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New Digital Survey Offers Unprecedented Look Inside Baroque Churches

A major new survey of 18 Baroque churches was unveiled this month with the launch of and the exhibition Baroque Topologies at the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. Generated through laser scanning, photogrammetry and digital imaging, and comprised of millions of data points, the survey offers an unprecedented look inside some of the most studied buildings in Western architecture. The initiative is spearheaded by Andrew Saunders, Associate Professor in the Department of Architecture, in partnership with Autodesk and FARO Technologies, and supported by a University Research Foundation grant from Penn.

The survey includes churches in Rome and Piedmont by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Francesco Borromini, Pietro da Cortona, Guarino Guarini, Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi, and Bernardo Vittone. Saunders’s website captures the complex geometry and sheer beauty of their designs in two dimensions, while the exhibition features both large-format prints and 3D printed models. An additional website,, offers interactive 360-degree views.

“The era of ‘big data’ calls for new approaches to analysis and representation in all fields of design,” Saunders explains. “The ability to capture, record and simulate increasingly larger sets of data, coupled with remote access to cloud computing and progressively more affordable additive fabrication technology, provides new opportunities and methods for understanding and assessing complexity and representation in architecture.” In addition to their value to preservationists, the data offer a reexamination of the value-laden tools of contemporary representation and their impact on current architectural production.

Baroque Topologies examines the potential of new methods to redefine and enhance knowledge and understanding of the full spectrum of formal and spatial complexity of Baroque architecture. This semester Saunders began using the data in a seminar at PennDesign to encourage students to “write the next chapter in the way architects study, reassess and reinterpret the past.”

“The works selected for the project can be seen as topological variants of the centrally planned church of the Renaissance,” says Saunders. “Taken together, they demonstrate the blossoming evolution from the early and high baroque in Rome extending to the late baroque in the Piedmont Region in Northern Italy.”

To produce the survey, Saunders and his team spent six weeks over the summer of 2016 with the support of FARO Laser Scanner Focus 3Dx130 and proprietary software. The last six months have been dedicated to processing the data with Autodesk ReMake, ReCap and 3dsMax; producing high-resolution 3D prints for the exhibition; and developing a public website.

Baroque Topologies is on view through February 24, 2017 at the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery, 200 South 36th Street, Philadelphia. Saunders also has a selection of work on Instagram

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The churches surveyed for Baroque Topologies:

Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza (Francesco Borromini)
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (Francesco Borromini)
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (crypt; Francesco Borromini)
San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (courtyard; Francesco Borromini)
Santa Maria dei Sette Dolori (Francesco Borromini)
Sant’Agnese in Agone (Francesco Borromini, Girolamo and Carlo Rainaldi)
Oratorio dei Filippini (Francesco Borromini)
San Giovanni dei Fiorentini (crypt; Francesco Borromini)
Sant’Andrea al Quirinale (Gian Lorenzo Bernini)
Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta (Ariccia; Gian Lorenzo Bernini)
Collegiata di San Tommaso da Villanova (Castel Gandolfo; ​Gian Lorenzo Bernini)
Santa Maria in Montesanto (Carlo Rainaldi and Gian Lorenzo Bernini)
Santa Maria dei Miracoli (Carlo Rainaldi)
San Silvestro in Capite (Francesco da Volterra, Carlo Maderno and Carlo Rainaldi)
Santi Luca e Martina (Pietro da Cortona)
Santi Luca e Martina (cupola; Pietro da Cortona)
Santa Maria in Campitelli (Carlo Rainaldi)

Church of San Lorenzo (Guarino Guarini)
Immacolata Concezione (Cappella dell’Arcivescovado;  Guarino Guarini)
Chiesa di Santa Maria di Piazza Bernardo (Antonio Vittone)
Santa Chiara at Bra (Bernardo Antonio Vittone)