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Renaissance Revolution: Applying cutting edge techniques to art

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Adam Barker Adam Barker | 12:11 UK time, Friday, 22 October 2010

When Renaissance Revolution was pitched to me, I was intrigued by the idea from the production company Blakeway Productions of using cutting edge graphic techniques to present classic artworks on television. Other television genres such as science and history programmes have made excellent use of graphic techniques to enhance the storytelling, whereas arts programmes have tended to be more conservative.

I was also slightly nervous about doing anything which might interfere with the visual qualities of the original paintings - which are, after all, among the masterpieces of Western civilisation - and we have tried to avoid that where possible.

Presenter Matthew Collings in front of Bosch's Garden Of Earthy Delights

In recent years a lot of innovative work has been produced in the field of high resolution image mapping using the latest digital technology. While online users have had access to large scale zoom capabilities, allowing them to focus in on specific areas of interest, rarely have these techniques been employed in producing broadcast television sequences.

The result is no ordinary art series. It pioneers techniques for how we view art on screen, allowing for a thrilling full high definition wide shot of a famous old master painting, and zooming to two centimetres of its exquisite details.

In terms of resolution these are the highest quality images ever made of complete paintings, the production team were able record at an amazing 65,000,000 pixels in one image. It is a credit to graphics maestro Paul Tierney and producers Paul Tilzey and Randall Wright that they managed to make this technology work.

The scary thing about working with graphics in this way is that you only see them right at the end of the edit. But some of the techniques used in the series are able to achieve astounding visual effects - a zoom in to a level of detail which would have been unachievable by any other means, movements across widely dispersed area of a painting faster than the eye could manage, and the simple pleasure of seeing such high definition renderings of these extraordinary paintings.

There is something weirdly appropriate to do this with Renaissance masterpieces like Piero Della Francesca's Baptism Of Christ, Raphael's Madonna Of The Meadow, and Bosch's Garden Of Earthly Delights.

Looking at their beguilingly beautiful constituent parts and putting them back together with modern technology is very much what Renaissance painters did, pulling apart classical and medieval art traditions and updating them with perspective optical tricks, and new oil paint.

The presenter Matthew Collings is one of our most original and creative art critics, and the inspiration for this series came partly from a previous film he made for BBC Two called What is Beauty? Directed by Neil Crombie, this film combined images, music and commentary in a highly original and thought-provoking format.

Presenter Matthew Collings looks at Raphael's Madonna Of The Meadow

The challenge with Renaissance Revolution was to see whether a similar approach could work with the high art of the Renaissance. Having spent a lifetime immersed in the practice and study of art, Matthew Collings gets the chance to put this new technology to powerful use, helping him deconstruct and pore over these paintings in greater depth than he has been able to do before.

The result is a fresh and exciting vision of the Renaissance and a new way of seeing and understanding the secrets of technique, imagery and imagination that lie behind all great paintings

The main point of the series is to show how paintings which we now regard as part of the classic canon of Western art were the modern art of their own time. Our aim was to recapture the experimental and pioneering quality of Renaissance painting and show how these techniques evolved.

We must never forget that these images which we are now accustomed to seeing in grand museums were once blank canvases and pieces of wood in a young artist's studio. Renaissance Revolution gives a general audience access to the intricacies of technique and delicate details that are normally only seen by conservation experts, or the artists themselves.

I think this is a series which will divide opinion. Traditionalists may find it a step too far in its adventurous contemporary writing, film making and use of music. Those of you who are interested in arts programming that pushes the boundaries will, I hope, find it inspiring. After all, it's part of our job in the BBC arts department to be constantly challenging ourselves and our audience to find new ways of seeing art on TV.

Adam Barker is the commissioning executive for BBC Knowledge.

Renaissance Revolution is on BBC Two and BBC HD at 8.15pm on Saturday, 23 October. Episode one is available on iPlayer until 8pm on Saturday 6 November.

To find out details of future programme times please visit the upcoming episodes page.


  • Comment number 1.

    I like Collings's style. I like the way he brings the then into the now. The title of the programme, and the title sequence, does that.

    > We must never forget that these images which we are now accustomed to seeing in grand museums were once blank canvases and pieces of wood in a young artist's studio.

    A very good point, and an inspiration.

    I notice people complaining about background music in documentaries, but I don't find it a problem, and in fact I enjoyed it here. My favourite sequence is from the second programme when the picture radiates out in a burst of brilliant white light to the theme of Tales of Brave Ulysses by Creme. Whoah! What the hell is that?! Indeed.

  • Comment number 2.

    Oh dear. Yet another potentially good program ruined. Three complaints, sadly applicable to much of current BBC output:

    1. Presenters of programs which are trying to show the viewers something should be heard but not seen. If I invited Mr Collings to come into an art gallery to look at a picture, and then proceeded to stand in front of him for much of the time, and make him watch video coverage of me walking along, or of the side of my head, he would rightly be annoyed. So was I.

