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Touring the Sistine Chapel Now Just a Mouse Click Away

A team from Villanova University designed 3-D Virtual Reality Tours for the Vatican, making Rome’s most historic cathedrals easily accessible on-line

VILLANOVA, Pa., March 19, 2010 – A team from Villanova University has made touring the Sistine Chapel a reality with just the simple click of a mouse. For the last two years, students and faculty from Villanova have been granted rare clearance to photograph some of Rome’s most sacred, and restricted spaces – work that has led to the creation of state-of-the-art Virtual Reality Tours for the Vatican. Anyone with access to a computer can now tour some of Italy's most historic cathedrals, including the Sistine Chapel.

The Virtual Reality Tour of the Sistine Chapel launched today on the Vatican Web site:  The tour was designed by Villanova on behalf of the Vatican Museum and the Department of Telecommunications of the Governorate of Vatican City State.

"Being in the Sistine Chapel is an experience that's difficult to describe, much less recreate on a two-dimensional screen,” said Chad Fahs, a digital media expert in Villanova’s Communication Department. “This Virtual Reality Tour is likely the closest anyone has come to simulating the experience.”

Villanova students and faculty from the University’s communication and computing science departments spent five nights in a closed Sistine Chapel, gathering images from every corner of the chapel, including Michelangelo’s famous artwork on the chapel ceiling and large fresco, The Last Judgment, on the sanctuary wall. This was the most extensive access ever granted by the Vatican to an outside group.

“This is one of the most innovative explorations of a work of art to date,” said Paul Wilson, a faculty member in Villanova’s Communication Department and one of the leaders of the virtual tour project. “It will change forever the way artists and historians can view the amazing work and mind of Michelangelo – his attention to detail, social commentary and sense of humor.”

Several thousand digital photographs were taken with an advanced motorized camera rig and then digitally stitched together, color-corrected, and post-processed by Villanova team members to create a cubic panorama file that presents the Chapel in a three-dimensional projection. Tour visitors can zoom in for high-resolution views of the interior of the Chapel. The tour can be viewed over Internet connections with a variety of bandwidths.

“The artwork present in places of worship aims to immerse the visitor in a sacred reality and the Sistine Chapel is preeminent in this tradition,” said Frank Klassner, an Associate Professor in Villanova’s Computing Sciences Department and a leader on the project. “Our team is grateful to have played a small part in maintaining this tradition using the power of the Internet and modern immersive technology.”

Villanova students are working on these Virtual Reality Tours as part of an exclusive internship program the University has with the Vatican. The Basilica of St. Paul was the first Virtual Reality Tour to launch online in 2008, with the Basilica of St. John Lateran following last November. In addition, Villanova recently completed work in St. Peter’s Basilica for another Virtual Reality Tour project that will launch as early as this summer.

Villanova’s Vatican Internship Program and Virtual Reality Tour project are made possible through a generous gift from Lawrence Waterhouse, a 1959 graduate of Villanova University’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and the Founder and Chairman Emeritus of TD Waterhouse Investor Services, Inc.

About the Vatican Program: Through a unique internship program, Villanova University (VU) students are helping change the ways in which the Vatican communicates with the rest of the world – using the internet, multi-media technology and social media. Villanova began this program in 2003, sending computer science students to the Internet Office of the Holy See. Since then, communication majors have joined these students in Rome. In 2008, VU began sending students to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, where they have been integral in helping add to the Papal presence on YouTube and Facebook. Villanova students also intern in the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service.

About Villanova University: A co-educational Roman Catholic institution, Villanova University was founded by the Order of Saint Augustine in 1842. A premier institution of higher education, Villanova provides a comprehensive education rooted in the liberal arts; a shared commitment to the Augustinian ideals of truth, unity and love; and a community dedicated to service to others. A wide variety of undergraduate and graduate degree programs are offered through the University’s four colleges: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, the Villanova School of Business, the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing, as well as the Villanova School of Law. With a total enrollment that surpasses 10,000 undergraduate, graduate and law students, Villanova is the oldest and largest Catholic university in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.