Projection, lighting and audio bring giant model railway to life

A unique museum in Florence features a huge model railway with more than a touch of high tech. Mike Clark reports.

Opened recently in Florence, HZero is a unique museum not only because its main attraction is one of Europe’s largest model railways (occupying nearly 300 sq m), but for its use of d&b audiotechnik’s Soundscape and other cutting edge AVL technology, including a dozen Panasonic laser projectors creating the model’s spectacular video backdrop.

Tuscan Marquis Giuseppe Paternò Castello di San Giuliano was responsible for the original idea and began building the first model in 1972 in his family home, which grew to the point that it had to be moved to a barn on the family estate and later to a hangar in Scandicci, on the outskirts of Florence. 

Through the years, the founder was supported in the work of design, construction and management of the model by various technical and creative specialists, all inspired by their passion and dedication: Marco Baldi, Carlo Brandolini, Gino Guerrini, Beppe Innocenti, Giuseppe Mutolo, Edoardo Pennacchio and Alberto Pero Proietti.

Thanks to this group of specialised model railway buffs and the commitment of the Marquis’s children, Diego, Giulia and Maria, the model grew at such a rate as to lead to the decision to turn the project into a museum open to the public. A new location was found in the ex-cinema Ariston, rebuilt in the centre of Florence to host the museum, in which the huge model, the result of more than 40 years of passionate work, is the key feature.

HO or H0 is a model railway using a 1:87 scale, the most popular in the world. The museum’s name comes from 1:87 scale being half that of O scale, previously the smallest of a series of older, larger gauges.

The area of the building (approximately 900 sq m.) is divided into two main rooms, one hosting the model and the other dedicated to thematic exhibition areas, workshops for model building courses and lecture rooms for events held with model railway experts and other specialists. For its move to the museum, the model had to be divided into seven sections, each transported overnight on a special semitrailer.

The model features 70 Italian, Austrian, Swiss and German trains circulating from the 1930s to the present day, manufactured by Märklin and Piko (Germany), Roco (Austria) and Milan-based A.C.M.E. Some of the best-known models include Italy’s E444 “Tartaruga” electric locomotive, manufactured in the late sixties, Switzerland’s Ce 6/8  electric locomotive nicknamed the "Crocodile", Germany’s Deutsche Bundesbahn’s VT 11.5  1957 diesel locomotive, built for TEE services, and some prototypes built by the Third Reich, such as the 1930s experimental Schienenzeppelin railcar.

Massimo Carli, CEO of Mediacare, the project’s AV contractor and system integrator, explains his hardware choices. “The technical characteristic that led to my choice of d&b audiotechnik’s 5S and 4S loudspeaker enclosures was their conical dispersion - with Soundscape, the wider the loudspeakers‘ coverage area, the more precise the system.

As far as the projectors were concerned, they obviously had to be top quality, reliable and maintenance-free, and we were able to avoid installing them above the model thanks to the timely arrival on the market of Panasonic’s ET-DLE020 ultra-short-throw zoom HD lenses, designed precisely for use in extremely tight spaces, so able to be installed close to the screens on which they project.”

In fact, the Florence museum hosts the first installation of 12 Panasonic projectors with edge blending using these lenses.

Carli also suggested using a Soundscape system, explaining the peculiarities of immersive audio, and the idea was approved by the client and sound designers Tempo Reale.Mediacare handled the installation of the speakers, cameras and projectors and cable runs were installed by the museum’s electricians, following Mediacare’s indications, with 2.7km of cable installed for the model’s automation system alone (there are over 1,000 street lamps, 121 signals and 147 motorised points) and it is possible to have up to 45 trains moving simultaneously.

To avoid the risk of the model altering the subwoofers’ sound, it was decided not to install them on the floor below it, but to fly them from overhead trussing (a series of six Trabes custom square section truss bars and aluminium cable ducts) along with the lighting, projectors and fourteen 4S speakers.

Thirty-three 5S speakers are installed on the walls surrounding the model, four 4S above each of the three visitor passageways in the middle of the model, one over a waterfall and another above the station.

