POUGHKEEPSIE, NY — Little did Steve Taylor imagine how much interest his digital re-creation of the Sistine Chapel would stir, in the emerging online world known as Second Life.
After two months of steadily piecing together the project – an hour here, a couple of hours there – Taylor's creation went live on Monday, July 2, and at 11:30 that morning he sent an announcement to an international mailing list for educators using Second Life. "By 1:30, there had been 73 visits. By the end of the following day, there had been 420," said Taylor, director of academic computing services at Vassar College. "It had been described in a number of blogs, and snapshots had been posted at flickr.com. Now eight weeks later, there have been more than 3,000 visits."
With estimates of 1.6 million people worldwide actively participating and interacting in Second Life, Vassar's Sistine Chapel has crystallized for many people the best educational possibilities of the online technology.
"Many visitors have told us how beautiful our version of the Sistine is, but I remind them that Michelangelo had a hand in that. One blogger suggested that this may be the 'killer app' for education in Second Life," said Taylor. " People who have been to the real chapel have e-mailed us that this reminds them of being there, except for the lack of crowds and rushing. Of course, they also like being able to fly up to the ceiling for a close inspection, or to sit on a windowsill."
Freedom of movement from floor to ceiling, and from the seas through the clouds, is one of the liberating aspects of Second Life, which has some of the look and feel of a sophisticated video game. Participants create a virtual character, an "avatar," to move among various locations that fellow participants are creating in this collaborative world, and to converse in these locales with one another.
Vassar is among the earliest colleges to explore the educational potential of Second Life, with art history, computer science, and cognitive science professors already employing the technology in their courses. Applications for many other disciplines are also being considered, including foreign language learning, since, as Taylor points out, "There are Second Life participants from all over the world interested in conversing."
In fact, some of Taylor's earlier work with a historian of the Italian Renaissance moved him to pursue the creation of a Sistine Chapel in Second Life. Already several art historians who have visited the virtual chapel have e-mailed to say that they expect to use the site in their courses in the coming year.
"Part of what we are trying to do at the moment with Second Life is to create opportunities to inspire faculty," explained Bret Ingerman, the college's vice president for computing and information services, and Vassar's point person for Second Life. "It's hard to get a sense of what is possible using these new 'virtual world' technologies unless you can actually see some things that show the potential. While there are a few faculty who have and will use Second Life to teach, the main objective for my office is to learn about the technology and to then show faculty what the possibilities are."
Uniquely, in addition to Vassar securing legal permission to re-use photographs of the Sistine Chapel in the construction of the project, Ingerman and Taylor felt that the holy nature of the actual sanctuary obliged Vassar to urge decorum at the virtual site. So they posted a special message at the entrance, encouraging the Second Lifers who visit to conduct themselves accordingly. To date more than 1,600 avatars have agreed to the code of conduct.
"We thought that people who hold reverence for the real chapel might be offended by some of the rowdy behavior that sometimes occurs in Second Life, so we installed a system that requires visitors to agree to behave in a respectful manner when visiting," said Ingerman. "We'll probably extend this requirement to all of our Vassar Island, to help protect our faculty and students from 'griefers', people who visit sites and events in Second Life in order to be disruptive or obnoxious."
Taylor explained that his elaborate digital construction was far more feasible because, "The Sistine Chapel is probably one of the most photographed buildings in the world, so it was easy to find digital images of the major artworks on the web." [The Web Gallery of Art was one of his major resources.] "It was more difficult to find photographs of the less important areas, like the pilasters between the paintings and of the floor, which I had to reconstruct from many different photos."
Taylor also included something most visitors don't see when they visit the Sistine Chapel in person: the tapestries Pope Leo X commissioned Raphael to design for the space between 1515 and 1516. Raphael's cartoons were woven into scenes of the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul in Brussels, and hung on the Sistine's walls by 1524. Today, however, they are rarely displayed in the Sistine Chapel for the public to view.
Most of Vassar's re-created Sistine Chapel is comprised of rectangular prisms, each with a single photographic image. None of the images is greater than 512 pixels wide or tall, so to make sure the visual resolution was adequate, each rectangle typically has one painting on it. "Below the ceiling line, the building is basically a box, so I built the chapel by putting a lot of these rectangles next to each other, I simulated the curve of the ceiling by using a lot of flat pieces," Taylor continued. "There are also arched windows and semicircular paintings (lunettes) above them. The most difficult pieces to construct were the curved spandrels and pendentives that connect the lunettes to the ceiling."
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What is Second Life?
A brief description.
Sistine Chapel slurl
Use this link if you already use Second Life to visit the Sistine Chapel replica on Vassar Island