Multimedia interpretation of a restoration: Leonardo da Vinci, painter in Milan

Michela Negrini, italy , Nicoletta Di Blas, Italy

Keywords: Multimedia, Digital Storytelling, Restoration

1. Background and position statement

The digital age has had a profound effect on cultural heritage. Besides the vast potential of digitized objects to be available and readily accessible for more effective preservation and presentation, new technologies offer the possibility to work with cultural heritage data in ways that were not even imagined just a few years ago. The current situation offers a wide space for experimentation, from multitouch monitors as a support to the visit, to 3D reconstructions, to audiovisual guides. However, despite the very many possibilities for communicating to a large audience by multimedia means, museums and cultural heritage institution interpretation projects often remain quite simple. Hence, preliminary to this work is the conviction that communicating should explore new ways. Multimedia technologies have recently created the conditions for a true revolution in the Cultural Heritage area, broadening the lines of this field. Today, technologies have infiltrated into the cultural world, allowing the creation of new digital cultural experiences. New multimedia technologies are used to design new approaches to the comprehension and fruition of the artistic heritage, with the support of features like storytelling, gaming and learning. The development of new ICTs has altered the traditional manner of participation and access to cultural heritage, traditionally made through physical access. In recent years, indeed, new dimensions have appeared along with the introduction of new technologies. There is no doubt that today “new media” are the protagonists of a shift toward renewed communication patterns, aiming at increasing the cultural offering in many respects and with quick and immediate tools and devices.

Behind this project lies the notion that multimedia (MM) is not a literary genre but rather a physical characterization. If on paper we have a variety of styles, from the most scholarly to flyers for occasional visitors or labels in the exhibitions, on MM the same is happening. A large variety of multimedia genres is being produced, targeting different audiences for different purposes. MM essays, MM books, MM encyclopedias, MM catalogues, MM guides, etc. are a few examples.

Furthermore, at the start of this project, lies another assumption: the notion of multimedia, per se, does not imply targeting a specific audience. However, at present time, it is assumed that multimedia represents leisure communications, aiming at a large audience, thanks to the following: web pages (using more images and audio than text), downloadable files (to be played on a mobile device), and online support for a small device to be used during the visit. Within this framework, a MM communication project ( is being developed for the restoration of “Sala delle Asse” (literally, “the hall of planks” – the ceiling paintings show entwined willow branches) by Leonardo da Vinci at the Sforza Castle in Milan. Its ultimate goal is quite new: to allow people to follow the restoration day by day, sharing hypothesis, discoveries, successes as well as discomfitures, fostering a sense of belonging and care for this long-forgotten work of art. The methodologies and tools we have created and described in the next section, are exactly aiming a exploiting the available technologies to their full extent; at targeting a large variety of different audiences; at applying multimedia communication not only for leisure, but also for delivering in depth and complete information on the restoration of a long hidden masterpiece.

2. Digital Storytelling and 1001stories

Stories are, by nature, what we are most keen to listen to, as McKee said “Stories are not only our most prolific art form but rival all activities – work, play, eating, exercise – for our waking hours. We tell and hear stories as much as we sleep – and even then we dream. Why? Why is so much of our life spent inside stories? Because, as Kenneth Burke tells us, stories are tools for living.” (McKee, 1997). There are many definitions of what a digital story is, but they all agree in pointing out that digital stories combine traditional means of telling a story with different types of digital multimedia: images, text, audio, and video to present information on a specific topic. Digital strorytelling is quite a huge field, spanning various domains, from sociology (e.g. memory preservation) to education. Lately, it has been witnessing a growing interest in the field of cultural heritage, where it has recently been recognized as a powerful mean to engage visitors. “1001stories” is a toolkit for digital storytelling and it was first developed at the HOC-LAB, Politecnico di Milano, in 2005, with the aim of producing multimedia (audio, images, texts), multichannel (web, CD-rom, podcasts, cell phones…) “narrative” applications.  The name 1001stories is inspired by “The book of One Thousand and One Nights”, the legendary collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic around the 9th century. Developed for delivering multimedia narratives, 1001stories allows a set of desirable features:

  • Multi-timing: users can use multimedia at any given time and context
  • Multi-format: users can use multimedia with their preferred device
  • Multi-context: the same content can be used and re-used in different narratives or as part of a “larger container”
  • Multi-audiences: users can range from naïf to experts to scholars
  • Content oriented: the (cultural) message is the core
  • Fast and low cost production: In the past few years, and thanks to this tool, a considerable number of cultural heritage related multimedia applications have been developed for different partners and different institutions, guaranteeing a standard feature across the different productions. Several user experiences and several technologies (web, smart-phones, tablets, audio devices, interactive installations, audio guides, etc…) deal with the same content (possibly after small adaptations), synthesizing the approach behind the design: ‘one production = several deliveries’. Experiences cover traditional websites, multimedia guides, audio guides, podcasts, interactive support within exhibitions, virtual exhibitions, just to mention a few. Content is also delivered via YouTube and Facebook. Essentially, one multimedia application takes into consideration and combines several different factors: low budget, short time for delivering the production, different types of users and situations of usage, etc… Today, we can refer to “1001stories” as an “instant multimedia package”. Indeed, it is an authoring, generation and delivery tool that supports the production of multimedia, multi-channel stories. Since its appearance, “1001stories”, in different versions and at different levels, has been used for several applications, in different domains and situations and for a number of clients.
  • Still today, 1001stories is an ongoing development, aiming to expand the number of formats, and improve its use within new technologies.

