When Buildings Vanish: Digital Technology Brings Back Long-Lost Structures And Their Art

Over on The Art Newspaper recently, Noah Charney explored the question of what to do with the memory of historic buildings, after they’ve been completely razed to the ground. In writing about the World War II-era destruction of castles in Slovenia, where Mr. Charney resides, he gives some examples of how local institutions are now creating landscaped environments that evoke a memory of vanished structures, without actually rebuilding them. Interestingly, he notes that the demolitions were carried out by local pinkos on “principle” (if that’s not too oxymoronic a term):

Socialist partisans did not approve of the aristocracy and wanted to eliminate the physical remnants of feudalism and the class system, even though the aristocrats themselves were long gone. But their castles, full of beautiful objects and works of art, remained. The Nazis generally preserved palaces, to occupy them themselves, until Hitler’s 1945 Nero Decree resulted in the destruction of German infrastructure to prevent its use by incoming Allied forces. The partisans, however, voluntarily destroyed their own cultural heritage, just because they disapproved of the people who had built them and what they stood for.

[N.B. As an aside, I highly recommend reading Mr. Charney’s work for The Art Newspaper, since he’s particularly interested in researching objects and buildings that are now lost to history.]

Yet when it comes to actually envisioning what has been lost, particularly when there are no detailed photographs available to refer to, advanced digital technology is increasingly able to provide us with the next best thing to a full reconstruction of a building, or even an entire city. To that end, the Getty Foundation recently announced funding for several digital mapping projects that will advance our knowledge and understanding of some historic sites around the world. Of these, the two that I want to draw the reader’s attention to both have to do with important cultural sites in Italy.

The “Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project” (“PALP”) is a joint effort between UMass Amherst and NYU, which will integrate images and data from excavations at Pompeii, in order to get a better idea of how the structures and art uncovered at the site to date occupied the spaces where they once stood. At present, there is no single resource linking art objects and architectural fragments to the remains of the buildings where they were found. This is a very exciting idea if, like me, you’re endlessly fascinated by Pompeii and the surrounding cities that were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.


Another project which the Getty has chosen to fund, “Mapping the Renaissance in Florence”, is being carried out by the University of Exeter in collaboration with Cambridge and the University of Toronto. Somewhat like the project at Pompeii, it will seek to integrate data and images with a fairly detailed map created in Renaissance Florence, including works of art that once (or still do) reside in the city’s structures; an app associated with this project which can be used by both researchers and sightseers is already in the works. For me, one of the most surprising aspects of this particular project was seeing the digital illustration of a Florentine church that no longer stands, and of whose existence I was previously unaware: perhaps I have not read my Bernard Berenson closely enough.


San Pier Maggiore was a large Benedictine church and monastery that was first built in the Middle Ages, later remodeled and expanded, and torn down in the 18th century when it became structurally unsound. Today, only part of the entrance portal remains, incorporated into later buildings. You can see it in the above illustration on the lower right, as the triple-arched structure with the center archway serving as the entrance into a courtyard space.

Among the works of art that were once located in the now-vanished church was a strange, yet extremely interesting image by Francesco Botticini (1446-1498) depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, which is now in the National Gallery in London. For many years it was believed to be by Botticini’s contemporary Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), and when you see pictures such as Botticelli’s “Mystical Nativity”  of about 1500-1501, which is also in the National Gallery, you can see why this was the case. In both pictures the dome of the sky has been sliced open at the top, revealing an Earth encased in a celestial sphere that is normally hidden from view.


If we zoom in on the lower portions of Botticini’s picture, behind the kneeling figures of the donor and his widow, we get to see some amazing views of late 15th century Florence, as well as some of the countryside surrounding the city. What I find a bit of a head-scratcher in the detail shown below is that the dome of the Cathedral of Florence appears to be lacking both its lantern and finial ball and cross. The lantern was completed in 1461, and the ball and cross were placed on top in 1469, but the altarpiece itself was painted between 1475-1477.


Perhaps this part of the image was rubbed away over time? Or perhaps this is just a bad photograph and these elements are visible to the naked eye? Whatever the case, if one of my readers happens to drop by the National Gallery anytime soon, I’d be curious to know what you can see when viewing the piece in person.

Sometimes it’s possible to bring back a heavily damaged or destroyed building to some semblance of what it once was. When this is not possible, there are still ways to keep the memories of those structures alive in the former locations, through a creative application of art, architecture, and landscape design. At the same time, we should be appreciative of those who are using technology to provide us with the ability to not only see these vanished places in virtual space, but also to understand their former contents in context.