You probably never thought you could study the swirling brush strokes of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night without possessing an air ticket to Europe. When Google unveiled the Art Project on 1 February—a Java-based application that uses Street View technology to allow users to visit 17 museums across nine countries—the magic seemed to be in the numbers, in the 1,061 works by 486 artists. Works of art included range from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Couple and several of Cezanne’s post-Impressionist works.

The story goes that a bunch of Google staff who were passionate about art approached museums—from the Uffizi in Florence to the MoMa in New York—to collaborate on this project. The partnership involved making a selection of high-resolution images of artworks. In addition, a specially designed Street View “trolley" fitted with a camera took 360-degree images of the interiors of the museums which were then stitched together to make for more than 6,000 such panoramas. Google’s global team worked for 18 months to put all of this together, along with information on each artwork, brief histories of the museums and multimedia related to specific paintings and artists.

Up close: Holbein’s The Merchant Georg Gisze. courtesy Google Art Project

Another such gigapixel image is the German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Merchant Georg Gisze from Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Zooming in to the famous 16th century painting, viewers will be able to see the Latin couplet above the merchant’s head, the inclusion of which is intrinsic to the artist’s style of portraiture. One can even see the Latin motto obscurely visible on the rear wall: Nulla sine merore voluptas (no joy without sorrow).

Google had attempted Street View in the sphere of culture in December 2009, with exterior views of several Unesco heritage sites. For Manik Gupta, product manager, maps and local, Google India, it is in this marriage of Street View with gigapixel image capture that the Art Project triumphs. The Art Project also allows users to personalize and create an art list to comment on and share with friends.

While one can’t replace the experience of physically visiting these historic museums and experiencing the artworks, and projects such as made online viewing of art possible a long time ago, there’s something to be said about studying the coded secrets of master artists up close on Google’s Art Project. Up until now, you’d probably only read about them through a Google search.

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