The Project

For my second project of the course, I wanted to attempt 3D modeling. I had used the SketchUp software for a class before, to construct the model of a fictional structure. However, I had no more experience than that, and thus had never tried to create an existing structure/object.

Throughout the semester, we encountered several projects that deal with representing the “realities” of the past. I already discussed this issue in a blog post, where I wrote about how models of builldings/objects/systems that no longer exist, or that are in a different condition now than in another period in time, aid in understanding the source’s history, and its impact in the present.

The first time I visited the Italian town where my grandparents were born, Morano Calabro, its Castello Normanno/Svevo (“Norman/Swabian castle”) in ruins made an impression on me.

The following is a very brief history of the building (“Castello Normanno/Svevo,” n.d.):

According to the sixteenth-century historian Tufarello, in 1076 the inhabitants of Morano were liberated from the Saracens by the Normans who built a fortress with a single massive tower. Between 1515 and 1546 the castle was rebuilt on behalf of Pietro Antonio Sanseverino prince of Bisignano and became his summer residence. Unfortunately, today very little remains of its ancient charm.

It didn’t look like most of the castles I had seen in the country, with their intricate decorative elements and their tall towers. This one reminded me more of the Cartago ruins, a Costa Rican cultural heritage site that never became the parish it was intended to be because three earthquakes damaged the structure before completion. Coincidentally, the ruins were built following Romanesque architecture, of which Norman style is a type.

This was in 2006. I went back to Morano Calabro in 2009 and found, to my suprise, that the castle was undergoing some reconstructions. It made me wonder about how complicated a reconstruction like that could be. Did the people in charge know exactly what the castle looked so many years ago? Which was the goal, total or partial reconstruction?

Figure 1. “Il castello Nomanno-Svevo” (photograph posted online in 2010 by user ugo52)

When the opportunity to use SketchUp for one of our class projects came up, the Castello wasn’t my first option. However, the more I considered the project, the more intriguing the idea became. I could try to create a model that represents the castle as closely to reality as possible (for me). Once that was accomplished, I could research other Norman/Swabian castles in the region, and attempt to fully reconstruct the castle. The result would provide a possible image of what the castle might have once been.

I searched for existing 3D models of the castle online, and couldn’t find any. This was expected; Morano Calabro is a small town that goes unnoticed amongst the world-famous cities of Italy, with their respective world-famous architectural heritage. In fact, online information in languages other than Italian (English and Spanish, at least) is scarce. I also searched (though not thoroughly enough) for any architectural plans that might have been used during the recontructions, or just to study the building in general, but didn’t come across any.

On one hand, this lack of information certainly posed a challenge for my project. It is convenient for me, as the person who’s working on the project, to use as much of the already existing data and information on the subject I’m working with. It makes the process faster. It also makes it more informed or accurate, which is convenient for anyone who sees the model and takes it as an actual representation of the castle. As has been discussed in the class, we tend to believe in the correctness of models and representations without questioning the possibility if error. We often give visualizations more credit than deserved. For this reason, once I finished the model, I uploaded it to the SketchUp 3D Warehouse with a disclaimer, stating that the model has several errors. I know that I missed many characteristics of the structure; but it is still just a representation. A  model.

One the other hand, it gave me a greater reason to work on this project. I’ve written before about the limitations of sharing content online and producing said content with specialized tools. Access is not universal, and as my professor mentioned to me, there is an ongoing discussion about the elitist side of the digital humanities. However, I realize that we have to celebrate the fact that once the technical skills and the resources are available, then “anyone” can work on a digital humanities project. I, for instance, I’m lucky enough to receive the tools and knowledge from a university that supports research in the classroom. Because I have this, without the need of a degree, or a research grant, or anything along these lines, I can work on a 3D model of a castle that I’m sure not many scholars in my institution know about. Once I put it online and make it searchable, someone who’s interested in the topic might find it and respond to it, or share it, or criticize it and make something better out of it. The prospect of making these castle ruins from a small town be noticed outside of the town itself (no matter how slight the chances might be) evidences the great power that the digital humanities have in terms of conserving heritage, and protecting the history and culture of places that elitist scholarship might not take an interest in.

As happened with my first project, I aspired to more than was possible given the time I had to finish the model. I wasn’t able to completely finish the ruins themselves, for several resons I’ll detail ahead, let alone try to model the entire, original structure. However, unsurprisingly, I find that I learned much about the nature of 3D models, the complications of trying to accurately represent an object/structure that you are not actually observing, and the versatility and complexities of software such as SketchUp.

I decided to begin the model by copying a 2D projection of the castle on the ground, form the top view. Google Earth (accessed through Google Maps) contains this image of the building, which I drew in SketchUp as accurately as I was able to. I began by creating overlapping geometric shapes, and then by adding the details of the structure (see figures 3 and 4). Next, I used the push/pull and scale tools of the software to “sculpt” the 3D shape (see Figure 5).

Figure 2. Top view of the Castello Normanno (Google Earth)

Figure 3. Initial stages of model on SketchUp

Figure 3. Finalized 2D version of the model

Figure 3. Development of 3D version of the model

Some of my issues with building the model had to do with the views of the castle that are available on the internet. Because of where the building is located, there is an angle of which I couldn’t find any photographs, thus making it hard to shape on that side. A classmate recommended searching for images of other Norman castles to understand their general layout, something that I had thought of exclusively for the complete castle reconstruction, but which was good advice to be applied in this situation. I did find very useful views of the Castello in general, one of them being a Google Maps Photo Sphere from inside it.

A second difficulty was simply using SketchUp. The software reminds me of others like ArcGIS, in which the flexibility given to the user works against her/him if she/he is not yet skilled with the program. SketchUp might actually be more user-friendly than I perceive it now, but I struggled with some of tools, mostly the scaling mechanism, because of the many angles and faces that one can manipulate at the same time. I caused multiple alterations in the surfaces without realizing it, and these shaped the castle in ways that I didn’t know how to adjust and fix.

Another problem that arose from the start was the lack of measurements or a scale with which I could maintain the proportions of the photographs with the shapes I was creating. Thus, the model’s dimensions are off.

Despite all this, I gained an understanding of the structure that I came to greatly appreciate, something I hadn’t considered when I started planning the project. It has been years since I visited the castle, and it had some differences the second time I saw it. Throughout this process, I noticed that I didn’t really have a complete spatial notion of the site, and my memories of it made me think of it as smaller than it actually is, and simply shaped differently. In building the 3D model, I felt that I was getting to know the structure and understand some aspects of its construction that I hadn’t paid attention to before.

But then again, how accurate is this knowledge that I feel I’ve acquired? This time, I experienced the castle only through photographs and the 3D model. Will I recognize it when I go back to Morano Calabro, or will I sense a dissonance between that reality and this one I have currrently?

Regardless of the answer, this is the SketchUp embed of the Castello Normanno model, which can be rotated and zoomed in and out.

 

Sources:

(1) Castello Normanno/Svevo. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://atlante.beniculturalicalabria.it/luoghi_della_cultura.php?id=25595&lang=en

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