Sebastiano and Michelangelo Reemerge through 3D Printed Recreations

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At times, the sheer number of artistic geniuses working within striking distance of each other, physically if not temporally, is stunning and you’d be hard pressed to find a place in the Western world where that is more true than in Rome. There were, of course, scores of artists and artisans practicing in Rome at any given time, but a few of them were so profoundly impactful than even those with only the barest interest in art history know their names. Such is Michelangelo. Less familiar to the layperson but still a pillar of Roman art is Sebastiano del Piombo who, arriving in Rome in the early 16th century, was strongly influenced by Michelangelo’s recently completed Sistine Chapel.

Installation view of The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano at the National Gallery with the reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel ([Image: The National Gallery, London]

The two artists would become friends and work together in a highly collaborative manner, exchanging ideas and influences, as well as engaging more directly in each other’s work through drawings provided by Michelangelo that were executed in paint by Sebastiano. Over the course of twenty-five years, the artists were involved in each other’s works until a falling out over the preferred medium in which to execute the Last Judgment in the Sistine chapel, with Sebastiano favoring oils and Michelangelo fresco, ending with Michelangelo declaring that painting in oils is “an art for women and for leisurely and idle people like Fra Sebastiano.”

In an ongoing exhibit at The National Gallery, Michelangelo’s work, as undertaken in conjunction with his contemporary Sebastiano prior to the end of their friendship, is taking a decidedly modern turn in the form of a 3D printed recreation of the Roman church Bramante’s San Pietro in Montorio’s Borgherini Chapel. The chapel is one of the finest examples of the collaboration between the two artists and its recreation is on display along with the drawings that Michelangelo prepared for Sebastiano. The relationship that formed the basis of this exhibit was described by The National Gallery:

“Their [Michelangelo and Sebastiano] meeting sparked a remarkable 25-year friendship and partnership; yielding outstanding works of art that neither could have created without the other – against a backdrop of war and religious conflict, but also of great intellectual energy and artistic innovation…Comprising paintings, drawings, sculpture, and letters documenting correspondence between the artists, this groundbreaking exhibition presents works of striking force and originality.”

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte [Image: Factum Arte]

The physical re-enactment of the chapel itself was undertaken by Factum Arte, a team of artists, technicians and conservators based in Madrid, London, and Milan who specialize both in the production and reproduction of works of art. In order to carry out this particular project, they started by shooting nearly 2,500 high-resolution photographs of the surface of the chapel. The articulation of the surface is an especially important part of representing an interior that has often been said to be more sculptural than architectural, and even more so given that the dome itself is not perfectly spherical. The models created from the data were 3D printed using a flexible material and then affixed to the skeletal support structure of steel, plywood, and aluminum. The recreation, which due to space constraints had to be reduced by ten percent from its original size, is itself a masterpiece of craftsmanship.

The reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel by Factum Arte [Image: Factum Arte]

The recreation of the chapel raises the same questions that have always been associated with recreation and that are now more pressing than ever with the possibilities created by digital capture and reproduction. Factum Arte decided to address these questions head on and not leave others to imagine that the chapel’s reproduction is nothing more than a demonstration of sheer technical prowess. Instead of viewing 3D printing as something that can supplant traditional craftsmanship, the recreating is seen as an homage. Not only does it preserve a work of art in a particular state but it also brings those works to an audience that otherwise might never have had the opportunity to appreciate the brilliance of its artists.

It is important to recognize that there is a magic to original works of art that cannot be simply reproduced. It lies not in their physical contours or in the images portrayed, but in the weight of the context in which they were created and the very nature of their unique place in the story of humankind. Rather than being viewed as somehow striving to replace an original with the production capacity made possible by new technologies, these artistic reenactments are both works in their own right and somewhat akin to a Beatles cover band: fun for those who never got the chance to see them perform live and a great mechanism for keeping their memory alive, but unquestionably not their replacement. Discuss in the Borgherini Chapel forum at



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