Old Masters go high-tech for virtual viewing

A new project means the world's art treasures are now online and users can see more detail than ever before. It's top technology but is it the real deal?

The art world's Old Masters never did things fast. With painstaking care, they built their masterpieces brushstroke by brushstroke, relying on the skill of their hands and eyes to create works that would endure forever.

But now, the old world of the painter is colliding with the new world of digital technology and the results are exciting. Google, creators of the popular search engine, have used high-tech cameras to put some of the world's greatest paintings online.

Web surfers from the US to Uzbekistan can take virtual tours of some of the most famous galleries in the world. You can wander the corridors of the Uffizi in Florence, explore the treasures of the Hermitage in St Petersburg, admire the Palace of Versailles, all at the click of a mouse.

At each gallery, one work has been singled out for special treatment. Google engineers created special images of these paintings that contain billions of pixels. These 'gigapixel' images are thousands of times more detailed than ordinary photographs, which means that internet users can zoom in on paintings as if looking through a magnifying glass.

And when you get up close, paintings can reveal amazing secrets. Sharp-eyed viewers focussed in on The Harvesters, by Pieter Breughel, to find a tiny scene of a family playing a game throwing sticks at a goose.

Sir Nicholas Serota, director of Britain's Tate Gallery, said the detail was news to him. 'Next time I'm in New York I shall take a look.'

Another painting, The Ambassadors, by Holbein, contains hidden symbols and clues inserted by the artist. Close up images of a hat reveal a tiny skull, symbolizing death. At the centre of a painted globe, minute letters spell the name of a village in France, hometown of the artist's patron.

Paint or pixels
It's an exciting new way to discover art, but is digital technology any substitute for the real thing? Surely nothing can compare to the excitement of seeing a painting in real life, of standing just feet away from the actual canvas touched by a great artist?

Perhaps. But digital viewing does have advantages. Online, you can look at paintings from the comfort of an armchair, without having to deal with crowds and queues. And with digital pictures you can see every hidden detail.

Serota thinks this technology is 'amazing'. He hopes once people get a taste of art online, they'll want to come down to galleries and experience the paintings for themselves.

You Decide

  1. 'Technology and art don't mix.' Discuss
  2. Would a perfect copy of a painting be as valuable as the original work? Why not? Does that make sense if it's just as nice to look at?

Activities

  1. Use Google Art to explore some of the world's greatest galleries. Which painting is your favourite? Can you find any hidden details?
  2. Use a cardboard box (and the Become an Expert links) to make a 'pinhole camera', the basic technology that changed the face of Western art. Warning: images will come out upside down!

Some People Say...

“There's no point going to galleries if I can see paintings online.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What's this new technology they're using?
It's actually the same technology that Google use for their Street View service, where moving cameras take 360 degree panoramas of their surroundings.
Does that give these 'gigapixel' images?
No. To get gigapixel images you have to either use a very powerful camera or take a lot of 'megapixel' images and join them together on a computer.
What exactly is a 'pixel' anyway?
Digital images are built out of tiny squares of colour called pixels. The more pixels an image has, the more detail it can hold.
And how can a pixel be 'giga'?
'Kilo,' 'mega' and 'giga' are prefixes used to convey number. 'Kilo' is a thousand. 'Mega' is a million. 'Giga' is a billion. The most common uses are for things like kilograms, or megabytes.