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Elevating Heritage through Technology: St. Peter's Basilica Digital Twin

Italferr S.p.A. has created a Digital Twin of the iconic St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City, marrying precision and artistry through the lens of Bentley Systems' solutions.

Published: 22/12/2023

Country: Italy

In a remarkable convergence of cutting-edge technology and cultural heritage, Italferr, the Italian engineering firm renowned for its expertise in transportation projects, stands in the spotlight at Bentley's Going Digital Awards 2023. The prestigious event, held during Bentley Systems' Year in Infrastructure conference in Singapore, celebrates groundbreaking advancements in infrastructure projects worldwide.

Among the winners, Italferr's awe-inspiring project caught the attention of the industry and jury alike. The spotlight of their achievement? The creation of a digital twin of none other than St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City. The iconic structure, with its profound cultural and religious significance, posed unique challenges that demanded a delicate blend of technical precision and profound respect for its artistic and spiritual importance.

At the heart of this exceptional project is Davide Porzio, CDE Manager & BIM Coordinator at Italferr, who shares exclusive insights into the intricacies of capturing the essence of St. Peter's Basilica.

Check out the Digital Twin here. 

Given the cultural and religious uniqueness of St. Peter's Basilica, what were the specific challenges you faced when capturing data both outside and inside the building? 

Given the cultural and religious uniqueness of St. Peter's Basilica, we encountered specific challenges while capturing data both outside and inside the building. Dealing with a structure of such immense artistic and cultural value, we faced hurdles in both surveying and material characterization phases. Especially when surveying the entire Basilica, we utilized various technologies to achieve optimal results for both the interior and exterior. We opted for specialized tools that allowed us to approach vaults and domes without interfering with the decorations and risking any damage. 

Due to the particularities of this project, you came up with the fascinating idea of using laser scanners and homemade balloons for data capture. Can you share more details on how you implemented these techniques?

Given the need to capture both internal and external areas with utmost precision and resolution, we decided to employ various technologies. For the exterior, we utilized total stations, laser scanners, and drones (photogrammetry). Internally, alongside laser scanning, we used ground penetrating radar to investigate wall stratigraphy. To approach delicate interior surfaces like vaults and domes without risking interference or damage, instead of the conventional drone, we opted for a helium-filled airship. 

A significant challenge during this phase was minimizing disruption to the Basilica's regular activities and the thousands of daily visitors. Therefore, we often operated during after-hours closure to the public, resulting in undisturbed data collection. 

Italferr used ProjectWise, iTwin Capture, and MicroStation to manage the project's data. How did these BIM technologies influence the efficiency of handling a great amount of data?

All the collected data, from historical records to surveys, culminating in the updated model, amounting to over 5 terabytes, were gathered within a CDE and a singular digital twin accessed by over 50 users. This twin undergoes daily synchronization to ensure constant updates. We opted for Bentley technology due to its well-established usage within our organization. Tools like ContextCapture for reality modeling and ProjectWise for data management provided precision and scalability to the project. The time saved using Bentley programs further allowed us to meet the project's delivery deadlines. 

In addition to structural monitoring and preparation for the Jubilee celebration in 2025, what have been the additional benefits of the digital twin of the Basilica? 

Beyond structural monitoring, the Digital Twin offered additional benefits, including the creation of a digital archive for heritage preservation, optimized planning of on-site activities, collaboration among stakeholders, specialized structural designs, simulation of operations and maintenance, and educational opportunities for students and artisans. 

Exploring integrations between the digital twin and game engines is intriguing. How do you envision the possibility of creating immersive experiences around this iconic building?

Our future plans for the Digital Twin of St. Peter's Basilica encompass several objectives, including improving real-time monitoring, employing it for maintenance and restoration, preserving historical records, expanding educational initiatives, and exploring integrations with emerging technologies such as augmented and virtual reality. These advancements will significantly enhance the basilica's legacy and accessibility. Specifically, we aim to delve into augmented reality to create immersive experiences both within the basilica—where appreciating distant decorative details, like vaults and domes, is impossible in person—and remotely, allowing those unable to physically visit the site to experience the Basilica. 

Since this project has expanded Italferr's knowledge and introduced new techniques, what lessons would you apply to future projects? 

Italferr's primary focus revolves around railway infrastructure projects. However, this venture, centered on an iconic historic building, introduced us to new challenges regarding preservation and cultural heritage, reshaping our workflow to incorporate these unique considerations. Working on an iconic structure like St. Peter's Basilica demanded a meticulous and sensitive approach, emphasizing preservation, structural analysis, and cultural significance. This project's success broadened our horizons, revealing new business prospects beyond our core focus. The efficiency gains achieved through streamlined processes will significantly compress project timelines for future endeavors, enabling us to deliver high-quality work more effectively. 

This experience has fundamentally transformed our approach, positioning us for innovative and successful projects ahead. As for the future of using digital twins in preserving culturally significant buildings, the potential is incredibly promising. We have comprehensive plans for ongoing utilization of the Digital Twin of St. Peter's Basilica. It will continue to facilitate real-time monitoring of the Basilica's structural health and environmental conditions, allowing us to proactively address potential issues and preserve this iconic structure. Moreover, the Digital Twin will play a pivotal role in planning and executing maintenance and restoration projects. By simulating various scenarios within the virtual environment, we ensure precision and minimal disruption during these critical activities. Additionally, the Digital Twin will serve as a digital archive for historical records and documentation associated with the Basilica. This repository will aid in preserving its rich heritage, granting researchers and historians access to invaluable information.

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