Reimagining a Medieval Choir Screen
December 21, 2016
In Fall 2016, the Wired! Lab hosted two Master’s students, Andrea Basso and Elisa Castagna, from the University of Padua. The following is an account of their experience at Duke and the project they worked on.
Sta. Chiara is one of the largest churches of Naples, erected between 1310 and c. 1340 by the King and Queen of Naples, Robert the Wise and Sancia of Mallorca. It was reconstructed after the Allied bombardment of August, 1943, which damaged the walls and destroyed the stucco decoration of the 18th century.
In the Middle Ages the nave of Sta. Chiara, as in other religious buildings, was divided into several sections by a choir screen, or tramezzo. These were substantial masonry walls that separated the lay public from the clergy; in the case of this church, the choir screen would have included chapels and altars that were important for the devotion of the lay public.
Prof. Caroline Bruzelius (Duke University) has worked with a group of students and colleagues at Duke University and the Universities of Padua, Naples, and Salerno on this project, trying to reconstruct the choir screen and the church with the help of 3D technologies. Creating a 3D model enabled the research team to think through the various options and arrive at a plausible hypothesis of the dimensions of the choir screen at Sta. Chiara, engaging as well with issues of visibility from the nave of the church through to the main altar and the tomb of King Robert the Wise (d. 1343).
Elisa Castagna and Andrea Basso, two students of Building Engineering and Architecture at the the University of Padua, created with the help of Paolo Borin, a PhD student at the IUAV University of Venice, a 3D model with Revit, a building information modeling software that allows architects and other building professionals to design and document a building by creating a parametric three-dimensional model that included both the geometry and non-geometric design and construction information.
The point cloud of the interior and the exterior of Sta. Chiara produced by Emanuela De Feo at the University of Salerno was the starting point of the reconstruction: it allowed us to create a scale 3D model and to build new parametric objects in Revit that represent each type of window, wall, door, roof, vault, and column.
The reconstruction of the choir screen was based on the evidence of geo-radar groundscans given by Prof. Leopoldo Repola (University of Naples) with the help of Prof. Andrea Giordano (University of Padua): good evidence of the location of a monumental partition wall was found.
Working with Andrea and Elisa, Lucas Giles, an MA student in Digital Art History at Duke, and Prof. Caroline Bruzelius were able to produce a hypothetical model of the tramezzo through historical data, geo-radar evidence and the 3D church: thanks to the power of the parametric modeling the choir screen could change the shape and the size easily, so it was possible to see how the tramezzo connected with the entire church.
In order to study also the issues of visibility from the nave through to the main altar and the tomb of King Robert the Wise, these last two elements were built and placed in the model of the church.
Finally the modeling team decided to insert on the top of the choir screen the relief that was destroyed during the war: with the help of some pictures before the destruction it was possible to create a simple model with the use of Photoshop and CrazyBump of how the relief could have appeared.
The last step was to export the model of the church into 3D StudioMax and then into Unity. This latter software was used to write scripts with the help of David Zielinski, Research and Development Engineer for the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), and Prof. Regis Kopper (Duke University) in order to visualize the model inside the Cardboard and the Duke’s immersive environment: in this way it was possible to see the relationship between the choir screen and the interior of the church in full scale.
During this workflow other aspects concerning the use of Revit were analysed:
- how to export the geometry from Revit to 3DStudioMax
- the research about passing BIM information through Unity, in which all elements have their ID and their properties
- how to obtain a 3D printed model from a Revit file
- the importation of mesh inside Revit and Dynamo
The development of this project has required the knowledge of Photoscan, Recap, Autocad, Revit, Dynamo and MeshLab for the modeling of the church, Photoshop and CrazyBump for the relief’s reconstruction, and 3DStudioMax and Unity in order to visualize the project in virtual reality.
About Our Experience
Working with Prof. Caroline Bruzelius we were able to develop our knowledge about Building Information Modeling and how to use this tool for historical research; for the first time we could work with virtual reality and with software that we had never used before.
This experience has taught us not only how to work with people of different disciplines and how our knowledge in the field of Achitecture and Engineering can be used to obtain a good model and visualization, but also how to build a model that contains for each element qualitative and quantitative information.
Any of this wouldn’t have been possible if many people, with different knowledge backgrounds, hadn’t come together to work towards a common goal. It has been a remarkable experience for us, being able to engage with a lot of different people and get to know Duke University, in particular the people and the projects of the Wired! Lab in the department of Art, Art History and Visual Studies.