Illuminating the Renaissance

Even as Harry Potter is setting new records in the world of publishing, the Getty Center at the Getty Art Museum in Los Angeles is hosting an exhibition dedicated to books with somewhat shorter publishing runs - specifically, one each. The 15th and 16th centuries saw the final flourish of extravagant, one-of-a-kind volumes that were as much a testament to their owners' power and wealth as to their literacy and taste - and some of the most potent status symbols were the illustrated manuscripts created in what is now Belgium and Northern France. Illuminating the Renaissance: The Triumph of Flemish Manuscript Painting in Europe gives we simple folk of today a glimpse of how the other half read.

Created to accompany an exhibition that runs until September 7, the online version of Illuminating the Renaissance is, to use the vernacular, a one-trick pony - but it's quite a trick. Granted, the home page's index does offer visitors access to a half-dozen sections (including an events calendar and online store), but the real reason for visiting the site is the Zoom and Explore area. Here, 20 featured illuminations are explored as they depict scenes that range from a royal wedding to a tour of heaven and hell - and from this sample of works, the museum also surveys such subjects as Renaissance fashions, art, politics and even popular fiction.

And the 'zoom' component of Zoom and Explore is well worth the price of admission. Using a Flash enhancement called Zoomify (no extra plug-ins or operating instructions required), each illumination is presented through an interface that allows the visitor to instantly move in or out, or pan to any spot on each manuscript - using a series of buttons at the bottom of the viewer window. The degree of magnification available is truly impressive, as is the image sharpness in all but the most extreme close-ups. Reaction to the user commands is also gratifyingly fast, and visitors can even ignore the Pan buttons in favor of clicking and dragging the image for more precise adjustments.

In addition to the option of random exploration, each document also offers links to suggested points of interest, which automatically zoom in on particular parts of the image as they illustrate some historic element of the scene depicted. Other links open additional background information, RealPlayer audio commentaries, and such extras as a 20-page sampling from the "Spinola Hours." Two works are also accompanied by RealVideos - one providing a tour of illuminated calendars (including the origins of the term "red letter day"), and the other detailing the creation of a manuscript, from the production of parchment, through illumination, to the binding of the finished product.

Throughout the tour, visitors are acquainted not only with the exceptional beauty of the works, but with such everyday concerns of everyday life (of the enormously wealthy) as the selection of wardrobe and hairstyles, and the tracing of family roots ... back to Noah. Brief glimpses of artistic methods are also provided, including such imaginative devices as the use of borders and framed images to 'see through' walls and present simultaneous interiors and exteriors while depicting a story. Perhaps in an echo of the illuminator's practice of presenting historical scenes in contemporary settings, the Getty site also adds modern touches - occasionally titling pages with such headings as "A Renaissance Material Girl" and "Italian Vogue," as well as providing a cinematic interpretation of a scene by a film critic from the LA Times.

While not likely to spring to mind if someone mentions Renaissance art, this exhibition demonstrates that these smaller-scale works include some of the finest achievements of the period. (They may also be the form that most closely preserves the work's original appearance, since, unlike wall hangings from the same period, these pieces haven't been subjected to chemical cleaning, retouching, or the application of varnish.) And thanks to the wonders of Zoomify's long-distance close inspection capabilities, the Getty has also taken the act of viewing fine art online one step closer to actually being there.

Illuminating the Renaissance can be found at

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