A workshop in Spain is using 3D-printing tech to make 'fake' versions of ancient masterpieces
Updated: Jan 21
Published on Business Insider, Dec 23 2020
Adam Lowe saunters between the works of classical art and antique sculpture littering his giant studio in the backstreets of Madrid.
He stops at the sarcophagus of the Egyptian Pharaoh Seti I — dead for 3,000 years, and whose stone coffin has been ravaged by time, the elements, and the modern humans who exhumed it and then put it on display.
Lowe lays his hands on the surface, probing with his fingers into fragile grooves made by sculptors three millennia ago.
"You've got absolutely perfect color, surface, and texture," Lowe says in his refined English dialect. "This is really using technology at its limits."
Because this artifact isn't at risk from heavy-handed treatment by Lowe or anyone else.
In fact, he and his team made it — a millimeter-accurate facsimile of the original, which survives under heavy protection from further decay at a museum in London.
Lowe is the director and founder of Factum Arte, a team that is astonishing the art world with its ability to make copies of works using 3D scanning and printing techniques that are the very definition of cutting edge.
In his workshop, craftswomen and men use power tools to chisel and shape stone, and slop resin over molds, as Lowe visits with each, seeing how a work takes form as it once did hundreds or even thousands of years ago.
This is the end stage of a process that begins with technicians using LiDAR scanners, precision photography, and 3D modeling to capture everything from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings to ancient cave drawings in Brazil and works of art by 16th-century European masters.
And it could change the way we experience art and antiquity forever, especially as the coronavirus restricts world travel to a minimum.
"The pictures of the Louvre in Paris, with the room packed and everyone taking selfies with the Mona Lisa behind them — this image has gone," Lowe said.
"It's one that hopefully won't come back in the same way."
In 2014, Factum Arte completed a facsimile of the tomb of Tutankhamun, but more recently has ensured that Seti I gets the chance to emerge from the shadow of the more famous Boy King.
To recreate the walls of the tomb, the 3D data collected from the original is machine-carved into polyurethane boards. Color layers are then printed onto elastic skins that are attached to the surface.
Borrowing from 3D modeling perfected for the likes of Xbox and Playstation, technicians are today working on a virtual model of Seti's final resting place, available to navigate in high resolution online.
"So this is a pillar that is in the sarcophagus room in the tomb of Seti," says Irene Gaumé, one of Lowe's 3D sculptors, as she manipulates a column of hieroglyphs on her screen.
"The data has been constantly worked on since 2000. Only now we're able to translate that information thanks to the video game industry.
"You don't have to travel to the tomb of Seti to be able to see real information from the tomb."
The techniques used by Factum Arte are a dance between the ancient and modern, with each project revealing ways to develop technology even further and get even truer to the original.
High-res scanning and photographic recording create a permanent data mirror of an artifact that will not fade with time — meaning it can be studied long into the future, from anywhere, and even reprinted.
Digital techniques can also help fill in the blanks — recreate long-lost color, repair damage, and even reunite works with fragments hacked off by vandals or overenthusiastic tourists generations ago.
In the case of the ancient cave art of the Kamukuaka in Brazil, Factum Arte has taken on a different kind of challenge.
"When the team got there, the entire sacred cave had been vandalized, and every petroglyph had been literally and crudely hacked off," says Lowe.
"Because we were able to 3D-scan the entire surface of the cave, we were able to identify what was lost, what was missing, and then to go back to historic photographs and actually work with the Indigenous community.
"So they were saying, 'No, you've missed something there, there has to be something else there,' or 'That's not quite right.' And I think it's this idea or this way of collectively working with many different eyes focused on the same thing that technology allows."
The facsimile of the cave lives at Factum Arte in Madrid. But having a faithful copy also means a vulnerable original can be taken off display and replaced by its double, or return masterpieces to their rightful homes.
The original of the "Wedding at Cana" by Paolo Veronese hangs in the Louvre. Thanks to Factum Arte, an indistinguishable copy is now exhibited in Venice — the city of its creation.
Current projects include the restoration of a landmark industrial building near the Arctic Circle in Finland, the production of a 3D model of the largest archaeological site in Saudi Arabia, and ensuring the works of Spanish artist Diego Velázquez can be displayed in his birth city of Seville. Most of his painting are spread all around the globe.
Factum Arte has even brought to life works thought lost forever, like a 12th-century world map etched in silver. "This is a reconstruction of the famous world map of al-Idrisi made in Palermo for Roger II, the Norman king," says Lowe, standing next to a giant shimmering plate.
The map was digitally engraved using data based on research and old copies of the original.
"It was made in about 1150, 1155, but was then lost by the end of the 12th century in a shipwreck."
While Factum Arte has been lauded for its work in freezing these valuable artifacts in time, and bringing an authentic experience of them to a global audience, it's not without its critics.
Some have accused the workshop of forgery.
But Lowe insists they are simply highly faithful facsimiles, never intended to be passed off as the original.
"I know some people consider high-resolution recording unethical per se," he says.
"People sometimes say, 'Oh, what you're doing is really forgery', or 'It's really a fake.' And I say, 'Absolutely not.' What we do seeks to reveal the truth rather than to mask it. It's not about falsification. It's about verification."
But couldn't what he does make it tempting to be part of a lucrative trade in forgeries?
Lowe digs around in his pockets and produces some loose change.
"If I was going to do forging, I'd forge money. I wouldn't forge paintings," he says. "I mean, forging Euro coins is relatively easy. So I'd be forging this."