Computer scientists at Silicon Valley's Stanford University say they have come up with digital scanning technology that can reproduce famous sculptures with a new degree of precision.
And the team has just discovered that Michelangelo's famous 'David' is 17 feet - three feet taller than the history books traditionally say.
Marc Levoy, a computer science professor at Stanford, has been working with a team on the Digital Michelangelo Project for several months in Italy to build computer models that are accurate enough to be used by both art scholars and casual observers. The team is based in a special computer graphics lab in the Tempi Palace, near the Ponte Vecchio.
According to Levoy, none of the computerised statues created previously have been detailed enough to be used in serious research.
But they are now producing digital images of all of Michelangelo's statues using a specially designed laser scanner, which means students are free to literally turn the sculpture on its head or examine it under different lighting conditions to gain a new perspective.
The project began when a group of American researchers started developing a scanner that was capable of picking up scratches a millimeter wide on statues in Rome and Florence. The device used a laser with band triangulation that could rotate in any direction to capture even the deepest folds in clothing.
"A beam of laser light is hot in such a way that a red curve appears on the statue and is read by the telecameras," said Levoy.
By scanning the sculpture from different angles and analysing the changing shape of the light, scientists can create high quality reproductions. But the project does not stop with David, and the next step will be to analyse the laser data and reproduce masterpieces.
After Florence, where Levoy will also look at statues in the Medici Chapel, he will move to Rome to the Pieta in St. Peter's Basilica, Moses at St. Peter in Chains, and the Forma Romae Urbis, the marble plan of the ancient city, which is made of 900 pieces.
The Archeological and Cultural Departments of Rome and Florence, along with the Vatican Museums, are also involved in the project.
But there is one problem because, according to Levoy, some of the images will be several gigabytes, which is more data than the average personal computer can store.
He said: "It is difficult to foresee exactly how the digitised sculptures will be put to practical use in the future. They are so far beyond the state of current computers. I am not sure who in the next ten or twenty years could even download this thing."
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