Decoding Artifacts

Jessica Pissini

Fall 2015

MA in Digital Art History student Jessica Pissini completed this project as part of her master’s thesis. Below is her explanation of her work:

The Decoding Artifacts project is researching medieval sculpture in new ways by studying stone carving tools and marks, the relationship of sound to the sculptor’s technique, and the importance of drawings and their connections to geometry. In addition, the project’s team is exploring ways to use digital tools and applications for public outreach and education within the Nasher Museum of Art. This website and augmented reality museum app presents 3D models, educational videos, and images as instruments of learning about stone carving and the artifact’s history. It encourages visitors to interact with the museum objects while exploring the virtual information and visualizations.

Access the website.

Find out more about Jessica’s experience in the MA program.

Mapping the Movement of People & Materials

Maiya Aiba, Camile Cleveland, Jennifer Simpson, Alexandra Wisner, Fiona Xin

Spring 2015

In Introduction to Art History with Caroline Bruzelius, students learned about the History of Art from Prehistory to the Middle Ages. A significant part of the course concerned mapping the transportation of raw materials as well as objects acquired through colonial expropriation. For their final projects, students in the course developed Neatline projects in which they mapped the development and trade of materials used in ancient and Medieval artistry within historic, social, and geographic contexts. The following projects are examples of exemplary student projects:


Maiya Aiba – Athenian Use and Acquisition of Timber in the Ancient Mediterranean

Camile Cleveland – Athenian Temples

Jennifer Simpson – Mapping the Materials and Construction of the Pyramids of Giza

Alexandra Wisner – History and Development of Greek Coinage in the Mediterranean

Fiona Xin – History and Movement of Lapis Lazuli


Access all of these projects here.

Jacobs University, Bremen, Germany Collaboration

Timothy Senior, Victoria SzaboFlorian Wiencek


Duke has established a close relationship with members of the Jacobs University community in Bremen, Germany. In 2012-13 several Jacobs graduate students came to campus as exchange students. We taught our Digital Cities course, which was coupled virtually with a course at Jacobs. Both courses met at the same time and videoconferences discussion and workshop sessions with one another, as well as sharing project crits.

This project was presented at the Digital Heritage International Congress 2013 and subsequently published:

Digital Cities: A collaborative engagement with urban heritage


Digital Cities: Representing the Past and Inventing the Future

Modeling Medieval British Castles

Students in ARTHIST 290 and 89S The Medieval Castle in Britain were tasked with creating 3D models of real or imaginary medieval British castles as part of their final projects. Each class was divided into teams of 3 students, each being assigned a role in the project: building manager, architect, or historian. The building manager researched the building process and economic and environmental aspects of building a medieval castle. The historian gathered information on the history of the castle and its family/families. The architect built the castle according to both the building manager and the historian’s research. The students in these classes had very little or no 3D modeling experience when they entered the class. The architects created their models in SketchUp under the guidance of Andrea Giordano and Cosimo Monteleone (University of Padua) and Hannah Jacobs (Wired! Lab, Duke University).

The following are three of the models created by the students:


Norwich Castle

This model is based on the stone keep of Norwich Castle, built between 1095-1110. Norwich Castle was chosen because of its intricate design – note the copious blind arcading, crenellations, and fake portcullises.


Faversham Castle

Our team consisted of John, our architect, Luke, our engineer, and Yifan, the building manager/historian. We decided to construct a nonexistent but historically accurate castle and chose Faversham, England for its location. It is an Edwardian castle of the mid fourteenth century.


Barmouth Castle

Barmouth Castle is a fictitious castle that we created to show our knowledge and understanding of the architecture and history of medieval castles in Great Britain. It was built by Edward I from 1282 to 1287 in Barmouth, Wales, as part of his campaign to conquer and control the Welsh people. It is grand in size and concentric in design, drawing inspiration from Harlech Castle, Beaumaris Castle, and Conwy Castle. Like all castles of this time period, it was built to show the king’s power and wealth.


Old Stones and New Technologies: Computer Vision and Medieval Stone Carving

Caroline Bruzelius, Carlo Tomasi

This project is a Humanities Writ Large funded initiative between Professors Caroline Bruzelius and Carlo Tomasi. It focused on capturing data on medieval chisel marks through photography in order to analyze chisel marks and process in the carving of stones for medieval sculpture and buildings.

Simon Verity, a stone carver from St. John the Divine, visited Duke to give students, graduate students & faculty experience in stone cutting. It was featured on Duke Today. Photo by Jared Lazarus/Duke University Photography.

