Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Fine (Detail) Art

Sit down, fire up a browser, generate some CO2 and via Google go here. Voila, a Gigapixel view of treasures from the Prado museum. For the first time, you can now get microscopically close to some of the finest works of the art on public display anywhere in the world today.

The example I liked to above (given that it works, of course. As you can see from the video, you'll need Google Earth installed to get there, otherwise start from here for more information) should take you to a detail from the perfect test case, Hieronymus Bosch's Garden Of Earthly Delights. This incredibly complex triptych, surely the artist's most well known work, depicts the perils of straying into earthly temptation, particularly of the fleshy kind, and what will happen to you in the afterlife should the pull indeed be too strong for a mere 16th century mortal to resist.

I've seen the work in person, on a long-ago visit to Madrid, and found it to be mesmerising. However, as with all modern museums these days, there's a limit to how close you can get. Most particularly in the case of this work, that leaves you craning forwards trying to take in the massive amount of detail, something that doubtless drove huge book and poster sales in the museum shop right up until, ooh, roughly yesterday.

No more, dear art lover. Now, from the comfort of you own arm chair and with a price of but a few grams of CO2, you can drill right into each and every facet of this hugely significant piece. The capture above is way closer than you can get in the museum, but nowhere near what Google Earth will offer you. Really, it is that good.

I for one can't wait until they get more of this done. The technology is pretty basic by all accounts: a standard DSLR with a long lens, plus some fancy software to figure out distortions, stitching points etc., and a tripod-mounted mechanism to move the camera over the piece in question. From the video you can see that it just requires after hours access and nothing that gets in the way of photographing the work. You don't have to take it down; you don't have to remove it from display for weeks on end; you don't need any fancy laboratory set-up.

Here's hoping that Google donates the necessary equipment, software and storage space to every major museum around the world on the basis that, in return, they'd progressively digitize all their major works. Just think of all the plane flights it would save: call this Google's approach to carbon offsets! Even at a cost of just 7 grams of carbon dioxide, viewing it online is a lot more carbon friendly than flying there!

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