Virtual Florence

Computer-generated reconstruction of historical monuments

Anna McGee
September 7, 2016 - 17:15

I can’t be the only one who wanders around Florence trying to picture what it would have been like in the past, as a thriving Renaissance metropolis. The little piazza San Pier Maggiore, near Santa Croce, is one of the most tantalising places in that respect: on one side of the square, between the modern-day shops, cafés and apartments, an elegant portico stands, an intriguing hint of the piazza’s past life. This seventeenth-century portico is almost the only visible remainder of the Church of San Pier Maggiore, built around 1300 and destroyed in 1784.

Ph. Miguel Santa Clara Ph. Miguel Santa Clara

Now, however, we don’t just have to imagine what these places would have been like: new technology has been developed that helps to graphically reconstruct buildings which we can no longer see, creating a “virtual Florence”. Researchers from Cambridge University and the UK’s National Gallery have joined forces to work out exactly where the elusive Church of San Pier Maggiore stood—its ground plan—and what it would have looked like.

Historic plans and old city views could only go so far in aiding the reconstruction process. It was the help of Florentines that made real progress possible: locals welcomed the researchers into the buildings now standing in the piazza, allowing them to look for clues to the past. While to the casual observer the Church of San Pier Maggiore has all but disappeared, digging a little deeper revealed some amazing finds. Incredibly, inside the bathroom of Bar Patrizio Cosi a Renaissance pilaster was found, which centuries ago would have framed one of the church’s side chapels—go and see it for yourself! Opening the airing cupboard in a private apartment exposed a section of the spiral staircase of an ancient campanile, which today leads onto a small roof terrace.

And so, little by little, the researchers were able to piece together what the church once looked like and where its different elements were positioned. They created a 3D model using animation software designed for the film industry, generating a “virtual neighbourhood” with photogrammetry software.

I spoke exclusively to Dr. Donal Cooper of Cambridge University’s History of Art Department, one of the project’s main scholars, about the importance of virtual reconstructions of this sort. The San Pier Maggiore work was initially undertaken in part to recreate the original setting of two altarpieces—one by Jacopo di Cione and one by Francesco Botticini—now at London’s National Gallery. Cooper explains that Renaissance paintings of this sort were painted with their intended environment in mind, and so their full impact is lost in a modern gallery space. Thanks to the project, they can now be visualised in the church, helping us to understand how contemporaries would have viewed them.

Ph. Miguel Santa Clara Ph. Miguel Santa Clara

But isn’t the destruction of the original San Pier Maggiore a tragic cultural loss? “No,” says Cooper. “I do not think we should lament the church’s passing. While the virtual reconstruction is a fascinating experiment and a means of peeling back layers of Florence’s complex history, the city is alive and will keep changing.”

We cannot stop Florence’s urban development in the future, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to understand the past. Cooper believes that Florence, historically rich yet dynamic and ever developing, is the ‘ideal laboratory’ for historical reconstruction. He predicts that this will become increasingly widespread with constantly evolving technology.

He acknowledges, though, that not every detail can be recovered and it is important to be honest about the method’s limitations; otherwise, a misleading visualization of the past would be created.

The San Pier Maggiore pilot project has sparked interest in uncovering other parts of the city’s architectural and artistic past. Cooper says it would be fascinating to virtually reinstate Florence’s old city walls back into the viali. In the nearer future, University of Florence’s Professor Franco Niccolucci will undertake a similar reconstruction of the nunnery at Le Murate, repositioning Giorgio Vasari’s enormous Last Supper within the nuns’ refectory for which it was originally painted. The painting, badly damaged in 1966, has recently been restored by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure and will go back onto display this November to mark fifty years since the flood, accompanied by the digital reconstruction.

Found any mysterious structures or remains in your house or hotel room? Could they be the key to understanding more of Florence’s past? Share them with us by emailing [email protected]

Historic plans and old city views could only go so far in aiding the reconstruction process. It was the help of Florentines that made real progress possible.


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