Even the director of the Tate was unaware that if, with patience, you look really close up at Pieter Bruegel's world-famous 16th century painting The Harvesters, which hangs in the Metropolitan Museum, then you will see a family enjoying a jolly Shrove Tuesday game of throwing sticks at the tied-up goose.
"I didn't know about this rather cruel game, no," said Sir Nicholas Serota. "Next time I'm in New York I shall take a closer look."
Serota was speaking at the launch today of a significant new art project by Google. The reason we can now examine Bruegel's painting in such astonishing detail – every tiny scene, every brushstroke, every hairline crack can be seen – is because it has been captured using super-high resolution, or gigapixel photo-capturing technology.
The project, unveiled at Tate Britain in London is an extension of Google Street View in which real views of streets from across the world are captured and displayed on screen.
With the Google Art Project, anyone with access to a computer can take a virtual 360 degree tour of galleries in 17 major museums across the world, without queuing and without other people getting in the way – and look in superb detail at one work from each.
The museums include the National Gallery and Tate Britain in London; the Met, MoMa and Frick in New York; the Uffizi in Florence, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Reina Sofia in Madrid. They have all signed up to the unique project developed over the past 18 months, which allows unprecedented access to 385 rooms and about 1,000 artworks.
Serota called the project "another great step forward. It gives people an unrivalled opportunity to come really close to great works of art."
The galleries are already digitising their collections and offering whizzy websites, but Google's project offers something new, Serota said. "This is a second generation view of the way museums will use the internet. Ten years ago museums were obsessed with getting thousands of objects on the screen, now we're interested in getting depth of understanding of the works."
Nelson Mattos, Google's vice-president for engineering, said the Google Art Project had started off as one of the company's "20% projects" which allows employees to take a fifth of their time away from their regular day job, to work on innovations. "What has been accomplished is fantastic, really amazing. We hope it will provide a very different and new way to interact with and explore art," Serota added.
Other tricks on the website, include the ability to save artworks such as Rembrandt's Night Watch or Van Gogh's The Starry Night, then create your own collection and email it to friends.
Among the 17 paintings captured using technology that is 1,000 times more powerful than an average digital camera, are Manet's In the Conservatory, Bellini's St Francis in the Desert and Holbein's The Ambassadors, from the National Gallery.
Tate Britain's choice – Chris Ofili's No Woman, No Cry – is the only one by a living artist. One reason for its inclusion is the large, hidden ultraviolet message the website reveals (RIP Stephen Lawrence), which can only be seen in the dark.
Google and the museums believe the website will prove popular, as well as provide encouragement and inspiration for people to travel to the galleries and see the paintings up close in person.
The plan is to keep expanding the project, paid for by Google, with new museums, galleries and paintings.
At the launch at Tate Britain the absence of institutions such as the Louvre and the Prado were noted. But project leader Amit Sood, said Google wanted to get the scheme up and running, so included the 17 museums who signed up straight away.
Source: The Guardian