3D Printing and 3D Scanning Restore Intricate Artwork to Its Original Beauty


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The Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Italy is one of the most prestigious public institutes in the field, and it is home to some very old works of art –  some of which aren’t in the greatest of shape. Mattia Mercante, a restorer of cultural heritage, has been using advanced technologies like 3D printing and 3D scanning to restore these works of art and other cultural artifacts. Before he worked with the Opificio, Mercante was interested in architecture, and first looked into 3D modeling as a tool for digital sculpting. They proved to be useful in his trade, however, once he moved into restoration.

“I started using the scanning and 3D printing technologies due to the practical need to solve some of the issues with the documentation, enhancement, and preservation of cultural heritage,” he said. “We started with using 3D scanners for the evaluation of artworks, then digital modeling software became part of the workflow, and now it’s completed with 3D printing. Since the early years of my studies, my goal has been to demonstrate how those involved in cultural heritage restoration can directly and autonomously implement the modern digital tools available today into their workflow, without needing to rely on outsourcing to professionals.”

A restoration project requires several steps. The first is for qualified technical inspectors to work with restorers to evaluate the condition of a piece of art.

“We work to solve three types of problems: urgency, prevention, and enhancement,” said Mercante. “Urgency means that if the artwork needs to be restored quickly to be saved, we must give it priority. If we think that its condition might deteriorate in the near future, we proceed with the restoration for prevention. At last, if an artwork will be exhibited or it’ll be part of a study, it needs to be prepared for such special situations, which we call enhancement.”

3D scanning is used to capture the form of the original artifact.

“Digital scanning and modeling guarantee greater respect for the original artistic style,” said Mercante. “Restorers are art technicians, not painters or sculptors—the interpretative and creative aspects shouldn’t influence our work.”

After scanning, the restorers study the issues and look at possible enhancements. Realization is the first stage, and involves creating documentation, designing the shapes, and completing the restorations. 3D printing is used both to create prototypes and for final restorations. These restorations can take anywhere from five or six months to more than a year for more complex projects.

Mercante specializes in the restoration of terra cotta, plaster, glass and wax sculptures. One of his recent projects involved a multi-material reliquary that was made from glass, fabric, metal, crystal, limestone and shells. The reliquary, at Florence’s Museum Tesoro dei Granduchi of Palazzo Pitti, shows the crucifixion in the center, surrounded by cells depicting different rosary scenes. The frame includes intricate glass decorations, and while it has been restored in the past, the complexity of the features and the lack of a safe technique prevented the frame’s missing decorations from being reconstructed. Until now, that is – Mercante was able to restore the decorations using 3D printing.

“Our work as restorers is not only to preserve the existing, but also to allow visitors to correctly read and interpret the artwork,” he explained. “Thanks to our Formlabs 3D printers in the Opificio laboratory, I was able to reconstruct the missing decorations of the frame, 3D print them using Formlabs’ Standard White Resin, which we then colored in gold and inserted into the artwork. The restorations are visible under UV light, which makes it simple to identify and reverse them if needed.

“The presence of digital technologies in the lab allows me to make constant modifications and work in an entirely independent way, thinking directly about quick and efficient solutions. In the past, it was not possible to carry out some of our projects due to the time constraints and costs of external services. If I have to think about facing the same workflow without using these digital tools, I think I would have given up on many projects.”

Formlabs is impressed with what the restorer has done using the company’s 3D printers.

“Mercante’s projects highlight the variety of uses for 3D printing processes,” Jeff Boehm, Global Marketing Lead at Formlabs, told 3DPrint.com.

“His applications range from scanning to model and print a replacement part, replicating intricate details otherwise impossible to make in a timely manner using traditional methods and printing to cast in alternative materials. At Formlabs we continue to be amazed by what our users can do with our printers and love to see not only innovative applications – but versatile ones as well.”

Another restoration involved a 17th century wood carving by Grinling Gibbons called “The Panel of Cosimo III,” which is a large, detailed and highly technical panel that is extremely difficult to reproduce. Decorations are missing from the panel, but the difficulty of carving the wood with the same skill as the original artist means that it has never been fully restored – again, until now. Using the 3D scanners and 3D printers in the Opificio laboratory, Mercante and his colleague Cristina Gigli created a “virtual cast” based on similar decorations within the piece, and modified it to fit into the incomplete area.

“We 3D printed the design, painted it to match the color of the wood, and mounted it on the artwork, ” said Mercante. “This both solved the issue of artistic interpretation of the piece and helped us overcome the technical obstacles of the complex wood carving.”

Mercante prefers SLA 3D printing for its high detail and surface quality. The prints can also be used to create molds to cast in the original material.

Another project Mercante worked on involved reconstructing the fingers of a marble funeral sculpture by Vincenzo Vela at the Borromeo d’Adda Chapel in Arcore, near Milan. A 3D scan of the sculpture’s broken hand plus a chalk drawing of the sculpture in another museum allowed Mercante and his colleagues to redesign and 3D print the missing fingers.

“We 3D printed the reconstructions, painted them to match the color of the marble, and attached them directly to the artwork in a non-invasive and reversible way using small magnets,” said Mercante.

Last year, he worked with fellow restorer Alice Maccoppi to restore a 17th century artificial cave covered with shells and limestone decorations. Mercante scanned the sections of the walls where the decorations remained intact, then 3D printed the missing shells, which Maccoppi used to create molds for casting in geopolymer materials.

According to Mercante, more restorers are coming to appreciate 3D scanning and 3D printing for the quality and accuracy they offer in restoration projects.

“The most important consideration is the preservation of the artwork,” he said. “If digital techniques and tools improve this aspect, they are welcome. From the technical and theoretical point of view, restorations have everything to gain and nothing to lose. 3D printers must not be the end, but the means. They are instruments in the hands of the restorer, which provide additional solutions that they can use to transfer their knowledge, craft, and virtuosity directly, and adapt it to the needs of the artwork. With the support of digital tools, it is possible to reach higher levels of excellence, so I encourage restorers to use them—the resulting time and cost savings are well worth it.

“Since 2015, I’ve been committed to working with public institutions such as the Opificio delle Pietre Dure to implement scanners and 3D printers. I hope that we can create a department within the institute that would become a self-sufficient provider of digital scanning, 3D printing, and modeling services specialized in cultural heritage restoration.”

Discuss this and other 3D printing topics at 3DPrintBoard.com or share your thoughts below. 

[Images provided by Formlabs]


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