing who to blame for the Library’s destruction but that so much of ancient history, literature and learning was lost forever.

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