No image can match the real thing, but Madrid's Prado museum has edged closer to that ideal by teaming up with Google Earth in a pioneering project that allows art lovers to zoom in on some of the gallery's best loved masterpieces.
Fourteen of the museum's finest works, including Velazquez's Las Meninas, Goya's Third of May and Rubens' The Three Graces have been photographed to such a high resolution that details barely discernible to the naked eye become visible online.
Google's first collaboration of its kind with an art museum, presented yesterday in Madrid, allows viewers anywhere in the world to home in on tiny sections of the chosen works, and skim the canvas in a way that is unimaginable in real life. The images are 1,400 times clearer than anything the average tourist's 10-megapixel camera could render, said Javier Rodriguez Zapatero, Google Spain's director.
"It's a unique vision. In the museum we cannot get this close to a painting; if we did we'd need a three-metre-high ladder to get these views," said Clara Ribera, of Google Spain.
The 14 paintings were photographed section by section in "mega high resolution", then 8,200 photographs were stitched together digitally. For just one of the museum's most popular paintings, Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, which celebrates every aspect of human ecstasy and depravity, 1,600 photographs were taken.
"There is no better way of paying tribute to the great masters than to universalise their art, and make it accessible to the greatest number of people," the Prado's director, Miguel Zugaza, said. "An image is no substitute for the direct experience of the work, but these actual-sized reproductions offer prodigious realism."
The Prado chose works it considered indispensable for any visitor. They include works by El Greco, Rembrandt, Durer, Raphael, Van de Weyden, Tiepolo, Ribera, Fra Angelico and Titian. "Although in my opinion we could include 1,000 more," Mr Zugaza said.
The spectacular images will allow scholars and art lovers to study up close the lines and brushstrokes of each artist, examine the under-drawing, the cracks and imperfections of the varnish, and check the quality of restoration work.
* To see the digital reproductions, download the Google Earth program, activate three-dimensional view and click on Prado Museum. Depending on how the pilot is received, Google may extend the initiative to other paintings and other galleries.