Vatican interns establish Sistine Chapel virtual tour

Katie Armstrong

Four to five computing sciences and communication majors at Villanova currently participate in an internship program with the Vatican each semester, working to revitalize the way the Vatican communicates with the modern world.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Vatican Internship Experience Program Director and Professor Jill Flanagan said. “Villanova is the only school in the world able to work in such a way with the Vatican.”

For the past two years, Villanova faculty and students participating in the program have worked on virtual reality tours, allowing tours of basilicas and chapels of the Vatican and across Rome literally at the click of a mouse button. The productions were co-led by Paul Wilson, a communication professor, Chad Fahs, Assistant Digital Media Coordinator for the communication department, and Frank Klassner, a member of the computing sciences.

“The project has pursued an interdisciplinary approach in bringing together the photographic expertise of the communication faculty with the virtual reality and Web technology expertise of its computing sciences faculty to teach student-team members about the many facets of producing immersive experiences over the World Wide Web,” Klassner wrote in an e-mail. 

 Members of the production teams were granted exclusive access to some of the most historic and sacred worship spaces in Italy, including the Sistine Chapel. For the project, program faculty and students spent five nights, in a closed-off and freezing Sistine Chapel, painstakingly collecting images from across the entire Chapel. 

With state-of-the-art equipment and technology, production teams were able to take thousands of digital photographs and compile high-resolution images of the entire interior of the Chapel. 

A computerized and motorized rig with a mounted digital camera took thousands of photographs of Michelangelo’s famous frescos and artwork. The photographs were then accumulated into stitching software and, after being individually color balanced and edited, were digitally stitched together, supervised by Fahs. 

After further editing for overlap, images were post-processed to create a file that allows the Chapel to be viewed in 3-D. Images can also be displayed through high-resolution zoom-ins. The tour was finally converted to a Web-based presentation, which secures the images and allows faster running time and viewing over Internet connections with a variety of data transfer times. 

Challenges were involved in making and producing the Sistine Chapel tour, such as the issues of gaining private access to the Chapel, acquiring photography permits and strict Vatican regulations about image usage.

Such challenges, however, did not interfere with the final product.

 “This project is monumental in that the artwork shown in the virtual tours has never been displayed publicly with this attention to detail before,” said Wilson, one of the founders of the Vatican Internship Program and a leader of the virtual tours projects. “This is a very unique way to experience every nuance of the Sistine Chapel.”

Junior Cristin Parise, a fall 2009 participant in the program, assisted in equipment set up, and during filming she kept a journal of the production group’s various experiences, tasks and actions for reflection. She found the Sistine Chapel virtual tour to be a wonderful experience.

“I hope everyone will be able to understand and appreciate what an incredible privilege this virtual tour is,” she wrote in an e-mail. “It gives people a rare opportunity for serene, uninterrupted viewing. As a ‘normal’ visitor to one of these Chapels, you just don’t have the same chance to see these sites up close or in silence – especially the Sistine Chapel. Without crowds, noise or distractions, it is an entirely unique experience.”

Several other Vatican virtual tours made by Villanova University are already released or still in the making, including tours of St. John Lateran, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, St. Mary Major, the Pauline Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. Program participants are also working on interactive projects of the Necropolis of Santa Rosa and the Vatican Museum. The Vatican Internship Experience was started in 2003 by two Villanova alumni who contributed equipment and financial support for the Internship Office of the Holy See. The Virtual Reality Tour of the Sistine Chapel is available on the Vatican Web site and on Villanova’s homepage.