Chisel - point 3D precision

January 29, 1999

Michelangelo's sculptures are being scanned to make a near perfect archive, Paul Bompard reports

A team of scientists from Stanford University began work on Tuesday in Florence on an ambitious laser-scanning project involving the statues of Michelangelo. Using laser-scanning technology of unprecedented precision, with a measurement every 0.25 mm, the Stanford team plans to produce 3D models of a dozen Michelangelo sculptures in Florence and Rome, including the famous David.

They hope to compile an archive of 3D digital models of the sculptures with enough accuracy and detail to show the smallest chisel-marks, so as to be of use to art historians.

"Larger objects have been scanned before," said Professor Marc Levoy, the computer graphics expert who heads the Stanford team, "and much smaller objects have been scanned with even greater resolution. But never has something this size been scanned with this resolution accuracy. We chose Michelangelo's sculptures because they are highly visible for the project, and because they are not of excessive size, apart from the David."

Italian newspapers suggested that identical copies could be made. But Franca Falletti, director of the Galleria dell'Accademia, where most of the statues are housed, dismissed this as journalistic exaggeration.

"We are only making digital models for scientific use, there is no question, at least for the time being, of using the models to make moulds for commercial copies."

A score of researchers from Stanford are spending the 1998-99 academic year in Florence and working with Italian art historians. They have set up a temporary computer graphics laboratory next door to Stanford's permanent Overseas Studies Centre. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is behind the two organisations, Interval Research Corporation and the Paul Allen Foundation, which are financing the $1.5 million project.

The slightest vibration would move the beam off-target but Levoy is confident that as the Galleria dell'Accademia is built of very solid stone as and the surrounding streets are only for pedestrians, there will be no vibrations. During the scanning, visitors to the museum will be kept at a safe distance.

Each 3D model will require several gigabytes of storage space. In fact, some of Levoy's student-researchers can be observed walking through the streets of Florence with 9GB disk drives strapped to their backs. The entire Michelangelo archive will be in the order of a terabyte. "We can make simplified models for use on normal PCs," said Levoy, "but detail and texture will inevitably be lost."

The project also involves delicate questions of copyright. According to Franca Falletti, "Should there be, in the future, any commercial exploitation, the copyright to the models would belong to the Galleria and hence to the Italian state. It would be a similar situation to the commercialisation of the reproduction rights to a photograph of a painting."

Professor Levoy gives a similar interpretation. "At the moment we are hammering out the intellectual property rights with the Italian authorities. Possibly, the digital models produced by us would belong to us, but the museums would hold the copyright. We have talked to lawyers on the subject and the existing legislation is not altogether clear. In fact, we may find ourselves breaking new ground in the legal as well as the scientific field."

Levoy, however, is adamant that his team's work will be made available for scientific use.

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