3D Printing During the Renaissance

digital david alberti
Digitizing David

3D printing is making it drastically easier to produce infinite identical copies of anything, for better or worse, for humanitarian or for destructive purposes. A replica of Michelangelo’s David can be made at home just as easily as an assault rifle. While the relatively new technology of 3D printing is proving popular with designers, fabricators and the general public, it hasn’t yet reached the ubiquity of the home printer. But it will. A recent trip to the Makerbot store, a 3D printing boutique in Manhattan, has absolutely convinced that “desktop” 3D printing is poised to change the world. I saw nine-year-old kids using basic CAD software to make their own toys. It doesn’t take much imagination to envision a near-future where toys are downloaded like books or songs or movies. Print-on-demand custom lego bricks or minifigs are the kinds of things I would have dreamt about as a child if I could have even imagined the possibility. It’s only a matter of time until desktop fabrication is as common as desktop publishing. The technology is getting cheaper and more efficient every year.

These latest drawing and modeling technologies are fascinating, but I recently decided to do a little digging into the history of “3D Printing” for Smithsonian’s Design Decoded blog and learned that the earliest fabrication “machines” actually date all the way back to the Renaissance, to a man who invented digital reproduction in the truest sense of the word. Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian philosopher, scientist, architect and all around polymath who lived during the 15th century. The prototypical Renaissance man, Alberti is perhaps one of the most important and influential creative figures to come out of the era. It’s a travesty that he’s not popularly known. Alberti essentially invented architectural notation and thus, the very idea of the architect (although some might argue for Brunelleschi). He believed that art and science were united by basic principles of mathematics, and among his many accomplishments he also invented techniques for producing identical copies of paintings, sculptures, and even buildings without the aid of mechanical devices such as the printing press. This desire for a method of creating identical copies came out of Alberti’s frustration with the inadequacies and inevitable mistakes that result from manual reproduction techniques. In his excellent book, The Alphabet and The Algorithmarchitectural theorist and historian Mario Carpo describes these techniques as “digital” reproductions:

“Alberti tried to counter the failings of analog images by digitizing them, in the etymological sense: replacing pictures with a list of numbers and a set of computation instructions, or algorithms, designed to convert a visual image into a digital file and then recreate a copy of the original picture when needed.”

By reducing images to carefully calculated coordinates and documenting the method by which the original was created, Alberti ensured that anyone could produce copies that were exactly identical to his original work. The numeric manuscripts, which were easy to copy without error, represented a type of Renaissance era file transfer.

david finitorium
left: An illustration of Alberti’s finitorium in use. right: David being digitally scanned by Stanford Labs

The most impressive of these techniques describes a method for accurately copying a statue. In his treatise on figural sculpture, De statua, Alberti described a method of reproducing identical copies of sculptures using traditional tools and basic computation. First, the artist/copier takes precise measures of the sculpture’s height, width and its various diameters using the proper tools – t-squares, angles, etc. The main components of the sculpture are measured and documented numerically —“scanned,” if you will—in relation to one another and to the entire length of the statue. To get more precise measurements of the statue’s details, a device of Alberti’s invention known as the definitor or finitorium is installed atop the statue. The finitorium is a flat disc inscribed with degrees joined to a movable arm, also inscribed with measurements; from the end hangs a weighted line. By rotating the arm and raising or lowering the plumb line, it is technically possible, although surely infuriatingly slow, to map every single point on the statue in three-dimensional space relative to its central axis. That data could then be sent to a craftsman who would use it to create an identical copy of the original statue. Or, it could be sent to craftsmen who each create a portion of the original statue. Using Alberti’s method of “digitization” these individual components could even be fabricated in different cities and seamlessly assembled to create an exact replica of the original—a process that sounds a lot like modern manufacturing.

makerbot replicator
The Makerbot Replicator 2

This brings us back to 3D printing. There are many different kinds of 3D printers that create models from various types of plastic, but they all essentially work the same. The printer processes digital blueprints—coordinates located in virtual space—of an object created by modeling software and digitally “slices” the model into pieces small enough to be created by the machine. These components are layered on top of one another in incredibly small increments and are bound together almost seamlessly, creating an identical physical reproduction of the original digital model. 3D scanning and printing is obviously much, much faster than Alberti’s method, but it functions in much the same way—except, of course, for the automated documentation of an object’s shape and the robotic construction using synthetic materials.

3d david
A copy of Michelangelo’s David created with the Makerbot Replicator 2. (via Google Groups)

With both the old and new technologies, any statue—any thing, really—can be theoretically recreated at any size anywhere. Take, for instance, Michelangelo’s David. In 2000, Stanford labs created a digital 3D copy of the David that art “users” can rotate and manipulate to examine the sculpture in much closer detail than would be possible if they were to visit the original in Florence. In 2009 Stanford made drastic improvements to their earlier model with a full-resolution (1/4mm) 3D model of Michelangelo’s 5-meter statue that contains nearly 1 billion polygons. It may be the largest existing digital model of a scanned object. From six tons to thirty-two gigabytes, the digitized replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece can now be reconstituted in the studio of anyone with a high-speed internet connection, enough hard drive space, and a Makerbot. The flexibility afforded by the digital model creates entirely new ways for people to experience the statue. See the above image for one such example. At a much larger scale is the enormous golden reproduction known formally as David (inspired by Michelangelo), which was created in 2005 by conceptual artist Serkan Ozkaya and is currently installed in the 21c Museum in Louisville, Kentucky.

3D printers and other forms of digital fabrication will change the way we live. But the ideas behind these paradigm-shifting machines have been around for a long time, and the dream of sharing and creating identical copies dates all the way back to the 15th century. Scientists, artists and philosophers like Alberti lacked the technological sophistication to make their ideas practical, and, in some cases, they lacked the imagination to even realize the possibilities of what they proposed. But that’s no longer a problem. We have the technology. And the designers of tomorrow –perhaps even the children of today– will realize the dreams of the Renaissance.

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