IU-led team will preserve digital copies of priceless sculptures

  • May 31, 2016

Editor's note: This story from The Bloomington Herald-Times is being published here as a courtesy for readers of IU in the News.

  • By Michael Reschke

Bernard Frischer is a 21st-century monument man.

Like the characters in the 2014 film, the Indiana University informatics professor is working to preserve some of the world’s most precious works of art. The pieces he’s working to save aren’t about to be destroyed by Nazis like the ones in “The Monuments Men,” but should a natural or man-made disaster destroy the world-famous Uffizi Gallery and its contents after 2020, there will be three-dimensional digital copies of all the museum’s 1,250 Greek and Roman sculptures.

IU President Michael McRobbie and Uffizi Director Eike Schmidt signed an agreement Wednesday in Florence, Italy, that will allow the images to be posted online and freely accessed by the public by IU’s bicentennial. Over the next four years, Frischer will lead a team of 10 people in photographing and processing the images. Four of the team members are IU informatics doctoral students; three are doctoral students in archaeology at the University of Florence; and three are from Politecnico di Milano, an engineering school in Milan, Italy, Frischer said.

The team will have access to famous sculptures such as the Medici Venus and Medici Faun, which are kept in the Tribuna, an octagonal room with pieces so valuable museum patrons must view them from behind bullet-proof glass.

“To even be allowed in the room is a privilege,” Frischer said.

How it works

Creating a three-dimensional image of an organic form like a human or an animal is much more difficult than a building or even a city because traditional architecture is based on definable geometric forms. A head, a leg or an ear are more complex, but digitizing these objects is much faster and cheaper than it used to be.

When Frischer was digitizing artwork in the 2000s, he had to use a laser scanner. The device sent out a beam of light that would hit a spot on an object and bounce back. A collector would then measure the time it took the beam of light to come back and calculate the coordinates in space. Scanning a sculpture known as the Laocoön group, which depicts a priest and his twin sons being crushed by serpents, took five full days. Processing that data took even longer. Frischer said a statue he digitized in 2007 took one year to complete and cost about $25,000.

For the Uffizi project, Frischer’s team will use a form of data capture called photogrammetry. A digital camera will be used to photograph an object in circles from top to bottom. It takes about 300 photographs to cover a life-size sculpture, compared with about 2 billion points of light with a laser scanner. Data collection on a life-size sculpture using this new technique takes about an hour. Processing that data takes about nine hours and the cost is down to about $500, Frichser said.

“It’s much faster, with no sacrifice in quality or accuracy,” he said.

Once completed, the project will allow someone in Bloomington to view every angle of prized works like the Medici Wrestlers, a first-century B.C. Roman sculpture, without purchasing a plane ticket to Italy.

The project is also the first step in a larger process of understanding art better. Paint that has long since worn off white marble statues can be restored digitally as well as features that have been damaged, like the tip of a nose. In the digital space, works can also be placed in their original context, such as the Roman forum, allowing people to see rays of light forming shadows in the same places as the artist intended.

“That helps people understand what it’s all about,” Frischer said.

Perhaps most importantly, the three-dimensional images of the sculptures will be stored in the Digital Preservation Network. McRobbie chairs the board for the network, which is designed to preserve digital material for centuries. So if the works at the Uffizi are ever threatened by a natural disaster or a war, there will at least be a detailed copy for future generations to study, thanks to monument men like Frischer.