Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Printing Piranesi in three dimensions

  • Comment

Does the mass-reproducibility of 3D-printed pieces make original, artisan-crafted items redundant? Rakesh Ramchurn reports from an exhibition of Piranesi’s designs made real

‘Will the coming age herald a return to three dimensions?’ This was the curious question debated at a panel discussion entitled ‘Visualising Design Ideas’ last month. While information technology, social media and video games have made much of our lives a two-dimensional experience, 3D scanning and printing have also allowed the creation of ever more impressive physical objects. Could it be possible that after two decades which have seen so many workplace functions move online, the balance is now moving back towards the physical: the hard copy over the soft copy?

One of the participants in the debate was industrial designer Ross Lovegrove (see page 61), who used 3D printing technology to create some of the components of Twin’Z, a concept car for Renault, which was exhibited at last year’s Milan Furniture Fair. He talks of the ‘dreadful culture of isolationism’ of people who live with others through ‘virtual terminals’.

‘We live in a world which is becoming increasingly virtual,’ says Lovegrove. ‘But as a designer, I celebrate the physical object and tactility; these new technologies could be the antidote to an increasingly virtual world.’

Grotto Chair, created by Factum Arte from an original sketch by Piranesi. Image: Alicia Guirao for Factum Arte.

Grotto Chair, created by Factum Arte from an original sketch by Piranesi. Image: Alicia Guirao for Factum Arte.

The debate was organised to complement an exhibition of objects designed by 18th-century Italian artist and architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Piranesi is perhaps best known for his sketches of Rome, but in books such as Diverse Maniere d’Adornare i Cammini (1769) and Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcofagi (1778) he designed a number of home furnishings based on his interpretation of the classical world. These objects were never realised in his lifetime, but have now been created by Madrid-based design studio Factum Arte using 3D scanning and 3D printing techniques, essentially transforming Piranesi’s sketches into physical objects.

The exhibition raises interesting questions not only of tensions between the virtual and the physical, but also of originals as opposed to copies. Can the 3D-printed objects at the Soane Museum be said to be ‘Piranesi pieces’, more than 200 years after his death? Does the mass-reproducibility of 3D-printed pieces make what were supposed to be unique, artisan-crafted items redundant? And what place does the original have if copies can be so easily made?

These questions are pertinent even if we look at Piranesi’s sketches. After all, the works of Piranesi are interpretations of Classical antiquity made hundreds of years later. He often embellished and added to basic Classical designs – ‘improving’ on them if you like – such as his print of Rome’s La Via Appia (1756), which overflows with evocative, but imaginary funerary monuments, or his fantastical depictions of prisons. Piranesi’s works are already over-embellished copies of originals; the products created by Factum Arte now take the process to its second remove.

La Via Appia (1778) by Giovanni Piranesi. Image: Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

La Via Appia (1756) by Giovanni Piranesi. Image: Fondazione Giorgio Cini.

An example of this is found in the basement of the Soane Museum; an altar piece which Piranesi based on an object found at Hadrian’s villa. Piranesi often chose to ‘improve’ on Classical antiquity; here by adding extra floral patterning to the central column, but Factum Arte goes back to basics in its 3D-printed work by shedding the excess detailing. After all, if an 18th-century artist can improve on what came before, then surely 21st-century designers can do the same?

Altar piece drawing from Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcofagi (1778) by Giovanni Piranesi. Image: Sir John Soane's Museum.

Altar piece drawing from Vasi, Candelabri, Cippi, Sarcofagi (1778) by Giovanni Piranesi. Image: Sir John Soane’s Museum.

Another piece in the exhibition is an ornate silver coffee pot, whose base takes the form of a tortoise, scanned from a living tortoise which still resides comfortably at Factum Arte’s offices, and whose cap is based on the scan of a real seashell, which was later modified on screen (suggesting even that nature can be improved upon). But interpretations can differ – Lovegrove says that he thought Piranesi’s original sketch depicted an elliptical object, rather than a round one.

Silver Coffee Pot, created by Factum Arte from a sketch by Piranesi. Image: Alicia Guirao for Factum Arte.

Silver Coffee Pot, created by Factum Arte from a sketch by Piranesi. Image: Alicia Guirao for Factum Arte.

Other objects on display include a very gaudy ‘grotto chair’ and a large plaster vase decorated with griffin heads displayed outside the museum. While bringing to life some of Piranesi’s most interesting designs, the exhibition raises questions of what other unrealised designs and artworks could be created through 3D scanning. The unrealised sketches of Henry Moore, perhaps? Or the prophetic inventions of Leonardo da Vinci? We could even rework the Mona Lisa into a life-size model.

In any case, the technology is moving ahead in leaps and bounds. This month, Factum Arte will open a facsimile of the Tomb of Tutankhamen, just a mile from the real thing in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings. Visitors will be able to do all that was forbidden in the original, which was suffering from the effects of tourist footfall. This creates an interesting opposition between the hushed awe of the original and the novelty of the copy.

And as precious artworks and antiquities are multiplied to protect delicate originals, this is an opposition we are sure to see more of in the future. We may well be returning to an age of 3D, but we will increasingly find ourselves in a hall of mirrors as originals are revisited, enhanced and endlessly copied.


Ross Lovegrove

In the same way that people are fascinated with the idea of bringing dinosaurs back to life, 3D scanning and printing will breathe life into ideas deep in the past which only existed two-dimensionally, and which can now be made into physical objects.

I would love to see the same processes applied to the works of artists such as Max Ernst or the biologist Ernst Haeckel.

These processes form a dialogue between past, present and future, and qualify the time in which we live as being a great age of three-dimensionality.

Not many people know that Michelangelo’s statue of David in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence is a replica [the original is in the Accademia Gallery, where it is protected from the elements]. As the replica ages, and more and more tourists flood the culture plain, the difference will be lost altogether.

Extending the concept from the physical back to the virtual realm, imagine the time when the wearing of a virtual reality headset accompanied by fingertip sensors and climatic environments – effectively a full artificial scenario – will create the possibility to see, move around and fully engage with an inaccessible object in our own homes.

In the future, we will have layered authenticity; first an absolute original, then facsimiles so real that only their dislocation will challenge their value. All this positions the original artefact as a form of oracle that is held in one place, leading to a new stage in museum culture whereby the original will require a rare visit like a pilgrimage to see a religious icon.

Ross Lovegrove is an industrial designer and founder of Ross Lovegrove Studio


  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.

Related Jobs

AJ Jobs