Sunday, August 08, 2010

Zooming at the Prado

This article is a love letter to the Prado.

More and more museums are putting large parts of their collections online. This is especially helpful for the things I research, because there are so few surviving rosaries from before 1700 or so that most museums have only one or two examples, if any. The other major source of information museums have on historical rosary beads is period drawings and paintings, so I'm very grateful to be able to see more of what they've got.

I am especially pleased when the museum has spent the additional money to have their online collection well indexed. Indexing is an often invisible feature that is extremely helpful to scholars. Nothing is more frustrating than to sit in front of a museum's Search page trying one term after another -- the artist's name, his nicknames in various languages, the name of the person in the portrait -- in search of a painting that you KNOW the museum must have. I've mentioned the importance of good indexing before when I wrote about the photo archives at REALonline -- which are pretty well indexed -- and at, which are definitely NOT.

When I discover a new online collection, the first thing I do is a search on "rosary," and while that probably doesn't retrieve everything I would want to see, it's especially gratifying when it turns up things I hadn't seen and was not expecting. A couple of references in the background reading I was doing about La Divina Pastora sent me to the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, and especially to the online photo gallery.

The last time I looked at the Prado site, there were very few paintings online, and the views were small. I can't see much in a 300-pixel-wide image. Rosary beads by their nature tend to be small compared to the people in the painting, and at that size, even if someone is holding beads, I can barely see that they exist. I often can't even count how many beads are showing, and it's next to impossible to see how the painter or artist has depicted the beads -- shape, highlights, surface decoration, how they are strung and other details.

Now the Prado has Zoom. For about 1,000 items in their collection, you can now not only see a good image of the entire painting, you can zoom in on details. In portraits especially, I can often zoom in close enough to practically count the person's eyelashes. More relevant to this discussion, I can see every brush stroke that went into the depiction of beads that are being worn or held by someone in the painting.

Federico Gonzaga, © Museo del Prado

For instance, there are two portraits that I've mentioned elsewhere -- that of Federico Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua, shown above, and which I referred to here (he's wearing a rosary around his neck) and the image of Philip II holding a rosary (discussed here and shown below).

Philip II of Spain, © Museo del Prado

Not only can I zoom in on the beads in both these portraits, the overall images of these paintings are much better than the reproductions I'd seen previously. Both are rather dark paintings, and reproductions of them tend to turn both the clothing and the backgrounds black. The museum's online images have much better contrast: the backgrounds appear as subtly shaded browns and grays, and you can see that Mr. Gonzaga's doublet is actually a very nice shade of dark blue. (Philip, of course, is still wearing black, as he nearly always does.)

Here's how it works. When you go to a painting's main page in the Prado online gallery, you see a small image, a list of relevant facts about it (not always complete), and a few paragraphs of discussion. There's usually a bit of discussion about the subject of the painting, some basic information about the painter, and a short outline of the history of this particular painting. At present, most of the pages I've seen have the painting's title, reference number, artist's name, date, and measurements, and a note whether it's currently on display. Missing in some cases are information in the data fields for technique and support (f.ex. oils on canvas), school of artists and the painting's theme. I'm glad they didn't wait to post these images until all that was filled in, though, as it's usually information available elsewhere.

Screenshot, © Museo del Prado

Below each painting are two icons. Clicking on either one takes you to a larger image with the same icons. The magnifying glass icon on the right is for "Zoom 2."

Zoom 2 icon on Museo del Prado website, © Museo del Prado

If you click on this icon, it takes you to a screen with a scale at the bottom: grab the little dark button on the scale and slide it to the right to zoom in on details. Hovering over the painting turns the cursor to a pointing finger, which you can use to move the painting up, down and sideways to center the detail you're looking for. Click on your browser's Back button to get out of this zoom mode.

Zoom 2 Magnifier on Museo del Prado website, © Museo del Prado

The rectangular icon below the painting on the left is for "Zoom 1." If you click on this icon, then click on the painting itself, you get a new window with an "alta resolucion" (high resolution) image of the entire painting. I find this absolutely amazing, because these images are very large, 1 megabyte or more, equivalent to the highest resolution you can see in Zoom 2. These images are easily downloaded for personal research purposes. (It's important to read the legal information linked from the bottom of the page to see what you can and cannot do with these images.)

Zoom 1 icon on Museo del Prado website, © Museo del Prado

No system is perfect, and I did find that for some paintings the medium setting is about as far as you can go in magnifying a painting to see details well. Beyond that you run across the limitations of the original photo that was taken of the painting, as with this detail, where you can easily see the "noise" generated by compressing a large image to fit into a Web-compatible format.

Maximum magnification, Philip II of Spain, © Museo del Prado

So what can I see about these rosary beads that I couldn't see before?

Federico Gonzaga's beads were very difficult to see against the dark background and his dark doublet. Now I can see them clearly enough to count them, to make some educated guesses about the materials they are made of, and to see the arrangement of beads and cross in the center front.

I think the Ave beads here are probably supposed to be jet: they are round, black, have a highlight indicating they are smooth and polished, but don't look at all transparent. They are arranged in nice groups of ten. Judging by how many we can see and how many are probably concealed behind Mr. Gonzaga's head, there are probably five decades. Comparing them with the width of his fingers, they look to be about 10 to 12mm in diameter.

The Pater beads are probably gold (most likely gilded silver), round, and only a little larger than the Ave beads -- which is interesting: Paters are often bigger than this, relative to the Aves. But the difference in material would no doubt be enough that you could easily tell them from the Aves by feel, especially since jet is warm to the touch and metal is not. Not much detail is visible; looking at the shape and placement of the highlights, I'd guess they are probably hollow with a horizontal seam and may be fluted.

Detail, Federico Gonzaga, © Museo del Prado

Also interesting is the arrangement of beads at center front where the loop joins. Unusually for 1529, there are three extra beads below the joining of the loop, followed by another gold Pater bead, and suspended from the end of this short chain of beads is something that appears to be a cross. Not a lot of detail is visible, but it looks like a plain, dark colored Latin cross, possibly jet, about the length of two Ave beads. Above the short chain you can see two Pater beads side by side, one belonging to the decade of Ave beads on each side. In 19th and 20th century rosaries both of these Paters are generally replaced by a flat medal.

Philip II's beads are more nondescript, but we can get a much better view of their size and color. I would guess these are supposed to be gold: they're the right color, although the highlights make them look somewhat dull-surfaced rather than shiny as I'd expect. They are also a little browner in color than the Golden Fleece Philip is wearing around his neck, so they might in fact be something other than gold, though I can't think of anything else quite that color. They aren't transparent enough or yellow-orange enough to be amber. These are bigger than Mr. Gonzaga's beads, perhaps in the 16mm to 18mm range. All we see in this case is plain round beads with no visible Paters or ornaments, and we can't see enough of the string to tell how they are put together.

Detail, Philip II of Spain, © Museo del Prado

I'm very thankful to the Prado, the National Gallery in London, and other museums that now have excellent Zoom features. Their generosity in sharing these images is extremely helpful for anyone trying to do research who is not able to go see everything in person -- much as I'd like to!