Cultural Heritage plus Digital Technologies? A good omen for the future


By Claudia Pierotti


GIS, CAD, drones, 3D modeling, Structure from Motion, Digital Photogrammetry, Digital Stereoscopy, Digital Image Editing…digital technologies are today increasingly used for the preservation, representation, enjoyment and promotion of our cultural heritage. What are the implications of the use of digital technologies applied to Cultural Heritage? What are its benefits and its limitations?

Antinori, Ricostruzione 3D del territorio Romano di Urbs Salvia

Antinori, 3D model of Urbs Salvia

We tried to answer these questions by interviewing some experts in the field: Alberto Antinori, geologist, GIS, Remote Sensing & Terrain Modeler expert; Roberto Angeletti, architect, SW Programmer, GIS and 3D expert; Antonello Buccella, draftsman and 3D modeler.

Dr. Antinori, what is your role and your contribution in the field of Archeology and Cultural Heritage preservation/enjoyment?

As an expert of GIS and territorial remote-sensing and modeling, in the last 10 years I have been contributing to the work of archaeologists and architects by producing:

Digital georeferred orthoimages – compared with the plain aerial photographs, which substantially are shots in a central perspective, they are a metric document and they have a cartographic projection. They can therefore be inserted in a Territorial Information System, managed with SW GIS, and analyzed together with other informative elements. For instance, they can be displayed with an archaeological map, with the road-network, the vegetation, the hydrography, just to cite some of the possibilities. The color digital orthoimages are today irreplaceable in the analysis and communication of the territorial planning, essential in our country for the landscape protection;

Antinori, Ortofoto per la ricerca archeologica in Val di Fiastra

Antinori, Orthoimage for the archaeological survey in Val di Fiastra

Monuments and territory’s 3D models – for instance the 3D model of the Roman city and territory of Urbs Salvia or the 3D model of the Italian city Massa, this one to support the building project of an escalator to reach the local Malaspina’s Castle on top of a hill;

Survey and 3D Modeling with Structure from Motion of irregular archaeological ruins, hard to measure and to model.

What changes have digital technologies brought to your work?

I started in 1992 as GIS and CAD technologies user and teacher  – Antinori answers.

At the beginning I worked in the 2D field, then I gained competence in the territorial 3D modeling and in the aerial orthoimages production. Moreover, since 2003 I have been producing interactive digital plastic models which can include rendered 3D models of monuments, buildings, infrastructure and more.

Initially, in the Territorial Information Systems of the local authorities, 2 colors topographic scanned sheets of a very bad quality were used as base maps. The results were mute base maps and imprecise and incoherent thematic layers. Today we can use digital orthoimagery and vector topography. And the territorial interactive 3D plastic models (think about Google Earth) enabled us to display wide territories from each point of view and to show them also to a not technical audience.

L'Aquila, Fontanella vicino Porta Bazzano 1 (in Google Earth)

L’Aquila, little fountain near Porta Bazzano (in Google Earth)

In a very few yearsBuccella says – many things changed in my field. With a few means and in a short time (but with a lot of passion and will), we can recreate really striking settings and archaeological reconstructions. Of course, the charm of the hand-drawing and the watercolor stays for me unchanged. But the new technologies can easily coexist with the old ones and surely they facilitate our work.

What benefits, in your opinion, do and will digital technologies bring to the Cultural Heritage enjoyment? What disadvantages? Do you think there are downsides?

So as for all things, there may be “good” and “bad” usesAngeletti observes. For instance: turning on a computer to get generic and wrong information about the opening time of a museum is a bad use. Or playing a videogame to shot the enemies between the statues of an archaeological site is a bad use. A good book often turned out, in the recent past, better than a bad multimedia CD, visible only on a determined hardware platform.

On the other hand, to get immediately detailed information about the cultural object we are in front of, to display the interactive tridimensional reconstruction of the archaeological site we are walking through, sliding in time and seeing the site historic phases and transformations, making the trees which now cover it up vanish, may be considered a good use of digital technologies applied to cultural heritage.

