One of the statues from the façade of the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, processed using photogrammetry (left) and LiDAR data (right) (all photos © Factum Foundation, courtesy Factum Arte)

Editor’s Note: This article was produced in collaboration with the Arts & Culture MA concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.


In the summer of 2020, Venice — like the rest of the world — was silent. The city’s palazzo-lined canals and Byzantine churches were empty, Piazza San Marco deserted. But on the other side of the Giudecca canal, where the white façade of a Palladian church gleams across the water, a team of researchers from Factum Foundation were hard at work on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Their goal: to record the entire island, inside and out, in twelve days, and create a digital 3D model of it.

Almost a year later, Adam Lowe, the founder of Factum, is giving a tour of the digital model over Zoom. “I love the fact that ideas tend to have a way of mutating and finding new forms and new lives,” he says excitedly as he manipulates San Giorgio’s digital doppelganger. The project, called ARCHiVe, is being undertaken in collaboration with the Fondazione Giorgio Cini and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. The ethereal model depicts the island down to the smallest detail — the looping box hedges in the gardens, the frescoed ceilings, even the fire extinguishers. The relationship between land and water is being documented too, Lowe explains, thanks to a sensor installed by a Boulder-based water management start-up called Divirod.

Point cloud of the area in front of the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore, using LiDAR data

Lowe pulls up the water data, lines representing the tides unspooling across the screen like a jerky cardiogram. Divirod, a for-profit company, has donated the sensor — and, more crucially, the information it’s logging — to ARCHiVe pro bono. A commendable action, certainly, but one which nevertheless throws into relief an aspect of the cultural heritage sphere that’s little considered: the volume and the value of digital information arts institutions now have in their keeping — and the issues that arise as they muddle through protecting their property rights to that data.

For Divirod, business as usual means gathering and selling information. As Divirod’s CEO Javier Marti explains, “We are selling data — selling the access to the data, and people use it in different manners.” ARCHiVe owns the San Giorgio data and plans to marshal it into the battle to save Venice, which is sinking at a rate of about half a centimeter a year. Both Lowe and Marti envisage some sort of alarm system that could alert the island’s inhabitants before a possibly devastating acqua alta. Marti is also excited to have a footprint in Venice; the hope is that Venetians will want to buy their own sensors see how the rising sea levels might impact their lives. “What we really want to do is bring certainty to the people,” he says. For a price, he doesn’t add.

Lowe, for his part, cares deeply about the democratisation of data, and speaks passionately about the importance of sharing both information and the technological skills needed to generate it. ARCHiVe intends to make the San Giorgio data accessible to the public, though the sheer size of the database means it can’t be downloaded by just anyone. Lowe admits that some recordings “might not be as easily available as others.” He’s also open about the sometimes murky nature of data property rights: “Discussions around who owns the copyright on the recorded data often come out as a taboo,” he writes over email after the lecture. Still, he adds, these are questions that need to be addressed.

Tonal map of the whole island of San Giorgio

Lowe founded Factum Foundation in Madrid in 2009. It’s a nonprofit organisation funded mainly by its companion studio Factum Arte, which provides technology to artists. (In Europe, where non-profits are more loosely defined than in the US, the emphasis is on social benefit rather than revenue generation — so Factum needs an income.) Factum’s mission is to digitally record as much of the world’s cultural heritage as possible, and in some cases, to rematerialize it. Their projects, which stretch from Dagestan to Oxford to Somaliland, are usually ecstatically received, though some, like Erin Thompson, America’s only professor of art crime, have raised concerns about digital models and facsimiles leading to one-sided interpretations of sites. 

While ARCHiVe is Factum’s own project, usually, they’re working for other institutions. This means that the recorded data belongs to those organizations, who can be tricky about protecting their digital property. In this respect, Factum occupies an awkward spot between supporting the commercial interests of arts institutions and their ideal of accessibility. Museums need funds to keep running, and when the Sackler/Shell sponsorship tap is turned off, or a pandemic limits visitors, monetizing its collection can be crucial for survival. Scans and digital models can be used to make merchandise for the gift shop, or, more lucratively, NFTs, as in the case of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

You can’t force an institution to share its data if they don’t want to, explains Cosmo Wenman, an artist and design consultant. “It makes sense, at least theoretically, that the people making the investment should reap some commercial reward and some kind of exclusivity to the data,” says Wenman. “In practice, though, you can get a very undesirable effect.” In 2019, he won a three-year battle with the Neues Museum in Berlin over access to the 3D scans of its famous bust of Nefertiti. His request was denied on the grounds that making the data public would threaten the museum’s business interests. (The museum made less than €5,000 or ~$5,655 from the scans.) When he was finally permitted to view the scans, Wenman found a copyright mark underneath the digital Nefertiti’s neck — a practice known as “copyfraud,” he wrote in an essay on the subject. A digital copy of a work that is not protected by copyright (which the 3,000-year-old statue is not) cannot itself be copyrighted.

The 3D model of the altar of the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore

As Jane Ginsburg, an authority on intellectual property and professor at Columbia Law School, explains, copyright protects authorship. And with scans and models, there’s no act of authorship involved in reproducing that information. “There might be an awful lot of technical skill, but nobody is adding something to the underlying information.” Things do get thornier around the issue of data, though. While information cannot be copyrighted, explains Ginsburg, in the European Union a database can be protected as intellectual property. For people denied access to data, or even falsely told that that data is copyrighted, these complexities can make it hard to fight back. Unless you’re Wenman, whose data accessibility crusade continues in Paris, where he’s battling the Musée Rodin for access to their 3D scans. “In my experience,” says Wenman, “when people have these kinds of gatekeeper authorities, they like to use them. And they frequently don’t have coherent reasons for withholding them or granting people [permission] to use them.” Wenman does not consider Factum Foundation one of those gatekeepers. On learning that ARCHiVe owns the property rights to the San Giorgio data, he says, “That’s great!” Because far from than sitting, Smaug-like, on a trove of priceless data, Factum is working out how best to use it. “I don’t see the recording of the island as an end in itself,” says Lowe. “We see it as the start of a new level of research.” The utility of the Venice data is not as what Wenman calls a “back-up copy” of the city. “With that water data, that’s data that’s going to be valuable in real time as the situation develops in Venice,” he says. “And making data like that open source is the best way to make sure it’s used to its full capacity and that Venice gets the benefit of as many eyes looking at that data as possible.” It’s public access that could save the city.

Francesca Carington is a journalist from London. She has written for Tatler and the Daily Telegraph, and is presently an MA student at Columbia Journalism School.