Sta. Chiara Choir Screen

Andrea Basso, Caroline Bruzelius, Elisa CastagnaLucas Giles, Andrea Giordano, Cosimo Monteleone

Fall 2016

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).

The choir screen formed the central subject of study for Lucas GilesMA in Digital Art History Master’s thesis. Its reconstruction and visualization were the main focuses of University of Padua students Andrea Basso and Elisa Castagna’s visit to Duke.

Talking Heads

Jessica Pissini, Chelsea, Victor, and Lauren

Spring 2015

Project Website

We know that the digital tools we have today allow us to recreate historical data in a way that we have never been able to do before. Because of this, the objective of our final project is a comprehensive historical study of the reconstruction and coloring of two heads from the Nasher’s Brummer collection supported by digital tools. We have chosen the Head of the Virtue, previously worked on by Simon Verity, and the Head of a King, both of which are French in origin. The Head of the Virtue was originally from Notre-Dame Cathedral and is dated to the first half of the 13th century; there is a similar head at the Musée de Cluny in Paris. The Head of the King came from San Germain des Prés.

Our research related to each head will better contribute to producing a more historically accurate reconstruction, from the facial features to the coloring of the surface. Therefore, our main research questions will focus on the provenance of the heads, the value of the material used, and its uses. The value of the material used for the sculptures, as well as its surroundings, will affect how these may have looked and how they were used. Physically, the stone’s value has a direct relationship to the the pigmentation of the surfaces, since the amount invested will affect the colors available for use and will help us specify how we will digitally color our heads. Depending on the costs and location within the building, a sculpture could have been used to simply convey stories of the bible to those who could not read Latin, or for a wealthy patron to purchase heavenly leverage.

View our complete project here. View the models below.


Notre Dame Virtue:


Notre Dame Virtue, Restored Version by Simon Verity:


Head of a King, Restored Version by Jessica Pissini:

Water and Food in Venice. Stories of the Lagoon and the City

Kristin Lanzoni

Spring-Summer 2015

Project Website

Venice was created as a series of transitions from mainland to lagoon, from lagoon to the Mediterranean, and eventually to a network of ports and islands that became part of an empire of commerce. The original settlement, built on low tidal islands, was created in a precarious balance between the land and water, the community permeated by canals in a continuous, complex and skillfully leveraged relationship. The contrast between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ has always been a distinctive feature of the city, an emblem of Venetians’ inventiveness and tenacity as well as of nature’s destructive and transformative force.

The lagoon therefore conditions the city: they exist in a contrapuntal dialogue, the voice of each essential to the whole. This profound connectedness between Venice and the lagoon is expressed in historic maps, which show the city in the center, defended by a cordon of beaches that separate and protect it from the open sea: a lagoon full of islands of fields, churches and clock towers. The co-existence of fishing, hunting, and agriculture (the cultivation of all kinds of fruits and vegetables, vineyards and herbs) in the lagoon habitat both permitted and promoted Venice’s development. Religious communities were vital nodes in a system of food production and trade: starting in the earliest centuries after the founding of Venice, a series of island monasteries supported a stable galaxy of farms, saltworks, mills, and fish producers.

Historic images of Venice show another unique feature of Venice: a city without enclosing walls. The lagoon, with its strategically located forts, religious establishments, hospitals and quarantine stations, was the real ‘wall’ of the city. Venice redesigned the natural landscape, and sometimes with majestic architecture, to protect itself from human enemies and disease.

Our exhibition, Water and Food in Venice. Stories of the Lagoon and the City, opening September 26, 2015 at the Ducal Palace, is the result of a long-term research initiative developed by an international team of young historians of art, architecture and cities. The group includes experts in mapping, modeling and multimedia from Iuav (Venice), Padua and Duke Universities: Water and Food in Venice is the first public-facing presentation of the multifaceted collaboration that began in 2010 as “Visualizing Venice,” the joint inspiration of Caroline Bruzelius (Duke University) and Donatella Calabi (University IUAV of Venice).

A key feature of the exhibition is to model how the support systems for the Republic of Venice addressed questions that are critical on a global scale to us today: supplying densely-inhabited communities with fresh food and water. The exhibition offers the opportunity to consider historical models for large-scale environmental management in a setting unique in its challenges and diversity. The exhibition forms part of larger initiatives connected with the 2015 International Exposition in Milan, “Feeding the Planet.”