Last weekend, I visited the Cast Courts at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It was the bank holiday, a scorcher, and I almost had the rooms to myself. I drifted from the life-size plaster copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ towards a replica of the portico from Compostela cathedral. I used the facsimile of Trajan’s Column in Rome, made in the 1860s and sawn in two to fit beneath the museum’s roof, to take a breather: Since the Courts reopened a couple of years back, you’ve been able to enter through the base and sit inside.
People have copied artworks — even ones as gargantuan as Trajan’s Column — for almost as long as they’ve been making art. Plaster casts have been used to replicate manmade objects since antiquity. Any Renaissance collector worth their salt made sure to possess copies of well-known classical sculptures, as a kind of teaching aid-cum-greatest hits album.
Yet the technology for scanning and copying museum-grade art for archival or conservation is evolving rapidly. The jargon has multiplied, too. Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) surveying machines use laser pulses to generate digital models of everything from individual sculptures to the interiors of buildings. Super-high-resolution photogrammetry software stitches together thousands of photographs to map the surface of physical objects. It can now record detail to an accuracy of two microns, invisible to the naked eye, ft.com reported.
In archaeology and architecture, Lidar is already changing the game. The California-based company CyArk has dispatched surveying teams and drones to sites as varied as temples in Myanmar, Neolithic monuments on Orkney and the Stonewall monument in New York, collecting millimeter-precise survey data that can assist conservation. By astonishing luck, an American art historian laser-scanned the interior of Notre-Dame in Paris before the fire in April, data that’ll be invaluable for restoration.
Once you’ve got your dataset, and depending on the size of the object you’ve scanned, it’s now straightforward to churn out an infinite series of copies. Computer-controlled lathes can carve almost any material with faultless accuracy. 3D printers can now form many kinds of plastic, wax, metal, carbon fiber — even resin-impregnated plaster. The 19th-century craftsmen who spent a year hand-casting Trajan’s Column would surely weep with envy.
But if you possess the original artwork, why go to the trouble and expense of reproducing it? Isn’t a 3D print still a knock-off, no matter how plausible?
Adam Lowe is co-founder of the Madrid-based company Factum Arte, a leader in the field. Factum made headlines in 2014 for producing a 1:1 replica of Tutankhamun’s tomb using a custom scanner and a computer-controlled engraving machine, then erecting it in Luxor. When we speak, Lowe explains that the applications are near-endless. Say a manuscript is too fragile or light-sensitive to exhibit safely; a digital print enables visitors to inspect it up close, at a resolution essentially indistinguishable from the real thing. How about scanning an altarpiece’s panels, each now owned by a different museum, and using digitally controlled relief printing on wood to reunite them in one gallery? Two years ago, Factum used digital techniques to craft a reproduction of the apse of the Borgherini Chapel in Rome, painted by Sebastiano del Piombo, shrinking it by 10 percent so it would squeeze inside London’s National Gallery. “That took about two weeks,” Lowe said.
He points out that it’s not as if originals don’t have drawbacks. “If you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, can you actually see the Mona Lisa behind that bulletproof glass?”
The philosophical — let alone ethical — issues make my head spin. Eight decades after Walter Benjamin wrote ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, puzzling away at what makes art unique in the era of photography and film, we’re now in a place where copies are so accurate that even experts are fooled. As any conservator will tell you, the safest place for any artifact is in a darkened, air-conditioned vault; if displaying objects shortens their life, don’t we have an obligation to future generations to display facsimiles instead? And think about cases where there are calls for disputed artifacts to be returned to their countries of origin. If the British Museum made faultless copies of the Parthenon marbles, then handed the originals back to Greece, wouldn’t everyone be happy? Less angry, at least?
Benjamin suggested that art’s uniqueness lay in its “aura”, the quasi-religious phenomenon that comes with being in the presence of, say, the original Trajan’s Column rather than a grainy photo (or indeed a plaster cast sawn in two). Would the same distinction apply to a painstakingly 3D-printed marble replica, accurate to the micron, recording every gesture made by the original sculptors? I can’t decide. But it feels an exciting problem to have.
* Andrew Dickson is a freelance journalist, author and broadcaster who writes about the arts, books, music and visual culture for the Guardian, The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Financial Times, The New York Review of Books, The TLS, Prospect magazine and the New Statesman, among others.