Technofile

A few years after Giovanni Bellini completed The Feast of the Gods, its owner Alfonso D'Este, Duke of Ferrara, had the painting altered by Titian. Its current owner, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, has given it a new frame: a hyperframe mounted on a CD- Rom.

The disk - "an explorative and educational insight" into this single work of art - carries two principal narratives: that depicted in the painting itself, and the story of the forensic investigations into the history of its alterations. It poses the question of why the Duke felt inclined to order the reworking of what we now call a masterpiece, and induces the question of what a digital frame does for a great work of art.

The painting itself is a still tableau shot through by a sliver of action. The gods, satyrs and nymphs have set down in the shade of trees for a bacchanal. At stage right, while the attention of the others is elsewhere and his victim is asleep, Priapus lifts the hem of Lotis's dress in order to molest her. At that moment, stage left, Silenus's ass brays. Bellini depicts the instant before Lotis is woken by the sound, runs away mortified by shame, and is turned into a tree.

Under the hyperframe, the painting is transformed into a background of inert pixels and an array of active figures which, when clicked, start up cameos guided by short spoken commentaries. In addition, a series of "cards", somewhat predictably rendered to look like parchment, provide written background on topics ranging from the mythology to the real people surrounding the painting, the chamber in which it was displayed and the paintings which surrounded it. We are told that Lotis was a symbol of chastity, while by contrast Renaissance painters often rendered the folds of Priapus's garment in priapic fashion.

All these annexes transform the geometry of the painting, significantly if not profoundly. It starts to appear as a collection of detachable elements, not unlike a toy farm from which a child can pluck the animals one by one. Each element, once extracted, is revealed to have a train of context trailing in its wake. As CD-Roms and hypermedia techniques gain ground, this will become an increasingly prevalent way of perceiving fine art. It is already standard within the CD-Rom medium, and is not especially complex. The effect is thus pleasantly formal, like being taken by the arm and guided round the grounds of a stately home at a sedate pace. You may not have been to that particular place before, but the tour feels familiar nonetheless.

The disk's own narrative is taken up by video clips in the Analysis section, which show how the microscopic strata of paint layers were examined. (The parchment cards look singularly inappropriate describing infra-red and X-ray techniques.) It appears that Bellini originally set the gods in front of a curtain of trees, most of which were later obliterated in favour of a dramatic crag. The first reviser was Dosso Dossi, whose new background was then reworked by Titian. Peculiarly, Titian failed to paint out a stuffed-looking Dossi pheasant, while troubling to add a handle to a bowl and making tiny alterations to the arm of Priapus.

That leaves the question of why Alfonso D'Este required the changes, and so does the disk. It slightly oversells the narrative as an attraction: the revelations are interesting but, in the absence of explanation, not revolutionary. The many pleasures of the disk are to be found on the way to finding out who did it, if not why. They are contemplative pleasures, as is that of the final mystery, the inner life of a potentate whose two most notable characteristics were a passion for casting cannons, and being married to Lucretia Borgia.

'Bellini: The Feast of the Gods' is published by Virgin's New Media Solutions, 0171-229 1708, pounds 39.95.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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