Digital Files and 3D Printining the Renaissance?

700_ca1305ba0cdbb2805ed431c3adc47b203D printers and digital mapping services are making it drastically easier to produce infinite identical copies of anything, for better or worse, for humanitarian or for destructive purposes. A digital map can be accessed by anyone with a smartphone or computer and a replica of Michelangelo’s David can be made at home just as easily as an assault rifle. While the relatively new technology of 3D printing is proving popular with designers, fabricators and the general public, it hasn’t yet reached the ubiquity of the home printer.

But it only seems to be a matter of time until desktop fabrication is as common as desktop publishing. The technology is getting cheaper and more efficient every year, and even though 3D printing has barely been established, engineers are already hard at work on 4D printing (the fourth dimension is time!). One ambitious company has recently caused a sensation on Kickstarter with its prototype for a 3D printing pen.

These latest drawing and modeling technologies are fascinating, but when did the idea of 3D printing originate? What are some of the earliest drawing and fabrication “machines”? To find the answer we go back to the days before copiers or even carbon paper, back to the Renaissance, to a man who invented digital reproduction in the original sense of the word.

Leon Battista Alberti was an Italian philosopher, scientist, architect and all around polymath who lived during the 15th century. Basically, he was your prototypical Renaissance man. Alberti is perhaps one of the most important and influential creative figures to come out of the Renaissance, although he is one of the less widely known. He believed that art and science were united by basic principles of mathematics, and among his many accomplishments Alberti defined the principles of geometric construction known today as central perspective and invented techniques for producing identical copies of paintings, sculptures, and even buildings without the aid of mechanical devices such as the printing press. This desire for a method of creating identical copies came out of Alberti’s frustration with the inadequacies and inevitable mistakes that result from manual reproduction techniques. In his excellent book, The Alphabet and the Algorithm  (which I’m currently enjoying and have previously mentioned on Design Decoded), architectural theorist and historian Mario Carpo describes these techniques as “digital” reproductions.

“Alberti tried to counter the failings of analog images by digitizing them, in the etymological sense: replacing pictures with a list of numbers and a set of computation instructions, or algorithms, designed to convert a visual image into a digital file and then recreate a copy of the original picture when needed.”

By reducing images to carefully calculated coordinates and documenting the method by which the original was created, Alberti ensured that anyone could produce copies that were exactly identical to his original work. The numeric manuscripts, which were easy to copy without error, represented a type of Renaissance file transfer.

Albrecht Dürer’s drawing “Draughtsman Drawing a Recumbent Woman” (1525), depicting a perspective machine similar to that described by Alberti in his treatise De Pictura (image: wikimedia commons)

Alberti’s most famous invention dealing with reproduction is the perspective machine, which is still used by artists today. The setup he designed for transcribing images from reality looks something like a modern Battleship game board. A gridded wooden screen separates the artist, whose eye is held at a fixed point at the center of the screen, from his subject. From the artists’s perspective, the object to be represented is mapped onto the framed grid; this way, the artist can accurately recreate the image on a paper that has been divided into a matching grid.

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