3.   Saladelleassecastello: the project

Digital storytelling is a modern and efficient tool for cultural heritage communication. The fast and global diffusion of media (images, video , audio… ) and of mobile devices (tablets, smart phones, players of various kinds) has made multimedia stories the most natural way to talk about culture, both in a precise and in a broad sense. A “traditional” web page does not imply a deep reading, whereas a multimedia story, if properly conveyed, may capture the User’s attention for several minutes  and in a number of different situations: in front of a PC, on his tablet, or on his phone, at any given time. Users choose where and how to enjoy the story (either by choosing the device, or by focusing on a medium), according to his preferences and situations. The MM project “Sala delle Asse Castello” ( is a multi-faceted interpretation project showing that there are many communication goals to be fulfilled in order to make the visitors’ experience complete and satisfactory, namely: to provide background information from a cultural, historical and artistic point of view; to illustrate the restoration’s issues (like what kind of analysis are to be performed and what kind of choices are made); to “tell stories”, long or short, about what goes on, etc. (Figure 1).


FIG. 1: The “Sala delle Asse” MM project, website homepage

FIG. 1: The “Sala delle Asse” MM project, website homepage

Following the above, a complex multimedia communication project was designed, allowing people to:

  • follow the restoration day by day
  • sharing hypothesis, discoveries, etc..
  • fostering a sense of belonging and care

While developing the project, a number of interpretation goals were kept high on the agenda:

  • provide background information from a cultural, historical and artistic point of view;
  • illustrate the restoration’s issues
  • “tell stories” on the restoration

Within such requirements, the project was developed including a set of different features:

  • a website, with monthly content updates
  • a set of short interviews to the people involved (experts, restorers, archivists, historians, politicians, sponsors…)
  • snapshots of the room and the people at work
  • an exploratory portal including various materials, such as documents, images, videos, etc…
  • digital multimedia stories, illustrating the room’s history, the decoration, the diagnostics and analysis techniques
FIG. 2: The “Sala delle Asse” MM project, detail on the restoration content material

FIG. 2: The “Sala delle Asse” MM project, detail on the restoration content material

FIG. 3: The “Sala delle Asse” MM project, detail on the November 2013 interviews

FIG. 3: The “Sala delle Asse” MM project, detail on the November 2013 interviews

All this MM content offers users insights into the most important issues regarding this restoration (Figure 2). All content was created following interviews with experts and professional restorers (Figure 3). Along the development of the restoration, thanks to the collaboration of archivists, art historians and restorers, we are collecting a large variety of documents. This will be conveyed in a rather innovative “exploratory portal” on which the material will be made available online.  A sophisticated taxonomy will allow the various types of users to explore and investigate the content according to preferences and needs. It is envisaged that users will visit the website repeatedly, to check for new content and get updates on the news about the room. In the case of Sala delle Asse project, the restoration has not closed but rather opened the room’s doors to all eyes, showing what goes on day by day: it is probably the first (brave) example in the world of a restoration work being told as it unfolds rather than when it is completed.

This MM project offers the users a set of desirable features:

  • Multi-timing: users can use multimedia whenever they desires and for different purposes.
  • Multi-technology: users can use multimedia with their preferred device and with their preferred connectivity.
  • Content priority: the cultural message (delivered through audio, images, text, captions, …) is more important than the delivery channel (no matter how innovative or glamorous it is).
  • Possibility of targeting different audiences: from the naïf users to the experts and even the scholars.

The stories of the Sala delle Asse can be enjoyed with a variety of equipment and in different ways. Furthermore, it can be downloaded or used online whilst visiting the Castello Sforzesco.

4.   Conclusions and future work

1001stories is still an ongoing project. We are expanding the number of formats, and introducing new technologies (for example making better use of multi-touch tablets and tables) aiming at creating more MM communication projects of such complexity. Our efforts include the aim of convincing curators and directors to consider multimedia as an important mean to enhance users’ and visitors’ experiences, by providing complete information. We believe that MM narratives can appeal to a wider audience and help open doors to “hidden” treasures.


We are truly thankful to so many people that there is no way to acknowledge them all, or even any of them properly. The first person we have to thank is our Scientific Coordinator Prof. Paolo Paolini. Second, are all the people of HOC-LAB and TEC-LAB who directly and indirectly participate to all our projects. Finally, all the people involved in the Sala delle Asse/Castello project, including the City of Milan.


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  3. Di Blas, N., Bolchini, D., Paolini, P.: Instant Multimedia: A New Challenge for Cultural Heritage. In Bearman D. & Trant J. (Eds.), Museums and the Web 2007. Selected Papers from an International Conference, Archives & Museum Informatics, San Francisco, California, U.S.A. (2007).
  4. McKee, R. (1997). Story: Style, Structure, Substance, and the Principles of Screenwriting, It Books; 1 edition
  5. Rizzo, I., Mignosa, A. (Eds.): Handbook on the economics of cultural heritage, Elgar, Cheltenham (2013)

Links to web resources

  1. HOC-LAB: The web site of the laboratory based in Milan. In the “digital storytelling” section a number of examples of multimedia narratives can be found.
  2. TEC-LAB (Technology Enhanced Communication Laboratory, is a research lab at the Faculty of Communication Sciences of USI, the Università della Svizzera italiana (Switzerland) which develops theoretical and applied research to establish in what way the use of technologies and interactive media can back up and reinforce communication processes, in particular in the area of cultural heritage and e-tourism.





Cite as:
M. Negrini and N. Di Blas, Multimedia interpretation of a restoration: Leonardo da Vinci, painter in Milan. In Museums and the Web 2013, N. Proctor & R. Cherry (eds). Silver Spring, MD: Museums and the Web. Published June 16, 2014. Consulted .

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