Laser scans help recreate Michelangelo bronzes

It is a common misconception that Michelangelo sculpted almost exclusively in marble and never in bronze. The bronzes are on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge. (Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum, Museum)

In February, the Fitzwilliam Museum at the University of Cambridge made headlines when a team of academics proposed that two unsigned and undocumented bronzes were, in fact, cast from models made by Michelangelo.

While the original models were incredibly beautiful and sophisticated, the thick-walled casts are less successful with much of the original detail lost. A research team is trying to establish why this is so, with the help of experimental replicas made by Andrew Lacey, a contemporary sculptor and bronze-caster.

He has cast two reduced-scale replicas: the first using the traditional method of spruing; the second, using the more unorthodox method, which Lacey believes was used to create the bronzes in question. He’s also cast a full-size version.

The replicas are exact copies made with the assistance of high-resolution scans of the original bronzes by researchers at the University of Warwick.

“There are anatomical features on the bronzes that could only have been known by someone who had dissected the human body or who had attended dissections. Dissections were very rare before 1543 and the publication of Vesalius’ Fabrica, which was the first accurate and seminal anatomical text in the world,” says Peter Abrahams, a clinical anatomist at Warwick Medical School and University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire NHS Trust.

“In the art world, only Leonardo and Michelangelo had the anatomical knowledge, gained through the regular dissection of corpses, that would have been necessary to produce such anatomically accurate nude figures,” Abrahams continues.

“I have also identified features of detailed anatomy of the two figures that are peculiar to the documented sculptures of Michelangelo and which could be characterized as signature details.”

Highly precise scans

Building on this work, a team led by Professor Mark Williams of Warwick’s Warwick Manufacturing Group travelled to Cambridge and laser scanned one of the original sculptures to create an exact 3D digital model.

replica of bronze statue
(Credit: University of Warwick)


This scanner is so accurate it can resolve features to below 100 microns—the same equipment used for scanning highly precise engineering parts and anatomical scans of the type used for crime investigation.

“It was fantastic to apply our technology to such an exciting project and help shed light on the origin of such beautiful statues. Usually we are working on something engineering-related, so to be able to take our expertise and transfer that to something totally different and so historically significant was a really interesting opportunity” says Williams.

This high-resolution laser scan was then used by Propshop, based at the Pinewood film studios, to create 3D printouts at full-scale and reduced-scale.

Lacey produced molds from both 3D printouts, and used these to create his replicas, using alloys as close as possible to the originals, and in an old-fashioned furnace of the kind that Michelangelo and his contemporaries would have used.

The team hopes Lacey’s replicas will shed light on how these two Renaissance masterpieces were made, in turn shedding more light on bronze-making in the early 16th century.

Source: University of Warwick