    2. Will somebody protect us from the silly producers' fad of using false present tenses when describing past events? It is a silly idea usually made worse by the fact that nobody can keep it up for long! At one point Mr Collings said "Holland is effectively ruled by Spain". I thought that he was referring to some recent underhand manipulation in the EU headquarters until I realised that what he meant was "Holland WAS effectively ruled by Spain". It's a simple little word "was". It means just what it says. I wonder why the BBC hate using it so much?

    3. If you want me to listen to you, would you mind asking the band to stop playing while you speak?

  • Comment number 3.

    Excellent series, I found the whole thing fascinating and I learnt a great deal as well as being entertained. The ideas of the time and description of this period really transported me into the lives of these artists and their beliefs. I really enjoyed the music, just wish I knew what the tracks were? A big plus was the series captivated my teenage daughter and appealed to her modern ideas, which I thought very interesting, she just couldn't believe that the The Garden of Earthly Delights was painted five hundred years ago!

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks, I enjoyed watching all the programmes in the series, as I did "What is Beauty?" More, please! From the introduction, though, I had expected to see rather more about the technicalities of painting. It was really only the last programme, I think, that covered this to a greater extent.

    I didn't recognise more than a few of the pieces of music, and I too would like to know what they were.

    In the titles at the end of the last programme we got to see (just) who did the title music. Had I been still reflecting on the programme, I might have wondered about the technicalities of TV production and people like the dubbing mixer and colourist. I wasn't, though, because I knew what was coming: squeezing down the credits, preceded by an incompetent little hop and skip back of a frame. No cutting edge graphic techniques here.

    I suppose I could ignore a voice announcement about an upcoming programme, but squeezing the credits has marred my enjoyment of many programmes over the last few years, where otherwise my thoughts might have lingered during the few moments of the credits playing. For me now the moment has gone as soon as the credits start, because of the *expectation* that they'll be squeezed, even if (as after the second programme) they're not. This is all the more annoying because the vast majority of my viewing is timeshifted, and I suspect this is the same for an increasing number of people.

    Flame off. Thanks again for a great series.

  • Comment number 5.

    I've only seen the first programme, about Raphael's sublime 'Madonna del prato': it was a fantastic visual treat - well done everyone. I look forward to the third, which I've recorded. I've always hoped for help in appreciating composition and this programme did that better than any other I've seen, as it did for colour and other technical aspects. The rostrum work was excellent. I'm sure it was even better in HD. Yes, Collings did cross our line of sight a bit too often (one sequence was almost self-parody) but I'll trade that for his enthusiasm and commitment.
    BUT - and I'm trying to be polite here - the music was dreadful. I don't know where to start but how about this: just as Flemish painting influenced Italy at this time, so did Flemish music, yet a golden opportunity to explore this striking parallel was wasted. The result did 'interfere with the visual qualities of the original paintings', because, as Collings explained, such pictures were part of a unified aesthetic embracing philosophy, architecture, and music (proportion, for instance, was thought of as common to all the arts): here, this was wilfully violated. The dissonances between vision and sound gave me several nasty turns. And, yes, it was TOO LOUD.
    Sound levels apart, the choice of music was only an extreme manifestation of television's taboo against 'classical' music. Just as, in your own words, 'paintings which we now regard as part of the classic canon of Western art were the modern art of their own time', so the music of Renaissance Italy was also modern music. But by not using *any* music of Raphael's time, the programme ensured that nobody unfamiliar with it was exposed to it or might - perish the thought - find the same beauty in it as in the picture, and that it remains forgotten, specialist and obscure, the province of sad, bad 'traditionalists' (I'll forebear to comment on that low rhetorical blow).
    You say it's 'part of our job in the BBC arts department to be constantly challenging ourselves and our audience to find new ways of seeing art on TV.' Playing pop, jazz, ambient industrial and whatever else alongside the 'Madonna del prato' is *not* 'pushing the boundaries' or 'challenging ourselves'; it's pandering to popular misconceptions about the past (all 'classical' music is 'boring' and 'old'). How about this for an idea? When the series is repeated, put it out, just *once* (late at night, if you have to), with NO music on the soundtrack...

  • Comment number 6.


    I'd like to contact Matthew Collings regarding present day art that is embedded in the ideas, visions and artistic expressions that underly the Renaissance Revolution. How do I proceed?

    I'd appreciate it if someone could contact me and help me out. I've refrained from posting my e-mail address on this blog, hoping that someone from the BBC or the production team of the programme will contact me directly.

    Best regards.

  • Comment number 7.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 8.

    I absolutely loved this programme (which I have only just watched). In particular I liked very much the pedantic style of Mathew Collings. He told us what he was going to tell us, and then he told us. I like being told stuff and I learnt a lot about Pierro della Franseca from watching and listening to Mathew. Unfortunately I missed the first programme but wait eagerly for the next. Well done everybody concerned. Oh, I should add that I liked the musical score accompanying this. Normally I absolutely hate having a musical accompaniment but this was just right.


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