Virtually a real art gallery experience

Andrew Gumbel in Florence takes an electronic tour of the Uffizi on CD-Rom
Click to follow
Something strange was going on at the Uffizi Gallery this week. Walking round, you got the impression that you were not so much treading on the parquet floor as gliding over it. You could even slide through partition walls, as if by magic, or hop right across the main courtyard from one room to another.

The Giottos, Botticellis and Caravaggios did not come into view smoothly, but seemed to jump out at you in a series of eerie jolts. Strangest of all, for the beginning of the high tourist season in Florence, there was not a soul in the place.

This was not the Uffizi as most tourists know and love it, but what computer buffs would refer to with inverted-comma precision as the "Uffizi" - the virtual-reality version, which has just been released on CD-Rom in Italy and is about to hit computer stores and bookshops around the world.

Never before has a museum been reproduced with such loving precision. Not only can you call up the Uffizi's pictures on screen and examine them close up, you can actually view them on the walls where they hang. The layout of the museum has been reproduced in mock-3D, allowing you to move around from room to room and walk slowly up to each picture as though you were actually there.

You can even look out of the windows and admire the views of Florence along the Arno. The CD-Rom version of the Uffizi, produced by a subsidiary of Olivetti, Opera Multimedia, is not the world's first virtual museum - the National Gallery, Louvre and Barnes Collection from Philadelphia have made it on to computer disk already - but it marks perhaps the biggest leap in technological know-how and augurs a revolution in the publishing and the tourist industries.

Even though the package costs around pounds 60 (the British retail price has yet to be set), it is still an awful lot cheaper and easier than hopping on a plane to Florence, checking into a hotel and queuing for hours to pay a hefty family entrance fee at the Uffizi's front portal.

You and your mouse can call up detailed explanations of the pictures, written and aural, click on to video films giving a plethora of background information, and - perhaps most entertaining of all - tackle jigsaw puzzles of the Uffizi's masterpieces of up to 300 pieces. Art purists can nevertheless rest assured. Although the picture quality marks a considerable advance on the average postcard, computer technology cannot compensate for the texture, depth and sheer atmosphere of the original paintings.

"The idea is not to render the Uffizi redundant but to give greater pleasure to visitors, whether they consult the CD-Rom before or after coming to Florence," the city's mayor, Mario Primicerio, said at the launch in mid- week. The buzzword in the computer industry is "edutainment", which has become the guiding principle behind multimedia publishing, whether applied to nature books, encyclopedias or virtual museums.

The travel business is particularly well-suited to marriage with the multimedia revolution, since it is the world's fastest-growing industry and has already created a vast market for conventional publishing through guidebooks. It is perhaps no coincidence that the most highly pictorial guides on the market, the best-selling Eyewitness series, are produced by a company (Dorling Kindersley) that is 20-per-cent owned by Bill Gates's Microsoft company.

It was Microsoft that produced the CD-Rom version of London's National Gallery 18 months ago, and another Gates company, Corbis, that recently published A Passion for Art. This is a virtual rendering of the Barnes Collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings which has been doing the rounds of the world's exhibition halls for the past year. The race is on for the top computer companies to seize on other prestigious galleries and museums for the CD-Rom market.

It is an expensive game which only the larger publishers can afford while the market remains an unknown quantity. The future may not be all computer- driven, though. On the day Opera Multimedia launched its virtual Uffizi, a Ghirlandaio fresco of the Last Supper reopened to the public in Florence's Convento di San Marco. After several hours gazing at computer images, the difference was striking. This may have been technology from a bygone era, but it was also art.