October 24-26, 2007
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Paper: The Gates of Paradise Interactive

Brian D. Jones, Tiffany O'Quinn, Interactive Media Technology Center (IMTC) at Georgia Institute of Technology; and Julia Forbes, The High Museum of Art, USA


“The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Renaissance Masterpiece” was organized by the High Museum of Art in collaboration with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence, Italy. The exhibition will travel to the Art Institute of Chicago and The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Three of the ten panels and four decorative frame elements from the doors were chosen for the core exhibit, but those three panels were only part of the story depicted in the doors. In order to round out the exhibit and provide an opportunity for visitors to appreciate the entire work of art and the stories depicted in intricate detail on all of the panels, the Museums turned to technology. The Gates of Paradise Interactive was developed to tell the stories in each of the panels, highlight Ghiberti's technique, and provide an opportunity to explore the intricate detail in the panels. The design of the interactive had to fulfill several desires: to tell the story of the scenes in the panels, capture the true impressive nature of the panels while helping the visitor understand the artist’s technique, allow detailed exploration of the panels at the highest resolution possible, and ensure that this installation could be reproduced by the other two institutions.

Keywords: interactive kiosk, museum exhibit, Renaissance art, bronze relief sculpture, Lorenzo Ghiberti, in-gallery interactive

The Gates

After more than twenty-five years of work, the restoration of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise at the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence is nearing completion. Lorenzo Ghiberti (c. 1378-1455) took particular pride in the bronze doors he created between 1425 and 1452 for the eastern portal of the Baptistery in Florence.  In his autobiography he recalled, “Of all my works this is the most outstanding one which I have created and it has been completed with all craftsmanship and measure and ingenuity.”  Subsequent generations have agreed.  No less an artistic authority than Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) found the doors so remarkable that he called them the Gates of Paradise, the name by which they are still known today. 

The doors, standing fifteen feet tall, consist of ten panels (approximately 32"x32") and numerous frieze elements bordering the panels. The panels (in two columns), ordered from left to right and top to bottom, feature a sequence of stories from the Old Testament crafted in three-dimensional detail. The stories depicted in the ten panels are as follows: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Ark, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Saul and David and Solomon.

Until very recently, little has been known about Ghiberti’s actual “craftsmanship and measure and ingenuity,” what we might today call his technological savvy and creativity.  Art historians admired Ghiberti’s elegant figures, masterful compositions, and evocative illusionism; however, lacking access to the backs of the reliefs and to scientific analyses of the materials he used, they were unable to appreciate fully how he created these masterpieces.  Now, thanks to a decades-long restoration, accompanied by extensive scientific, technical, historical, and interpretive studies - not to mention the revelation of previously obscured surfaces and details - we are newly able to appreciate Ghiberti’s technical as well as aesthetic genius.

The Exhibit

This exhibition presented seven components from the Gates of Paradise – three of the ten large narrative reliefs (Adam and Eve, Jacob and Esau and David) and pairs of restored and unrestored heads and figurines in niches from the decorative frame.  The installation emphasized Ghiberti’s marriage of aesthetics and technology, helping visitors to appreciate the sculptural pieces both as splendid works of art and as products of Ghiberti’s skill at fashioning, casting, and finishing bronze. The bronzes themselves were displayed in transparent Plexiglas cases allowing visitors to examine the panels from the front and the back, the last time that this will be possible before the reliefs are reintegrated into their original frames in Florence.  Life-size wall murals of the doors and photographic imagery of the Baptistery and Piazza del Duomo provided context and scale and allowed visitors to understand how the seven elements on view at the High are integrated into the full work of art. A special section on technique featured a life-size reproduction of the Jacob and Esau panel made at the Straus Conservation Center at Harvard University to illustrate how Ghiberti modeled and cast his reliefs. Wall text enriched with newly commissioned, highly detailed photographs of the doors (made available through ARTstor) called attention to the relationships between Ghiberti’s aesthetic and technical accomplishments, and indicated that the restoration has not just cleaned the works but also revealed numerous secrets of how they were made.  A video that illustrates the techniques used to clean the doors lets visitors see some of the conservation work in progress. And rounding out the exhibition, situated in an adjacent reading nook, along with books for further study, were a pair of identical interactive kiosks that offered visitors the opportunity to explore all ten panels of the doors and get a better understanding of the full work of art.


Figure 1
Figure 1: The installation as seen in the High Museum.

