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Miranda Hinkley hears why Hans Holbein’s Ambassadors are worth a closer look.

10 February, 2011

Over a thousand world-famous artworks, panoramic views of galleries, super high-res, zoomable images; this is the new Google Art Project.

Launched earlier this month, it’s the result of a long-term collaboration with institutions including the National Gallery, Tate, The State Hermitage Museum, Uffizi, Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. It allows users anywhere in the world to learn about the history and artists behind a huge number of works, at the click of a mouse.

Google’s Head of Art Project Amit Sood told Miranda the platform brings together 17 museums from 9 countries and allows you to explore like never before:

“It allows you to zoom right into the artworks, but what’s really new is the indoor Street View, which allows you to get an idea of the interior of the museum using Google’s Street View technology.”

This is one of the project’s most satisfying features. You move around the museums virtually, clicking on works to read more, discover related artworks or even watch YouTube Videos. The interiors can also be explored from within Google Maps.

But what makes the Google Art Project really special is that each of the 17 museums involved have selected one artwork to be photographed in extraordinary detail using super high resolution ‘gigapixel’ technology. Each image contains around 7 billion pixels, so you can see details of brushwork and patina beyond what’s possible with the naked eye.

The National Gallery London’s chosen work is Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’, painted in 1533. It’s an incredibly detailed portrait of two wealthy, educated and powerful young men; Jean de Dinteville, the French ambassador to England and his friend, Georges de Selve, pictured with all the accoutrements of their learning and status; a globe, musical instruments, a book of arithmetic, a luxurious carpet. I asked the National Gallery’s Head Curator Susan Foister what hidden details might be revealed:

“There are so many details to this work and it’s so intriguing and mysterious that every time you come to it you’re going to see something different. On the globe, if you zoom in to where France is, you can see a little dot indicating Polisy. That’s the chateau belonging to Jean de Dinteville, the ambassador on the left, and that’s where the painting hung when he took it back home with him.”

‘The Ambassadors’ is perhaps best known for its striking optical illusion; the distorted skull that looms over the bottom of the painting and only snaps into focus when viewed from about a metre back and to the right. But according to Susan, that’s not the only reminder of mortality:

“If you zoom into Jean de Dinteville’s hat, you can see that he’s got a hat-badge of a skull, a tiny little detail that’s difficult to see otherwise otherwise. You start wondering whether it’s because of that hat-badge that the larger skull is included in the painting. If you zoom further to the left, you can see a tiny silver crucifix, another wonderful hidden detail.”

The Google Art Project has been 18 months in the making and according to Amit, it all began as a labour of love:

“It started out as a Google 20% project. We’re really lucky to be at Google because it allows you to work on things that you’re really passionate about during your working week. A group of us who are from really different backgrounds came together to work on the project during that free time. But of course we’ve been working on it at all hours!”

The team’s infectious passion and enthusiasm for art is also enshrined in the website’s functionality:

“We’ve built in a feature called ‘My Collections’, which allows you take your favourite bits off the site and share them with your friends.”

My interview with Susan Foister and Amit Sood will feature in next month’s National Gallery Podcast. You can download the episode from March 1st from the National Gallery website, or subscribe by pasting this link into your feed reader:

In the mean time, why not explore ‘The Ambassadors’ on the Google Art Project website. And if you spot any intriguing hidden details, let me know!


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