Skip to main content

IBM Scientists & Eminent Art Historian Set Out To Digitize Michelangelo's (second) Pieta

Most Extensive Technological Study Ever Done On A Single Work of Art

&quot;</span><i><span>It is impossible to speak of its beauty & its sorrow, of the grieving & sad faces of them all, especially of the afflicted Mother. Let it suffice: I tell you it is a rare thing, & one of the most laborious works that he has yet done... He intends to give the Deposition from the Cross to some </span></i></p><p><span>church - 01 Jul 1998: Florence, Italy -- IBM today unveiled the details of a remarkable collaboration between a team of IBM scientists and an eminent Renaissance art historian to reconstruct Michelangelo's (second) Pietá, a most laborious work intended as the artist's tomb monument and later ruined by his own hand. The project, based on new computerized geometric three dimensional modeling techniques that will make near-perfect digital replication of very large scale objects possible, will yield nearly two billion bits of data.

Taking place at IBM's T.J. Watson Research lab in New York and the Museum of the Opera del Duomo in the Cathedral of Florence, the project represents the most extensive study ever done on a single work of art.

For Jack Wasserman, distinguished historian of Italian art and Temple University professor emeritus, the building of a single visual virtual model of the Pieta will help shed new light on the mysteries surrounding the Florentine Pietá and Michelangelo's attempt to ruin it.

"The final result of this study", says Wasserman, "will be a near perfect replica of the work, set up in a way that will enable me to carefully study the image inch by inch, from all possible vantage points and draw some long-awaited conclusions."

Michelangelo took up work on the Florentine Pieta, the second of three Pietas, when he was in his 70s. The work is a group of four larger-than-life figures carved from a single block of marble: the broken body of Christ is held up by Mary Magdelan, aided by Nicodemus above her, and the Virgin Mary to the right. Only the figure of Christ is finished, although the left arm has been broken and repaired and the left leg is missing. Nicodemus displays the unfinished features of the artist himself and the Virgin's face blocked out.

Answering Century-Old Questions Through New Technology

Many 16th century discussions on the topic of ideal proportions in sculpture were geared toward understanding Michelangelo's style and perspective. For Wasserman, the proportion and details of the second Pietá are curious; some parts are excessively elongated, while others seem suspiciously small. "The ability to stand each figure of this Pietá up straight without distorting the dimensions and proportions would provide valuable insight into the question of what Michelangelo's proportions were like, his general concept of proportions, how he meant the work to be viewed at his tomb site, and, perhaps, his intent in taking a hammer to it."

In 1997, Wasserman's desire to answer questions surrounding the statue, as well as to view it from new vantage points brought him to IBM and Gabriel Taubin, head of the visual and geometric computing group at IBM Research and a specialist in geometric and image-based computation.

To Taubin, not only was the task at hand of artistic interest, but "it presented technological challenges in the area of data collection and assembly into a three-dimensional model that has the desired properties, and using it to render very accurate images under different lighting conditions, from different points of view. And for all these processes, the volume of data that we have to handle carries the problem beyond the scope of existing techniques."

Digitizing the Florentine Pietá for a near perfect replica requires IBM scientists to take nearly 700 individual digital shape photographs of this more than 2.5 meter-tall statue. The relative positions of the shape photographs with respect to the sculpture must be determined to
assemble all of them into a single accurate digital 3-D representation of the work in the computer. IBM used a Virtuoso shape six lens camera to capture data. This special camera uses structured light and multi-baseline techniques to capture three dimensional shape images and slightly differing points of view of the statue. From these, a computer algorithm determines relative positions of the shape photographs to the surface and reconstructs the image in three dimensions. Texture and color information is captured by a color camera mounted on top of the Virtuoso.

While developing new hardware and software to manage the enormous amounts of data collected in digitizing this Pietá was challenging, Taubin sees some of these methods being applied more generally to the problem of digitizing very large real-world objects--priceless artistic masterpieces, for instance, or works of architecture. This would enable one to examine an object in exquisite detail even without access to the original. Long term, consumer applications such as three dimensional cameras and camcorders could be possible.

This winter, IBM's work on Michelangelo's Florentine Pietá will be compiled in a book of essays on the sculpture that will be edited by Wasserman and published next year by Princeton University Press. "The main function of the book is to document the statue factually in as extensive way as possible," says Wasserman, "and also to have analytical studies, theoretical studies--from historical, scientific and aesthetic points of view--of the various information gathered from the statue. The fundamental importance of the book is to make available a fully-documented presentation of the statue and expose some of the questions and possible answers. These may be right or wrong but will at least open fresh areas of thought, with the idea that future scholars may add more documentation to it."

# # #

For more information on the the geometric modeling of the Florentine Pieta and visual art, visit, or for Italian.

Contact(s) information

Kendra Collins

Related XML feeds
Topics XML feeds
Chemistry, computer science, electrical engineering, materials and mathematical sciences, physics and services science