Technology today offers amazing tools in the field of Cultural Heritage survey, cataloguing and reconstruction. A recent technique, the Structure from Motion (SfM), enables to get an automatic 3D reproduction from pictures of objects, archaeological sites and whole urban districts with a minimal economic investment. SfM is progressively replacing the laser survey, expensive and bulky, through the exclusive use of simple digital cameras, and enables to quickly produce a monument 3D model.


In the last 20 years Antinori comments – I’ve been seeing the potentialities of the digital technologies grow and their costs decrease, with an exponential increase of their applications. In particular, in the Cultural Heritage field, the recent years’ introduction of the 3D technologies enabled the more and more interactive enjoyment of artworks, evidences, monuments, museums, places and landscapes. The virtual museums are still little widespread: they are often little advertised, and anyway not always easy to use. There are then many reserved-access online catalogues for the archeology experts, but I think they will be opened thanks to the 3D models realization.

Antinori, Plastico Virtuale della città di Massa

Antinori, Virtual plastic model of Massa city

Furthermore, I find interesting the information and user’s geo-localisation: the smartphones GPS diffusion enable the development of innumerable applications. Also the stereoscopic view some years ago was reserved to few; but today, stereoscopic screens and contents are much more widespread and not only in cinema. Google and others are testing the automatic 3D modeling of whole cities, through high-resolutions shootings. In the future, there will be more and more detailed 3D models and environments, with millions and millions of users.

Regarding the possible downsides: the increase of information volume may limit the efficacy of information enjoyment on the web, so as it happens for the narrow-band areas. In Italy there is still much to do about that. Another problem could be the superabundance and incoherence of information.


I think the benefits may be really a lot; Buccella continues – by now, with the new survey techniques and the new 3D-rendering programs it is possible to go back in time and see how an archaeological area, with a few visible evidences, was in the antiquity, in all its splendor. This is possible not only to the field experts, but also to visitors and tourists.

I come from L’Aquila, my city of origin; on the 6th of April 2009 L’Aquila was upset and partially destroyed by an earthquake. More than 700 years of history are cancelled, transforming the city into a ghost. I wanted to help my city and in 2010 I decide to take part in a very interesting project “Rebuild L’Aquila in 3D”. My activity becomes hectic, I want to rebuild at least the monuments which are most beloved by the natives, in the most authentic way, hoping my models are accepted and displayed by Google Earth. After one year the churches and the most characteristic monuments are ready, thanks to the collaboration of hundreds of good modelers which worked to realize this project. In the last two years, I have also realized some of the historical centre fountains. I wanted to represent them so as they were before the earthquake night: realistic, intact, gushing, lively…I’m sure today, the Google Earth visitors orbiting L’Aquila get struck by the city representation so as it was. I consider it a good omen, a wish that my city can return to be inhabited as soon as possible.

I don’t think digital technologies applied to Cultural Heritage may have downsides. If anything, we should promote as much as possible the 3D reconstruction of many interesting archaeological sites in order to preserve them and to make them enjoyable by everyone.

L'Aquila, Piazza Duomo (in Google Earth)

L’Aquila, Place of the Dome (in Google Earth)

Drones have become the most widespread tool for the local survey and the high shots – Antinori answers.

The costs are surely lower compared with classical aerial shot for aerophotogrammetry and the results quality of the SfM is revolutionizing the remote-sensing. You can do shots and footages with any angle, static or moving on whatever path. That’s way I recently bought an hexacopter drone to realize photogrammetric shots for the production of topographic representations, land digital models, orthoimages and 3D models. A disadvantage is the still-to-high cost of the drones. For that I bought the ArduCopter, developed by 3DRobotics on an open project; but it requires expertise in many fields: aircraft modeling, electronics, software/hardware development and integration. Another issue is the lack of regulations for the drones use: but it should arrive a restrictive law aimed at setting drastic limitations.


There’s need to experiment the new digital technologies, with the necessary passion and competences, in order to demonstrate they are useful and more and more indispensable to tell and make enjoyable the history of our Cultural Heritage, besides creating new job and economic opportunities – Angeletti concludes.

For more information:

Alberto Antinori

Antonello Buccella

Roberto Angeletti – blog


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