Touring a palace online

The Palazzo del Te, built in 1526 in Mantua, Italy, is one of the world’s premiere examples of Mannerist architecture. Constructed on the island of Te, it was designed by Giulio Romano as a pleasure palace and suburban villa for Frederico Gonzaga and his mistress, Isabella. This palace, which was reclaimed in the 18th century so that it is no longer surrounded by water, rises above the ruins of the previous stables that once surrounded it. It is now a popular tourist attraction; many visitors go to see the spectacular architecture and frescoes. However, until recently, most of the pictures that were readily available were only images of just a sampling of the palace and its exterior.

A website built by Michael Gross ’02, Barry Gross ’02 and Andrew Keating ’02 offers a virtual view of much of the palace’s interior and exterior.

The idea for the site was conceived by Michael Gross during his sophomore year at Williams. After talking with Eva Grudin, senior lecturer in art, about the idea of incorporating interactive technology with art history, he thought of the idea of a virtual reality website for a significant art history landmark. Enlisting the support of his brother, Barry, and friend Keating, they tossed around the idea now and then until their senior year, when they finally got the support they needed to embark on this project. They found the faculty support they needed from Eugene Johnson, Class of 1955 professor of art. Their project received a partial grant from the Center for Technology in the Arts and Humanities(CTAH) for the equipment they needed.

After submitting a prototype of the project on the Thompson Memorial Chapel here on campus, they received permission to go ahead with the project on a more famous landmark. Molly Bourne ’87 was teaching art history in Italy and knew the director of the Palazzo del Te, Ugo Bazzotti. “We were lucky to get permission [to film the Palazzo del Te], but it was through this [Williams] connection and a deal we made that we were able to,” Barry Gross said. The “deal” that was made was that the city of Mantua would receive a copy of the website so that they could link to it, in exchange for allowing the students to film in the palace.

All of the filming was done with a digital video camera during spring break of the students’ senior year. They went to Italy and spent 10 days filming all of the locations. According to Barry Gross, “If the camera moved at all, we had to re-shoot the scene.”

They spent time while in Europe looking back over the pictures and doing a trial run of the website to make sure that all of the scenes would work. They also took still photos of some of the artwork with a high-resolution camera and Keating did some hand drawings of specific details.

After returning from Italy, they spent time before the end of the school year going over everything and beginning to assemble what they needed. Keating also drew the axiometric drawings that provide a schematic diagram of the locations of all the scenes. After graduation, the students stayed for almost an entire month completing the web design. “It took a little longer than we expected to finish,” Barry Gross said

Assembling the website turned out to be very complicated, since each new scene can be approached from four directions. Everything had to be put together so that when a visitor clicks on a new scene, he enters from the same direction he was facing before. This means that each new scene is attached in four different ways; since the pictures are available in small and large versions, this translates to eight links for each choice.

In addition to features such as the ability to approach everything from multiple directions and a full view of both the interior and exterior of the palace, in each virtual room there is information about the architecture and art that is found in its real equivalent. In some cases there is also historical information, and in the Camera dei Giganti room, there is even sound associated with the movie.

After working during the summer, the website was finally completed in late June. “As we were burning the final CDs, we found six mistakes and we had to go back and correct them and re-burn all the CDs,” Barry Gross said.

The website can be found as a link on both the College art department’s website and on the home page of the city of Mantua. It can also be accessed directly at www.williams.edu/art/palazzote.