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When art students Emily Gillespie ’07 (Hammonton, N.J.)and Kelly Murray ’06 (Shenandoah, Pa.) were chosen to be EXCEL Scholars, they knew they would further their knowledge of graphic design and gain valuable real-world experience.

But they had no idea that they would be helping to digitally reconstruct damaged, centuries-old paintings and contributing to a major work on the history of Italian Renaissance art by renowned art historian David Wilkins.They performed so well that Wilkins has commissioned several more reconstructions from their mentor.

Under the guidance of Lew Minter, director of the media lab at the Williams Visual Arts Building, the women have spent countless hours researching and digitally reconstructing two altarpieces, one each by Duccio di Buoninsegna and Fra Angelico, as well as Castagno’s Famous Men and Illustrious Women Cycle.

Examples of this work are available on the Lafayette web site.

“The possibility of using digitized reconstructions to provide some sense of the original appearance of an important and complex work of art has tantalized me for several years, and the work of Lew Minter and his students at Lafayette College has, at last, fulfilled the promise that I thought this technology might offer to teachers, students, and the interested reader,” says Wilkins. “Because so many works of Renaissance art have been dismantled, damaged, or removed from their original context, digitized reconstructions will allow students to have some sense of what the original spectators witnessed when they saw a newly completed Renaissance work. Of course it takes good detective work into color, location, measurements, and framing to create a convincing reconstruction, but with scholars and specialists like Lew Minter working together, I think our view of a number of Renaissance masterworks can be transformed.”

Minter has completed numerous digital reconstructions of Renaissance art for Lafayette’s own specialist Diane Ahl, Rothkopt Professor of Art History, and through Ahl’s recommendation was contacted by Wilkins, who was searching for help reconstructing installment pieces for the sixth edition of his book The History of Italian Renaissance Art (Prentice-Hall), to be published in spring 2006.


The digital reconstruction conducted by Lafayette students in the Williams Visual Arts Building has been featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

In Lafayette’s distinctive EXCEL Scholars program, students conduct research with faculty while earning a stipend. The program has helped to make Lafayette a national leader in undergraduate research. Many of the more than 160 students who participate each year share their work through articles in academic journals and/or conference presentations.

“Through this project I really gained a huge appreciation for the art and the artists themselves,” says Gillespie, an art major minoring in women’s studies. “It’s really rewarding to actually put these pieces back together because they don’t even exist anymore the way they were first painted. It also allowed me to work closely with my professor.

“The EXCEL projects were really amazing opportunities. They weren’t just regular projects for a class, but real-life situations that actually mean something.”

Murray, a double major in art and English, agrees, adding, “Knowing that this is going to be published by Dr. Wilkins, whom I’ve heard a lot about, added extra excitement for me and really motivated me. The project was worth getting up at 7:30 every morning in the summer.”

“During the Renaissance, Duccio and Fra Angelico painted these magnificent altar pieces with architectural elements and numerous panels — the Duccio piece has 64 — that were placed in public churches where people worshiped and sometimes placed in private and were just for the priests,” Minter says. “There was a proliferation of these during the Renaissance and a lot of them are in disrepair. With these two specifically, the panels were broken up and cast all over the world.

“These two pieces don’t exist as they did in the Renaissance, so what Dr. Wilkins wanted us to do was digitally reconstruct them by gathering images from museums and private collections all over the world and in the computer reconstruct the pieces as they probably existed.”

Filling in the artistic blanks was by far the most difficult part of the work.

“We knew what pieces we had to find, but it took a while to actually find pictures of them in different books,” says Gillespie. “We were also responsible for coloring the images [in Photoshop] and a few of the pieces are only available today in black and white, so that took a really long time. It was frustrating trying to guess what colors the originals were supposed to be, colorizing the reconstruction, and then finding a color copy somewhere and realizing you had the wrong color.”

Murray adds that matching the colors from frame to frame was also a challenge because of the paintings’ size — one of the pieces has 53 frames.

“Sometimes it was a matter of trial and error because there were so many different frames and we had to get one to match with the rest of the altar piece so we had to make educated guesses,” she says. “But even when we extracted a color from one frame sometimes it didn’t match.”

Minter says the precision work was invaluable experience for the students.

“While I certainly don’t have the experience that an art historian has, I have done enough in sculpting, painting, and graphic design that I know to look for things, such as color detail, that someone who was purely a technician wouldn’t. When I have a student, I try to instill those skills also so they become more than art technicians.”

The students’ contributions were pivotal to the success of the project, according to Minter.

“When I told the students about the project they were both very excited,” he says. “They both have had some experience doing restorative work for coursework, so they were aware of what it was going to take to do this and they’re both very sharp students anyway. If not for their help, there was just no way I could’ve done this in the period of time I had. We did two months worth of work in two-and-a-half weeks. Having them working alongside me not only made it feasible, it allowed us to give Dr. Wilkins something he was not only happy with, but compelled him to ask us to do three more pieces in the fall.”

In fact, based on the students’ performance, Minter feels confident that Murray and Gillespie could complete reconstructions independently.

“I don’t think everyone who has gone through this project necessarily could, but these two could and I would have no hesitation turning something over to one or both of them,” he says.

The project has taught the women much more than the elements of creating digital reconstructions.

“I’ve definitely improved my skills in Photoshop because of the different projects we’ve done, but the researching aspect was also a really good skill to improve,” says Gillespie, adding that the knowledge she’s gained will be of benefit as she seeks a career in advertising or publishing.

Murray notes that the project serves as a good example of what will be required of her following graduation.

“I got a better grasp of what it takes to come into work every day and do digital work, because that’s what I want to do when I graduate,” she says. “It takes a lot of effort and sometimes you have to keep doing it over and over and over. But this has reaffirmed my love of graphic design and been the best job I’ve had so far.”

Wherever the young women land in their careers, the EXCEL work has given them a good foundation.

“This is the kind of project that is not normally thought of as something that a graphic designer does,” Minter says. “It requires a designer’s skill, an artist’s skill, and a researcher’s skill. Those skills, whether you apply them to this, to designing a logo, or to designing a catalogue, will help them not only in terms of being able to do the sophisticated projects they’re doing here, but when they go out into the world they will be prepared to get into graduate school and be competitive.”

Gillespie is president of the club field hockey team, a photographer for The Lafayette, and a volunteer at the SPCA. She also has been named to the Dean’s List. She graduated from Hammonton High School.

Regularly named to the Dean’s List, Murray graduated from Shenandoah Valley High School.

Categorized in: Academic News, Italian Studies