Renaissance Jigsaw Puzzle

In the midst of all these crises, how about a little good news – apart from Muammar Qaddafi’s death, I mean, which now seems to have been nasty enough to give serious pause.

Holger Dambeck writing in Germany’s Der Spiegel supplies the glad tidings: Mathematicians put together mega-puzzle full of holes. It has to do with a large Renaissance fresco painted back in the 15th century, the time of Leonardo, on a church-wall in Padua, Italy by the noted artist Andrea Mantegna. This particular church was even put on a list, communicated to the Americans in the middle of the Italian campaign in World War II, of places containing artistic treasures that they should try not to damage. Unfortunately, German troops did camp in the area – perhaps counting on being shielded from attack by being so close to a church – and sure enough, they were subject to air-attack and the fresco was destroyed.

That news that this priceless large (almost 1000 square-meters) fresco was dashed in thousands of tiny pieces is not the good news. Into around 88,000 piece, to be more precise – and we know that number because the authorities after the attack did try to gather up all the pieces they could find.

Now many of them are being put back together again to form part of the old fresco! This has been made possible, firstly, by those authorities’ act of collecting all those pieces and storing them in Rome, where in 1992 they were cleaned, photographed, and catalogued insofar as possible. Then all that was needed was some sort of device to figure out how they fit together, and that’s what a team from the Technische Universit├Ąt at Munich around mathematician Massimo Fornasier provided: software to do that.

On the one hand, this is hardly the first time computers have been brought to bear to a task of this kind – author Dambeck reminds us that German experts came up with software which aided in reconstructing documents which the old East German Stasi had shredded at the time of the fall of the Wall. But on the other, this is only a partial triumph at best, since only less than 10% of the fresco has been recovered as only that many pieces were available. The photo at the top of the article gives you some idea of what they were able to get back. And the project even has its own website – but it’s written in Italian!

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