February 24, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Silvia Lazzaris takes a look at the National Gallery's new exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano

3D-printers have now become better than the best copyists and art renovators. The ethical pros and cons are telling a story way beyond the invention of a new technology.

If you visit the National Gallery’s new exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano, you will most likely find yourself in front of the Borgherini Chapel by Sebastiano del Piombo, Michelangelo’s pupil. Looking closer, you will be able to observe Sebastiano’s peculiar brush strokes and the marks left by time: some plaster has fallen off, some paint has faded, a modern plug socket is sunk into the wall. You might wonder about the difficulties the frescoed Chapel must have gone through, during its journey from San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, to Trafalgar Square. Or instead, you could start to doubt whether you are in front of the original chapel, or rather in front of an impressively accurate replica. In any case, your imagination would not probably lead you to think that you are in fact standing in front of a hyper-realistic 3D-printed replica of the Chapel.

Factum arte and its fac-similes
This astonishing reproduction was created by the Factum Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded in 2009 in Madrid, also based in London and Milan. As they highlight on their website, “Factum was established to recreate and disseminate the world’s cultural heritage through the development of extremely advanced digital technology”. Factum’s technology, which involves different types of scanning, allows the re-materialisation of data as physical three-dimensional objects. Using different cutting-edge tools, Factum is able to reproduce perfect pieces of art that range from entire rooms – such as the refectory at Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci painted The Last Supper – to very tiny details, such as the brush strokes of Spanish artist Goya’s Black Paintings.

As Bruno Latour, sociologist of science and anthropologist, suggests, Factum “has given to the words ‘reproduce’ and ‘facsimile’ a completely new sense and direction”. Indeed, the perfect reproduction of the pieces can guarantee accurate accessibility to a much wider public. This means that, in order to study Leonardo’s Mona Lisa in depth, you may not need to queue at the Louvre anymore – there could be a perfect one in every city!

Benefits and concerns about this new cutting-edge technology
In the future, the benefits of a similar technology could increase the chances of public engagement with art and also ensure our cultural memory from threats like iconoclastic destruction, natural disasters, or imperfect restoration. As Simon Schaffer, professor of history and philosophy of science at Cambridge, comments, thanks to digital reproduction ‘objects’ conservation and reproduction simply leave things just as they are, unchanged and immortal”. Even more than that, digital artisans could solve some ethical issues, especially those regarding the conflicting values that are involved in the debate around preservation. It could, for example, change the relevance of the reasons usually provided for the relocation of a piece of art – that involves the remotion from its original place. Ultimately, Factum could help curators to learn better ways to preserve each piece of art in the most effective way.

However, New access to accurate replicas could change the way we approach the original pieces, and consequently the value we put in their restoration. At the same time, some new questions may arise: can a replica convey the same emotions as the original piece? To what extent is the value of the experience influenced by standing directly in front of the artist’s creation? What might be lost in the replica-experience? As usual, new technologies can get rid of some problems, and yet some other issues can arise consequentially.

Nevertheless, Factum undeniably represents the victory of art over destruction and loss. It means that there won’t be any more destinies such as those of the Library of Alexandria, destroyed by fire, or of the Syrian cultural heritage, destroyed by the so-called Islamic State’s ideology. Hopefully, it will represent also the victory of cultural memory over carelessness and oblivion.

If you want to visit the exhibition on Michelangelo and Sebastiano, you will find it on display until June 25th at the National Gallery.

Silvia Lazzaris is studying for an MSc in Science Communication

Banner Image: Borgherini facade, Factum Foundation