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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The David Leaves Its Site to be Received in a Manhattan Traffic Jam

[Michelangelo’s David being scanned by The Digital Michelangelo Project]

Last week a crotch-shot appeared in my twitter stream. Now, this isn’t normally the type of thing I’d write about but this particular crotch belonged to Michelangelo’s David, the sculpture that wikipedia tells us, has “become iconic shorthand for ‘culture’” ( and if wikipedia’s validation isn’t enough, David was also the central focus of a Simpson’s episode, thereby cementing its place in our [pop]cultural canon). However, the tweeted crotch didn’t belong to that David, but rather a golden, double-sized duplicate resting horizontally on a lowboy trailer driving through New York City.


The enormous reproduction –officially known as David (inspired by Michelangelo)— was created in 2005 by conceptual artist Serkan Ozkaya and, more recently, served as the figurehead of a one-day event at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Though it was only in the city for a single day as a stopover en route to the 21c Museumum in Louisville, Kentucky, it seemed like David’s golden loins were in every new browser window I opened. The ubiquity of this project in all my social media streams got me thinking about my own experience with the original sculpture.

Live streaming of DOUBLE is available at

Double-David[David (Inspired by Michelangelo) at Storefront for Art and Architecture]

Outside the Galleria dell’Academia in Florence, home of Michelangelo’s David, I was standing in a cue that stretched along a stone wall covered with graffiti. It gave me something to read while I waited in line: “Robinson was here” and “Jack loves Diane” and “David is gay” and dozens of other scrawled declarations of identity. Nearby, buskers busked and hawkers hawked novelty boxer shorts strategically printed with images of David’s sling and stones. Thousands of partial reproductions, distributed across the world straight from the source.

Follow David (Inspired by Michelangelo) by Serkan Özkaya on twitter (@storefrontnyc #doubledavid) on March 6th starting at 11am as it tours New York City.

20 minutes and 10 Euros later, I was inside the Academia and the world fell silent. There he was. The slayer of Goliath standing at the center of the Tribuna, an extension to the gallery designed specifically to house Michelangelo’s masterpiece. During the nine years it took to build the that space, the David made a treacherous journey of his own. Covered in scaffolding for nearly a decade, he was slowly moved along a rail system created just to transport him from the Piazza della Signoria, through the streets of Florence, to the Academia. The original mobilized masterpiece. It was worth the effort. The scale and proportion of the Tribuna are the perfect complement to the sculpture. The light in the room accents every muscle and vein as it struggles against the marble. Even though there are hundreds of reproductions in museums, galleries, hotels and casinos around the world, seeing the authentic David is a visceral experience. I couldn’t suppress the stomach flutters and the dizziness that overcome me every time I see a true masterpiece. It’s humbling. Staring up at him, trying to come to terms with these feelings, I heard a man whisper to his young daughter, “no matter what happens, this is now part of your life.” That was it exactly. This experience, this work of art, was now part of my life. But more than that, it was part of me. It’s a strange thing. Why it should feel –and “feel” really is the best word; you can actually feel the original David– any different than standing in front of an exact replica is a mystery. Perhaps it’s the space. Perhaps context is everything. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that what I’m seeing was sculpted by the hands of a Renaissance master more than 500 years ago. Or perhaps it’s all in my head. But for whatever reason, the aura of the sculpture is undeniable.

Digital David[image of the Digital David via The Digital Michelangelo Project]

The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover… – Walter Benjamin

Or maybe not.

For many visitors to the Academia that day, more attractive than the celebrated work of art was the small console standing just yards away. It looked like a pub golf game but was, in fact, David 2.0. Created by Stanford labs, the digital David is a “perfect” 3D model that art-users can rotate and manipulate to examine the sculpture in much closer detail than the would be possible with the original. From six tons to thirty-two gigabytes, the digitized replica of a masterpiece can now be reconstituted in the studio of anyone with a high-speed internet connection and enough hard drive space. Fine art on demand. And since the digital Davids are perfect replicas of David as he existed during the original scan, all physical traces of history present on the surface of the original will be present in future reproductions. Can a reproduction at this level of detail include the aura of the work along with the nicks, scratches, and imperfections? I doubt it. But the flexibility afforded by the digital model creates the possibility for entirely new experiences. Like seeing a 30-foot-tall David in a Manhattan traffic jam. A reproduction that is further reproduced as we retweet camera phone photos of a that David-double lying on a lowboy truck as it’s transported through New York City. Digital, mobilized reproductions of a mobilized digital reproduction. Perhaps now more than ever, David is, in fact, our iconic shorthand for ‘culture’.