Cultural heritage: 3D digital reconstruction brings back oldest pharmacy in Europe


A Spanish-Italian team which includes ENEA researchers created a virtual reconstruction of the  apothecary of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome

Experiencing the charm, beauty and secrets of the oldest pharmacy in Europe through virtual reality. An international research team comprising Italy, Spain and Portugal succeded in building a 3D reconstruction of the apothecary of Santa Maria della Scala in Rome, a treasure chest dating back to the 16th century storing ancient drug recipes, substances from all continents and tools used to concoct potions and remedies employed to cure Popes, called the 'Pharmacy of the Popes'. Thanks to virtual reality the apothecary, which up to now could only be visited by small groups of people, has became available to the general public.

The historical pharmacy operated from the end of the seventeenth century to the middle of the last century under the Spanish order of the Discalced Carmelite Friars, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries controlled the trade routes with the East and West Indies and acquired plants and medicines from all over the Mediterranean, including Egypt and the Near East, and from the Americas and the Indies.

For months researchers from ENEA, Ca 'Foscari University of Venice, Hercules Laboratory of the University of Évora (Portugal), EASD - Escola d´Art i Superior de Disseny of Valencia and University of Valencia (Spain) used lasers, photogrammetry for non-destructive surveys and conducted physical, chemical and historical analyses to characterize the drugs, assess the state of conservation and plan recovery interventions, as part of the project Roma Hispana [1], coordinated by Maria Luisa Vazquez de Ágredos of the University of Valencia and funded by the Conselleria de Innovación, Universidades, Ciencia y Sociedad Digital - Generalitat Valenciana (2020-2021) and the company Aboca.

"Santa Maria della Scala is a huge patrimony for the study of drugs in the Mediterranean, and the outcomes of the project are crucial to progress knowledge in pharmaceutical sciences", pointed out Maria Luisa Vazquez de Ágredos of the University of Valencia. "Thanks to Roma Hispana we can characterize drugs, study and understand their evolution over time and provide remote access to this baroque jewel to valorise it, promote knowledge and increase the digital documentation of the museum".

"Thanks to the technologies developed at ENEA we can provide laser instrumentation, photogrammetry and monitoring systems to conduct non-destructive and non-invasive surveys to characterize surfaces and acquire 3D models of the sales room and the adjoining archive room where herbaria, drug recipes and other documentation were stored “, pointed out  Roberta Fantoni, head of the ENEA Physical Technologies for Safety and Health Division. "The complete model will also have the purpose of assessing the state of conservation and planning possible recovery interventions".

In particular, the RGB-ITR laser prototype developed at the ENEA Frascati Research Center Laboratories can operate from a distance of up to 33 meters with a submillimeter resolution; after about 150 hours of data acquisition, the entire vault and the upper part of the whole room was acquired, with a mm resolution. Thanks to photogrammetry systems, the cabinet located in the room used for the conservation of herbaria and recipes was reconstructed in 3D. The model was obtained in about four hours, starting from 473 digital images, remotely using the Metashape computer code, available on the ENEA ICT computing infrastructure dedicated to cultural heritage.

"With various techniques we analyzed about 100 samples of the poisons cabinet of the pharmacy to understand if the contents of these bottles corresponded to the labels and if any alterations had occurred over time that could have reduced the medication effectiveness or increased their toxicity”, pointed out Catarina Pereira at the Hercules Laboratory.

"Our goal is to make the Apothecary a digital experience-  by adopting virtual tours and photogrammetry and volumetric light scanning techniques- which overcomes architectural barriers and that everyone can enjoy on the web”, pointed out Sergio Ferrero at the EASD.



[1]project Roma Hispana “Nuevas tecnologías aplicadas al estudio histórico, la musealización y la puesta en valor de Patrimonio Cultural español en Roma: la Spezieria di Santa Maria della Scala”

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