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Wintry thoughts on pictorial reconstruction in archaeology

Looking out of my office window I can spy the first snow on the mountains. Few urban views anywhere, I like to believe, are as authentic and glorious. Perhaps perversely, the snow makes me think of the long hot summer, and then by virtue of connecting magical experiences, of a wonderful place I visited in the heat of summer, the Crypt of the Original Sin, outside Matera (see my recent book, Travels with an Archaeologist).

It springs to mind today because Max Limoncelli’s new book arrived in the post. In it he publishes ravishing photographs of the Crypt of the Original Sin stitched together with supreme skill: Virtual Restoration. Paintings and Mosaics (Rome, L’Erma Di Bretschneider, 2017) for which I wrote the preface as follows:

‘A democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of

the image into a stimulus for critical reflection — not an invitation for


‘..images have a productive quality that adds to and meaningfully

transforms our archaeological practice. Indeed, upwards of fifty years of

critical scholarly study of visual representation in archaeology testifies

to the capacity of images to encourage us to rethink and reformulate

interpretative approaches, add capital and methodological rigour to the

field, inspire specialist and non-specialist audiences alike to alter our

perceptions of material culture itself.’[2]


Images have informed the world since the Middle Palaeolithic cave art. Archaeology – too often the driest, most incomprehensible of sciences – can only be made comprehensible by reconstructions and models that bring language to a place. Reconstruction in some form or another of archaeological sites is not new. But globalisation and digital technology as Massimo Limoncelli shows in this eminently practical book demand new thinking about images, their manipulation and their social purposes[3].

Limoncelli builds upon a distinguished ancestry. Enlightenment painters were fascinated by Pliny’s fabled villa and by moments in time such as the fall of Rome to the Huns. From such reconstructions it was a short step to modelling sites as living places with the beginnings of scientific archaeology. Arguably the most influential master of the art of reconstruction was the British artist, Alan Sorrell, who learnt his craft alongside archaeologists at the British School at Rome in the late 1920s[4]. His reconstruction of Imperial Rome AD 330 has great sweep, yet projects a provincial metropolis within a brooding landscape[5]. By turns it is masterful in detail yet northern in its tremulous lighting and historical mystique. This mystique was to become the hallmark of Sorrell’s oeuvre, collaborating with the fabled giants of British archaeology – Sir Cyril Fox and Sir Mortimer Wheeler, to name but two knights of the realm. Sorrell’s images of fortresses and temples as well as bare prehistoric landscapes were the public images of the past and the frame for any study of archaeology. Through Sorrell’s pen the drama of discovery, for all its diligence, was transformed into a primeval world shaped to the spare parameters of British modernist art. Like W.H. Auden’s poems, Benjamin Britten’s music and Stanley Spencer’s paintings, Sorrell’s images each invoked a burlesque within an insular Britain blessed by ravishing landscapes and a coveted heritage. Only with the end of this world in the 1970s and the beginnings of a neo-liberal professional archaeology did Sorrell’s work lose its status to a softer and, frankly, more nebulous imagery largely celebrating the state’s past. Sorrell’s work, as a result, like that of the pioneers of scientific and public archaeology, was consigned to history.

Massimo Limoncelli, Virtual Restoration

Sorrell’s paintings, though, found echoes in many different countries. Popular archaeology magazines like Archéologie in France and Skalk in Denmark exploited reconstructions as compelling antidotes to underwhelming narratives about archaeological sites. Was the echo of Sorrell’s work to be found in Italy also?

An early advocate of archaeological reconstruction was the artist, Paolo Donati with a proven background in cartoons, fumetti. Working with the Sienese archaeologist, Riccardo Francovich in the early 1990s, Donati’s lasting achievement is a limpid painting of the Medieval hilltop mining village of Rocca San Silvestro, Tuscany[6]. Set in a pale blue haze, Rocca viewed through an eagle eye was vividly brought to life. Donati then developed the concept with collaborators who formed Studio Inklink, based in Florence. Operating as a small collective, Studio Inklink produced paintings for site information panels and book illustrations. Their working method was labour-intensive and involved experimenting with early forms of digitisation. Using photographs and archaeological drawings, they made accurate detailed sketches. Following this, computerized elements were introduced to obtain the three-dimensional scope of a scene or a structure. The 3-D skeleton provided the outline of the mass of a monument in its context. Then, drawing on their experience as cartoonists, lithe figures and nimble action were introduced to the sketches. Colouring the sketch involved traditional methods, with delicate brushwork and, as often as not, the thoughtful deployment of ochrous textures. As many as four or five artists worked on one painting, reaching a shared vision which was digitized for site or museum use.

Cripta del peccato

Inklink made their name in Tuscany. Numerous archaeological parks dotted around the western part of the regione still boast Inklink panels. Their artistic treatment owed much to the late 20th-century world of Italian design and was the sum of proficient Italian archaeology and technology blended with a strident Italian sense of the visual. Studio Inklink belong to their age and place: their time based on expensive working practices had passed by 2010 and in 2017 belongs to the historiography of Italian archaeology as much as Alan Sorrell.

