Prado online: The joy is in the detail

There are so many things about the Prado museum that cannot be rendered digitally. However amazing it may be to flit across a masterpiece from your own desktop, there’s a lot you miss. The world’s greatest museum bar, for one thing, and the atmosphere of its galleries, where a low, silvery light provides perfect viewing conditions for such sombre masterpieces as Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

The service has other limits. Only 14 masterpieces have been selected so far. A truly scholarly tool would need to offer pretty much the entire collection. Other museums place more stress on completeness. You can see the entire collections of London’s National Gallery and New York’s MoMA on your computer. Smaller, though.

The first thing Google Earth offers is a 3D model of the Prado itself. Then a panel appears offering a choice of the supreme paintings in this charismatic collection. Pick your masterpiece and you soar in through the doors to the requested painting, displayed against black. A control at the side allows you to select the level of magnification and another panel enables movement from one detail to another, as well as ensuring that however vast and strange the details become, you can still work out roughly where you are.

That was useful, because I homed in on details of The Garden of Earthly Delights until I could no longer be sure what I was looking at: cracks, pigment, a level of detail that normally only the conservators in the lab would get to see. At this level a reproduction starts to feel solid and textured in a way that belies its ethereal electronic nature. It’s a joy if, like me, you want to understand Bosch’s stupefyingly abundant dream picture in microscopic detail.

Then Google Earth crashed.

The German critic Walter Benjamin once argued that the dissemination of mechanically reproduced works of art erodes the “aura” of art, the magic sense of uniqueness that creates the myth of the masterpiece. He was wrong: the more art is reproduced, the more widely the inherent value of the masterpiece is perceived. But what happens when techniques of reproduction become so superb and their dissemination so widespread that anyone on Earth can examine the cracks in the surface of these paintings?

So you don’t get the sense of walking the galleries, of feeling your body’s tiredness or energy; it’s a cleaner, less real experience. And as with any reproduction, you cannot judge the scale of the original work, or be sure you are looking at its true colours.

And yet if you are trying to understand a painting, or simply have a true picture of it to remind you of a visit, this level of clarity is marvellous. Great art becomes the world’s treasure in a new way. Does it cheapen art? No, it offers insight. You can now spend hours at home examining Bosch or Velázquez to your heart’s content.

But I still miss the Prado coffee. –

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