A flight to Florence may no longer be necessary to see ancient sculptures by Botticelli, da Vinci, or Michelangelo at the Uffizi Gallery. By harnessing the power of 3D modeling, IU’s Virtual World Heritage Lab is working to bring 500 to 600 ancient statues housed at the Uffizi to the livings rooms — or computer screens — of researchers, scholars and art-lovers.
Dubbed the Uffizi Project, the 5-year project began in 2015. It aims to digitize 3D models of busts, sarcophagi and relics of times past. As a result, people can see the sculptures from any angle without stepping foot outside their homes.
“It’s like being there,” said Bernard Frischer, the IU informatics professor leading the project. “You can get exactly the view you want.”
Students in IU’s Virtual Heritage Ph.D. program, the only virtual heritage doctoral program in North America, travel to the Uffizi Gallery, to digitize the sculptures. In return, they’re trained on the ins and outs of digital modeling, 3D data collection and interactive online platforms.
The students will return to the Uffizi, one of the most visited museums in Italy, this summer to continue the project. The 300 models they have already created are available on the Uffizi website and the Virtual World Heritage Laboratory’s Digital Sculpture Project.
Frischer has hundreds of thousands of images of sculptures in his personal archives. But when he plans lectures, he still never seems to have the perfect angle of the object to illustrate his talk.
“But with a 3D model, you have limitless angles,” he said.
The software can also change the lighting on the model and even restore a worn sculpture to its former glory.
“We can restore it, put in the missing nose and the missing hand and the missing color,” Frischer said.
Frischer said most Greek and Roman sculptures were originally painted, but that paint has since deteriorated. With 3D models, people can see the sculptures in full color again.
3D Modeling and Virtual Reality
This 3D technology isn’t just limited to smaller objects either, Frischer said.
“It can be something small like a pottery to something like a house or a settlement or a city or a whole landscape,” he said. “The possibilities are endless.”
This is where 3D modeling can delve into augmented and virtual reality, allowing people to not only see cultural heritage monuments, but also to put on a headset, walk around the object and immerse themselves in an artificial world that reflects the environment the object is from.
Even if the sculpture is sitting in a museum, researchers can place the digitized object in a simulated version of its former environment, such as a Roman house or Greek temple.
“Almost no object was created to sit in a museum gallery,” Frischer said. “It’s like an animal specimen stuck in the formaldehyde of a lab jar. We want to restore it to its former life.”
Frischer compares the process to virtual time travel. He said researchers can, in effect, travel to the past to record observations, run experiments, and recreate past experiences. The process can also allow researchers to study the past more empirically — what Frischer calls “simpiricism,” or simulated empiricism.
“We could send the greatest historian of the American Revolution back to Valley Forge, to George Washington’s tent,” Frischer said. “You could send the greatest classical archaeologist back to Athens in the time of Pericles and Socrates.”
By “traveling through time” with virtual reality, Frischer said scholars would come back with untold knowledge and insight that would reach far beyond the remnants of the past we study today.
“It’s just all the same, old material, and there’s less progress that can be made,” Frischer said. “But by creating these new sensations through virtual time travel, suddenly we’re opening things up and bringing to light new data to think about.”
But digitizing a single object is no small task. Collecting, processing, editing, and publishing the 3D data for one sculpture takes about 10 hours.
Unlike rectilinear objects like buildings, Frischer said sculptures have a more complex form that is difficult to capture. When he first started digitizing sculptures in 2004, the process was even more difficult.
In those days, researchers would use a laser scanner to scan each surface of the object — a painstaking process that could take hours to days. Frischer’s 3D model of “Laocoön and His Sons” by Agesander, Athenodoros, and Polydorus took five days to scan.
Things changed by 2010, when photogrammetry, a method using a digital camera instead of a laser, became the norm. The method cut costs and saved time. The camera Frischer uses costs $5,000 while a laser scanner costs $150,000. Frischer was also able to photograph Laocoön and His Sons in a single hour.
“We’re in a revolutionary period,” Frischer said.
The Model and the Original
Now that this technology is available, Frischer said it’s this generation’s duty to document artifacts before they are damaged or destroyed. Then, if precious artifacts are lost, 3D models can be used to reverse engineer and recreate the objects.
But this doesn’t mean digital 3D models can replace the originals, Frischer said.
“I get shivers up my spine when I’m alone working with a great statue,” he said. “There’s a huge amount of emotional power, this aura a 3D model can’t capture. Technology, the laws of physics can’t capture that magic, that mystical aura that comes from the human mind resonating with the object. That’s not something we can digitize.”
While digital models can’t replace the originals, Frischer said they can arouse curiosity and spread awareness of great art.
“We’re making it more accessible and easier to expand your horizons and find things in art that pique your interest,” Frischer said. “Then, if something captures your fancy, you can book an airplane ticket and go and see it.”