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Last Updated: Friday, 7 January, 2005, 17:27 GMT
Technology rescues Italy's art

By David Reid
Reporter, BBC Click Online

Museums may not be the first places to spring to mind when it comes to the uptake of cutting-edge technology. But David Reid finds hi-tech is playing an important role in bringing history to life in Italy.

Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper
The wall that supports Da Vinci's Last Supper is crumbling
The problem with Italy's antiquities and culture is that there is simply too much.

How do you conserve ancient and priceless artefacts at the same time as letting people come and see them?

Technology can help solve both problems.

One of the most pivotal images of the Renaissance, Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper, is now so fragile that only a few people can see it at any one time.

Visitors file into a glass chamber at the Church of Santa Maria Delle Grazie, while the pollution from the Milan street is sucked out and clean air is blown in.

At 500 years old, the picture is not enduring as well as it might.

Not for the first time, the work has been restored, but it is so fragile that the make-up of the air inside the chapel has to be continually regulated by a computer-controlled air pump.

But that is not the end of it. The wall supporting the painting is slowly collapsing.

Shored up with steel girders, the wall is wired.

'Sophisticated'

Its vital signs are monitored around the clock with plumb lines and pressure pads so that computers can alert scientists to any drastic deterioration in its condition.

Giuseppe Ciolfi, the architect at Milan's Cultural Heritage, explains how the structure is designed to hold up the wall.

"It is set up with sophisticated sensors to detect any movement of the wall and to keep the environment of the room strictly under control."

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Visitors can explore the Scrovegni Chapel with 3-D software
Technology can also give scientists an alternative image of art and architecture.

Just as an X-ray can tell if a painting has been reworked, so infra-red cameras can shed a new light on how structures have been altered and, like The Last Supper, where potential weak points are.

This is important when you consider that in 1997 a chapel containing frescoes by the artist Giotto was damaged by an earthquake in Assisi.

This fate might have been averted had the cracks in its structure been detected.

Startling

Like The Last Supper, the climate inside the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua is kept free of pollutants and - despite Giotto's graphic vision of hell, which adorns the wall - radical fluctuations in temperature.

However, one of the main problems is keeping visitor-time to a minimum.

Curators give visitors a feel for the chapel, but if they want to ponder the paintings longer they can do so through a computer program that recreates the interior in startling 3-D.

It is a new take on high art that makes it much more approachable
Controlled with a key pad and mouse, the software allows visitors to navigate wherever they want to in the chapel, and zoom in to get a closer look than they can on the real thing.

You can jump up into the rafters to get a bird's-eye view, and you can also see how the chapel might have looked to Giotto when he first planned its layout 700 years ago.

It is a new take on high art that makes it much more approachable.

Antonia Recchia, the head of IT at the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, says that often, difficult and obtuse language prevents not only the foreign tourist but also Italian art lovers from clearly understanding a work of art.

"Our museum displays, although faultless from a technical and scientific point of view, have often failed by preventing people from fully understanding a masterpiece", she says.

But now, technology, while it is certainly no substitute for the real thing, can come to the rescue and help to conserve and enhance the most precious artefacts from our past.


Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0730 . Also BBC World.

SEE ALSO:
Digital salvation for Aboriginal art
10 Dec 02 |  Technology
Digital cameras save artworks
11 Mar 02 |  Science/Nature


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