Their place was taken by full digitization. - computerized virtual reality. The new world order is irresistible and with social networking comes the need for hyper imaging of an entirely different order of magnitude. As Limoncelli skillfully shows this digitization proffers an exactitude and plasticity for our era.

Neither Sorrell nor Inklink granted us a description of their techniques; theirs were personal practices now more or less lost to time. But this book is different. Massimo Limoncelli is a master who is gifting his peers a manual. In eight fabulously illustrated chapters he describes how to scan and then work the virtual into all manner of monuments. The laser scanner is his preeminent instrument, but his eye and the discipline of his craftsmanship are no less important. Most of his 38 cases are from churches or Roman sites with pavements in the Salento, a region blessed with antiquity. In each case the fragment is carefully re-created as though it was the authentic original. The result is authentic, indistinguishable from the fragment, yet a record that is both powerful for the public to help comprehend the painting, for example, and a massive stride forwards for students of art history and archaeology who need to understand the place of the fragment in its original form.

The manual takes the reader through pavements, walls punctured by high windows, apses and cupolas but in truth it is the brilliance of the result that dazzles. The author’s supreme point is that this tool is no longer the remit of the individual but the property of a new world order. It can be replicated and with pleasure. My personal favourite is the Crypt of the Original Sin near Matera. Limoncelli’s reconstruction published in a ravishing account of these 9th-century frescoes is pleasingly satisfying[7]. This place is as sublimely dazzling as the Sistine Chapel, and paradoxically a lot more comfortable to visit. Of course, this is not a crypt, and it has nothing to do with Byzantium, as much of the local literature suggests. Painters from Beneventan Principality transformed this small mid 9th-century church, possibly for funerary purposes, providing it with indisputable iconographic echoes of painting in Rome. Nevertheless, in visual conception, with imagery that leaps from codices of the time, it was clearly the work of someone living on the frontier with a resurgent Byzantium keen to demonstrate his ideological loyalties. Here, thanks to these virtual reconstructions, we might imagine pilgrims paused in yet another riff on purgatory before traipsing southwards towards the Byzantine port of Otranto, where they then took a ship to the Holy Land.

Limoncelli is the first to provide us with a text to his artisanal gifts, but not the first to demonstrate the importance of virtual reality for our times. One example is close to my heart. Inexplicably shut for decades, S. Maria Antiqua is the secret jewel of Rome’s Roman Forum. In 2016 it re-opened courtesy of new digital arts. S. Maria Antiqua’s best-known paintings are the fragmentary frescoes in the apse and flanking side chapels. In the Chapel of the Medical Saints to the east of central apse, using simple projection, the original decoration dating to Pope John VII (705-7) is skillfully reconstructed. More striking still is the darkened Chapel of Theodotus to the west of the main apse dating to Pope Zaccariah (741-52). Here, the full floor-to-ceiling ornamentation of the chapel comes briefly to life before your eyes including the host of figures and the dados decorating the lower register of the chapel’s walls. A sequence of episodes describes the martyrdom of Quiricus and Julietta; the southern panel depicts an enthroned Virgin with Child alongside Peter, Paul, Julietta and little Quiricus, the donor himself – Theodotus and Pope Zaccariah.

The museology reinstates the glory of this complex monument, and above all is a feast for those who want to understand the roots of High Medieval and Renaissance art. Rome under the popes was a melting pot of creative ideas, brought here from Byzantium as well as all parts of Italy and the northern Christian kingdoms. It is true to say that nowhere in Europe boasts such visual riches from the Dark Ages. Now using the tools that Limoncelli describes in this book, other treasures can be made accessible to the public, helping us as Sorrell and Studio Inklink did to bring common support to care for our patrimony.

Limoncelli’s book is a practical and clearly written guide to the imaging that will help to put the past back into the heart of Europe’s cultural patrimony. Brilliant in every sense, matching technology to skills means so many monuments and treasures can be enjoyed as the case of S. Maria Antiqua so wonderfully illustrates. New technologies will arrive to outmode those described in this important manual, but the scanning platform from which Limoncelli operates belongs to our new world order and marks a paradigm shift far greater than perhaps we yet appreciate in critically reflecting upon the past.


[1] U. Eco, Can Television Teach? Screen Education 31 (1979), 12.

[2] S.Perry and M. Johnson, Reconstruction art and disciplinary practice: Alan Sorrell and the negotiation of the archaeological record, Antiquaries Journal 94 (2014), 323-52 at 324.

[3] See also M. Limoncelli, Il restauro virtuale in archeologia (Rome, 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. fig. 2.

[6] R. Hodges, The Great Place-maker, Riccardo Francovich e I grandi temi del dibattito Europeo, (Florence, 2011), 109-11.

[7] G. Bertelli and M. Mignozzi, La Grotta del Peccato Originale a Matera, (Bari 2013).

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