Tempo Reale is a centre for music production, research and education founded by composer and electronic music pioneer Luciano Berio. As well as mixing the project’s audio, the centre’s Francesco Giomi and Francesco Canavese were responsible for all the aspects of the sound design of the model’s “soundtrack”, with sounds following the “rhythm” of the video content, using spatialisation and static positioning. As well as original music, composed by Bologna- based Simonluca Laitempergher, the immersive soundtrack also features the sound of ships, traffic, machinery, planes and trains.

Giomi and Canavese spatialised all the music and sound effects using Soundscape’s En-Scene’s object-based signal management: the audio thus follows the movements of a large ship mooring, lumberjack cutting timber and the movement of trains running in the video. Except for two effects on the actual model (in the station and on the mountain), the audio follows the movements in the video content and Soundscape’s En-space module is used to add effects enhancing the sounds.

In collaboration with the museum’s curator, Alberto Salvadori, Tempo Reale and light designer Angelo Linzalata, Milan-based multimedia design studio Karmachina created an immersive video story based on the huge model that is the protagonist of the museum, with images accompanying visitors on a fascinating journey to discover the extraordinary world of miniature railways.

The visual language chosen by Karmachina’s team of illustrators and animators was that of illustration and motion graphics, with the same meticulous care that the model’s builders put into their creations.

The story is formed by scenes inspired by the landscapes and elements making up the model and takes spectators on a trip through time and space: through the four seasons and the various moments of the day (from dawn to sunset), and moving across the landscapes represented by the huge model (mountains, sea, city and countryside): windows on imaginary worlds and cross-sections of life that highlight the constellation of small scenes meticulously reconstructed through the years by the model’s builders.

Linzalata explains: “This project was to a certain extent similar to a theatre production - I had to create a dynamic design formed by a series of cues that, along with the video projections and audio content, were able to evoke the passing time of day and weather conditions, bringing the model’s scenarios to life.”

As far as the lighting on the actual model is concerned, such as street lamps, station and apartment lighting, incandescent lamps in the original parts of the model were replaced, in order to have micro LED models throughout. The model is illuminated by a track-mounted set-up, comprising 84 customised Side Bend Mini Slim COB LED spots and 32 ProLight GalleryEclipse mini-LED ellipsoidals.

Linzalata was assisted by expert grandMA programmer Matteo Benvenuto, manning a grandMA3 Light desk, whose user-friendly timecode management enabled to program all the scenes and test them simply and rapidly before uploading them on to the (Pandora’s Box) server.

The COB LED fixtures are controlled by a DALI system, whereas the ProLight units are controlled via DMX, so the set-up necessitated a DALI-DMX converter to enable the whole system to be controlled via DMX, ensuring greater versatility. Linzalata opted for Artistic Licence’s DMXtoDALI quad. All the technology had to be controlled by a single interface and the choice was Pandoras Box, which, as well as controlling the video, can also control audio files, generate DMX via Art-Net and ensures a user-friendly set-up for the museum staff.

Diego di San Giuliano enthused: “HZero is the result of a dream come true - a dream of my father. It’s a project that he desired with great determination to personally realise and in which he was able to actively participate in the last years of his life. The idea of transforming over 40 years of work and passion into a museum for the city of Florence really excited him and we children are extremely happy to be able to continue the work on the realization of this great dream.”

Carli comments: “The difficulties involved in the installation were more of a physical than a technical nature, for example, tests on the numerous monitor cameras under the model (with IR LED for the low light level) had to be carried out lying, or at best kneeling, under the model! Seriously, though, this unique project was particularly satisfying for us, not only for the end result of the ‘show’, but above all for having been able to suggest the use of leading-edge technology to the creative team and the clients, who were open to innovation to achieve the desired results.”


Tech Spec


Cisco series 300 - 24 port switches
d&b audiotechnik xS series loudspeakers, B8 subwoofers, 10D amplifiers, DS10 audio network bridges and Soundscape DS100 signal engine
HP Reaper PC player



Christie Pandoras Box PK1 Compact hardware
Panasonic fixed dome and PTZ cameras, 58 -in monitors and PT-RZ770LBEJ projectors

Image credits: Gianluca Moggi & Karmachina

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