The Digital Michelangelo Project: Technology meets Antiquities

Technology has allowed for digitization of external shape, surface, and color of physical objects. Applying this technology, an academic group from the University of Washington and Stanford University spent 1998-1999 scanning ten statues by Michelangelo, as well as an enormous (60’ x 45’) marble map of ancient Rome.

The purpose of the Digital Michelangelo Project was to use this technology for the humanities, creating digital archives of artifacts found throughout the world; sculptures degrading over time and in danger of being destroyed could be preserved digitally. An assembly of art historians, students, and computer scientists worked together with the assistance of Italian art historians and museum staff. The David statue, consisting of over 2 billion 3D polygons, took over a month to complete. Once the data was collected and the team returned to the US, they began the next task of producing a set of 3D computer models, with the goal being to make the models available to art scholars worldwide.


Computer Science Professor Marc Levoy had been working on attempts to digitize 3D objects using laser scanners, having some success with small statues. Concurrently, a group in Canada was scanning small artifacts; therefore, the decision was made to move to a larger project.


Early in 1997, several large scanners were designed, built, and successfully tested. In total, three systems were created, each with a slightly different purpose to scan detailed chisel marks, scan non-moveable, hard-to-reach locations (due to the immense size of some of the statues), and to capture high-resolution color data.


Students and university staff worked in Florence from September 1998-June 1999, in varying shifts. They traveled from one museum to the next, scanning and collecting data from 10 statues, as well as the architectural settings of both the Galleria dell’Accademia and the Medici Chapels. The work involved in the Digital Michelangelo Project was long and arduous—much of the scanning of David was done between 7pm and 8am—but they succeeded, collecting over 250 gigabytes of data.


In addition to the grueling work setting up and scanning the statues, they gathered additional data, including:

  • Creating an ultraviolet fluorescence map of David, providing data later used to determine a cleaning plan for the statue;
  • Designing a 3D model used in a kiosk at the Galleria dell’Accademia, so visitors could view all sides of the work, much of it previously out of view;
  • Using the technology to put together the 1,163 fragments of the Severan Marble plan, a giant map of ancient Rome dating back to 200 A.D. This began in 1999 and was finally complete in 2005.


Due to lack of funding and the work involved in obtaining it, the final archive of the Digital Michelangelo Project remains incomplete, despite much demand. A basic model has been created for scientific use, designed only for limited non-commercial use. The Italian government has the authority to issue commercial licenses for the replication of the statues for public sale or imaging in books and other media.

A full ten years later in 2009, a full-resolution model was created by another team, which represents what could be the largest geometric model in existence of a scanned object. Finally, Dr. Mac Levoy and his team welcomes any license requests from those who wish to assist them in completing the Digital Michelangelo Project.