Virtual Travel: Renaissance revisited at the touch of a button

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The Independent Online
Before travelling thousands of miles to see the works of a favourite artist, check the Internet, advises Matthew Hoffman. Lorenzo Lotto may never have intended his paintings to appear on screen - but now the modern art lover is well prepared to see the real thing

Do you, like me, find yourself reading reviews of exhibitions in New York, Milan and Paris that will never come to London? Up to now, the only remedy open to those of us who could not find the time, or money, to travel to distant cities in pursuit of fleeting assemblies of works by a favourite painter or movement has been to buy the catalogue - if even that could be found, in English and affordable. The other day, however, I happened upon an imaginative development that offers some solace to the stay-at-home art lover: the virtual tour.

I had been planning a trip to Washington DC, to be taken some time this spring, for reasons unconnected with art; but having read of an exhibition of the Italian Renaissance paintings of Lorenzo Lotto that had opened at the National Gallery there, I thought I would try to catch the show as well. But when would it close? And just which works would they be exhibiting?

Lotto was a recently acquired interest of mine. In the autumn of 1996, in the Correr Museum in Venice, I had come upon a small picture by Lotto of the Virgin enthroned, a little crown held over her head by two hovering angels. And although there were many more famous paintings in the Correr, something about the little Lotto captivated me. So I kept an eye out after that for other works by him.

One, in London's National Gallery, showed me that he could paint portraits with exquisite detail, and an altarpiece dedicated to Saint Antonine in the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, of two monks handing out alms to and receiving petitions from a highly realistic multitude, confirmed that he could work on a large scale as well. Then, last year, a book came out - Lorenzo Lotto, by Peter Humfrey, about the artist's life and works that helped feed my curiosity - and whet my appetite to see more of the paintings themselves.

What to do, then, about Washington? I turned to the Internet. A little poking about found the US National Gallery website, and the information that the Lotto show was due to close on 1 March. Did I want to move my trip forward? Pondering that, I idly clicked on Lotto's name, and found myself being asked whether I wished to take a "virtual tour" of the Lotto exhibition. Of course, I did.

The tour included all the rooms and all the paintings, together with some additional material (such as some rare oriental rugs similar to those that appear in Lotto's paintings), and plenty of information. There's even a facility to hear the same sound track that is played on the audio tour available at the exhibition itself. You need a somewhat later version of the Internet web browser than I happened to be using to get the full automated tour; but there is an alternative tour in which you click your way around the walls of the rooms to get what I take to be the same maps, close-ups of the paintings and commentary. Intriguing and informative as the site is, though, like everything on the Internet the whole setup is a little slower, and little more clumsy, than it promises.

Is there any point in seeing the show itself after such a tour in the comfort of your home or office? Well, I did go - for the last day, Sunday, 1 March. And, of course, there is nothing like the real thing. The scale, for one, is important; you get no idea just what size the pictures are from reproductions on paper or screen, even when the measurements are given. Then there is the paint quality: the real works don't glow from behind as they do on a video screen, nor do they have the concentrated intensity of reduced versions on coated paper. To be frank, they are a little dull in comparison; but immeasurably more affecting, for all that.

My virtual tour did yield one unexpected benefit. As I approached the National Gallery, great billboard signs outside proclaimed "LOTTO", a bit as they do in New York City, where you are being bidden to play the local lottery. Inside, the hype continued: the show was subtitled "Rediscovered Master of the Renaissance" and you were told immediately and repeatedly that this great painter has been obscured by the popular acclaim accorded to Titian. In fact, Lotto is a very touching minor painter, at least by comparison with Titian, and his work is noted in every decent guide to the art of Venice.

Judging by a couple of conversations I had in Washington with others who had seen the Lotto show, they had been disappointed. But as anyone who had previously taken the Internet tour knew what to expect, presumably, like me, they were neither surprised nor disappointed to have failed to encounter the grandeur, sensuousness and cultural sophistication of another Titian. Lotto's works provide different satisfactions, not the less welcome for being in a lower register. The hype may mislead, but the virtual tour gives a truer impression of what's to be found on the walls of the gallery.

The Lotto virtual tour continues at The real thing can be seen at the Accademia Carrara di Belle Arti, Bergamo, 2 April-28 June; and the Grand Palais, Paris, 12 October-11 January 1999.