Italian cathedral experience for student engineers

Italian Cathedral
Students undertaking georadar fieldwork in the Baptistery of Saint John

From 6pm to midnight on Tuesday 1 December, Monash engineering students from Australia and Malaysia were granted a privilege that even local Florentines are unlikely to experience in their lifetimes.

Guided by world-renowned cultural heritage engineer Professor Maurizio Seracini, students entered the Baptistery of Saint John, which adjoins the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Florence Cathedral, originally known as Il Duomo di Firenze.

With the crowds gone and only the sound of their footsteps on the marble floors to be heard, the students undertook georadar fieldwork, a technique used to detect existing structures under floors. Students were able to ascertain that structures such as old Roman ruins and coffins are in fact present under the floor of the Baptistery, which dates back to 1059.

Such techniques are taught within the unit Diagnostics of Cultural Heritage - one of two units being offered for the first time at Monash Prato by the faculties of Engineering and Information Technology respectively. Diagnostics of Cultural Heritage is an interdisciplinary undergraduate unit which introduces students to the use of state-of-the-art technologies and sees them participate in field studies in Florence and Prato on paintings, architectural monuments and archaeological sites.

The Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology, Professor Frieder Seible, was in Prato to meet students.

“The Monash students got a great first hand experience in what it means to map and document historic monuments and art, and what better place to do that than at the birthplace of the renaissance, namely Florence," Professor Seible said.

We need another renaissance in our education system where we learn to apply multi-disciplinary approaches to all kinds of engineering problems including cultural heritage preservation. Thanks to Maurizio Seracini, the undisputed 'DaVinci detective' our students got to see and experience Florence and the embedded cultural heritage in ways very few people will ever be able to do so!"

The second unit being taught in Prato for the first time, Heritage Informatics, also adopts an interdisciplinary approach. Offered at the postgraduate level, the unit is designed to allow students to explore emerging technologies that have transformed the ways cultural heritage data can be interpreted, managed and communicated.

Through a study of key technological innovations (mobile data, digital mapping and storytelling, 3D and augmented reality) and case studies, students learn how to build applications and digital user experiences for a variety of cultural heritage contexts.

Developed by Drs Tom Chandler and Dora Constantinidis, and delivered by Dr Tom Denison, students have undertaken a variety of activities during their four weeks in Prato, including visits to local sites in Florence, Lucca and Pisa, and attended a workshop on 3D scanning and printing techniques held at VAST-LAB, PIN, University of Florence’s Prato campus.

Director of the Monash Prato Centre, Dr Cecilia Hewlett, was enthusiastic about the widening discipline offering with seven faculties now running programs out of Prato, not to mention the privilege afforded to Monash students being granted exclusive access to some of the world’s most visited cultural sites. During their time in Prato students also conducted fieldwork on the original 13th Century city walls which lie beneath Palazzo Vai, the building which houses the Monash Prato Centre.