The second time we went to Italy we were careful to pack two pair of binoculars—not for the scenic mountain vistas, but for the building interiors and exteriors.
In photos of great art you always see it well-lit and close up. In the real world it is seldom either. The rococo hole in the roof masterpiece in the Toledo Cathedral, called the Transparente, for example, is so high and situated with light streaming through it that you can never get a good view of the statues surrounding the opening and peering down. Even the purchased guide book (another way to get detailed views without breaking your neck) has just one small badly lit picture.
Here’s where technology has given us a gift. Take for example, this bird's eye closeup of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella. It was taken with an Octocoptor, a tiny flying camera. (See here for more on this technology including how to build your own. And a quick shout out to http://www.openculture.com/ where I saw this video, which consistently amazes with its finds.)
One of my favorite cathedral exteriors is in Orvieto Italy. The façade has exquisitely carved panels on the side of either doors, but they extend so high all but the lower panels are difficult to view when standing in front of it.
When I found the website PhotoSynth that allows you to create 360 degree views of objects for free, I immediately searched for the Orvieto façade. Several people had succumbed to its beauty and uploaded detailed renderings of the carvings.
When the guidebook implores you to notice the angels climbing up the ladder beside the door in Bath Abbey you can view them to the very top without cramping your neck.
You can get a close up view of the Sistine Chapel in all its incredible beauty here with an accompanying Gregorian chant.
Or take a tour of 18 rooms of the National Gallery in London here.
These visual aids can never replace the sheer awe of standing before a massive artwork like the frescos of St Francis of Assisi. But they give you another view, a different perspective from which to study the works you love, either before or after you view them. I think next trip we will take 2 binoculars and an IPad.
Do you have great tools or sites that help you view your favorite art better?