3D Printing Brings Modena Cathedral to Fingertips of Visually Impaired


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3D printing has proved time and again to be an excellent resource for sharing visual material with people who cannot see it. Printing 3D versions of paintings, providing sculptural versions of ultrasound imagery, or simply creating replicas of objects too delicate to be touched themselves has repeatedly shown the technology to be a valuable tool for advancing the opportunities of the visually impaired to participate in visual culture. Its recognition as such led to a joint effort to scan and 3D print the Cathedral, Torre Civica, and Piazza Grande, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Modena.

The site, in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, was recognized by UNESCO in 1997 because it is “a masterpiece of human creative genius in which a new didactical relation between architecture and sculpture was created in Romanesque art.” The Romanesque period is difficult to contain as it did not follow a particular political regime, but rather slowly evolved at different paces over a vast swathe of territory. The style is exhibited in buildings with rounded arches, thick walls with few openings, and clearly designed forms and is the first distinct style to flourish in Europe after the Roman Empire fell.

The Modena Cathedral, begun in 1099 and completed in 1319, is the product of a collaboration between the architect Lanfranco, whose only known work is the cathedral, and the sculptor Wiligelmo. The cathedral was built over the site of the remains of Modena’s patron saint Geminiano and while little is known about the saint directly, he has been an important figure in Modena since his death in the fourth century. A church has existed on the site of what is now the cathedral since the fifth century and the people of Modena believe that it was his divine intercession that saved them from the ravaging Huns who conquered so much of the rest of Europe, by calling up a dense fog to shroud the city and make it impossible to conquer.

The building itself is particularly important for two reasons: first, because of its documented reuse of ancient remains, something that was typical of construction during this time period and second, because of explicit inscriptions within the building that document the collaboration between the architect and artist. The fact that such explicit inscriptions exist indicates a fundamental shift in the way that buildings were being perceived; rather than as simple monuments to the greatness of their founders, there was an increased recognition of their existence as a monument to their creators as well.

[Photo: Yvon Fruneau via UNESCO]

This cathedral is a vital part of experiencing Modena, both for those who live there and for the multitude of tourists who come through every year. For this reason, it seemed particularly important to allow all those who travel through the opportunity to most fully experience it, even if they couldn’t see it for themselves. The surrounding buildings and square were created by milling high density polystyrene and serve to give context to the model of the cathedral. The plans for the model of the cathedral itself originally called for it to be created in sintered nylon, but the thickness of the walls and the size of the details at less than one millimeter proved a challenge; it was eventually determined that a better option was to print the model using stereolithography, which allowed the preservation of details up to 50 microns.

The entire project took five weeks to complete, including analysis, file cutting, test prints, cleaning, sanding, and finishing work, with the prints themselves requiring one week of continuous 3D printing. The entire project consists of five prints: four 1:1 scale reproductions that use a mixture of 3D printing and traditional fabrication techniques, and a 1:100 scale model of the entire site. The cathedral itself was 3D printed in four sections: the Duomo and half tower, half of the Duomo south, half of the North tower, and the tip of the tower. This allows the model to be opened up and experienced from the inside as well, an important part of understanding the artistic program of the cathedral as a whole.

The project received support from the Ministry of Fine Arts, Culture and Tourism, the Civic Museum, the Italian Union of the Blind, and the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia. The scanning was performed by Geomatics Engineering Innovative Solutions (GEIS) while the resins and 3D printing expertise were provided through Justprint3D! which acted as the technical sponsor of the project. While the project was designed to aid the visually impaired in experiencing the beauty of the cathedral, the model is also a fascinating way to examine the site for the sighted as well.

What do you think of this news? Let us know your thoughts; join the discussion of this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your comments below.

[Model images provided by JUSTPRINT3D!]


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