The Interactive

Since The High Museum was only able to borrow three panels and four decorative elements for the exhibition, curators and educators began to consider how to put that material in context for visitors. At a meeting in New York in December 2006 all three institutions met at the headquarters of ARTstor, the world’s most advanced digital library of images of art and architecture. Inspired by tools used on the ARTstor Web site, we decided that a kiosk that would illustrate the entire work of art and allow visitors to explore the scenes in all ten panels and a selection of decorative elements using a zooming tool would be the best solution. The zooming tool, taking advantage of high-resolution imagery provided by ArtStor, would allow zooming and panning to observe the details in the art. These images came from an archive of nearly 600 new high resolution photographs of the cleaned doors that were commissioned from Florentine photographer Antonio Quattrone for an interdisciplinary workshop sponsored by the Mellon Foundation in Florence, Italy, in February 2006.

Taking the lead on the interactive kiosk project, the High approached the Interactive Media Technology Center (IMTC) at Georgia Tech to plan the details of the interactive. The original idea discussed with the High included a touchscreen interface on a table with a larger monitor (32 inch initially budgeted) above for additional visitors to observe. The controls for the topic selection and panning and zooming were to be present in the touch interface. However, the doors were so impressive, we wanted to capture that in the interactive and not reduce the screen space with controls on the visual interface. We decided that a larger display with physical controls would do the doors better justice. The touchscreen interface was removed from the design and a larger LCD panel (42 inch) chosen to mount vertically (portrait-orientation) just above the table to show the doors in all their grandeur (See Figure 2). Although 1080p resolution produced beautiful visuals, due to performance and cost limitations, we chose a 1366x768 pixel monitor instead. We chose a portrait-orientation to match the tall aspect ratio of the doors and allow them to fill more of the screen. With a wide vertical viewing angle, the monitor would still allow other visitors to follow the interaction.

Figure 2
Figure 2: The interactive in use.

The physical interaction controls selected were arcade-style controls (see Figure 3) consisting of: a trackball for changing between selection options and panning, a Select button, and a pair of stacked buttons for Zoom In and Zoom Out. The trackball was positioned in the center with the Select button on the right and Zoom buttons on the left. The trackball hardware provided the ability to connect up to three buttons as left, middle, and right mouse buttons. The Select button acted as the left mouse button, while the other two buttons were remapped to alphanumeric keys for ease of communicating with the Adobe Flash application. Since the mouse cursor is constrained to the screen borders and the zoomed images were much larger than the screen, a wrap utility was also used to allow the hidden cursor to wrap the screen in all directions (e.g. wrapping from the left side of screen back to the right) and thus provide seamless panning of a fully zoomed high resolution photograph.

Figure 3
Figure 3: Image of the controls as designed for the High Museum

The application was authored in Adobe Flash with the Zoomify extension used for the zooming tool, to allow extreme close up views without the performance hit that would be experienced if a traditional flash image were used for the zooming. The interaction comes together as follows (see Figure 4): after selecting a panel from the full doors, by using the trackball to highlight a choice and then pressing the Select button to choose, the visitor enters a tour of the scenes of each panel. Using the Select button to advance, this tour zooms in and out of the high-resolution images to frame highlighted scenes from the panel accompanied by descriptive text of the scene and supporting scripture. At the end of the tour, visitors may use Zoom buttons and the trackball to examine a high-resolution photo of the full panel. When done exploring the full panel, the visitor is provided with three to four other panel detail options with further information about the restoration process, Ghiberti's techniques, or other pertinent information. In each of these details, the visitor is able to zoom into a high-resolution photo to explore in great detail, the intricacies of Ghiberti's work.

The application was well received at the High Museum. Most visitors experienced the kiosks after they had visited the exhibition. Based on in-house observations, the average visitor was rather systematic about moving through the viewing of the panels and reading the Bible stories. Visitors tended to view between 5 and 8 panels. The opportunity to zoom in and explore the details of the reliefs appeared to be fun and fascinating for visitors. Interestingly, the areas least explored were the zoom-able details offered for each of the ten panels, visitors seemed more focused on the full panels. No formal pre- or post interviews or usability studies were conducted.

Figure 4a
Figure 4: Progression of screenshots: a. Full door menu with Joseph panel as the current selection

Figure 4b
Figure 4: b. one section of the Joseph panel tour explaining details

Figure 4c
Figure 4: c. Zoomify section with Full panel zoomed out

Figur 4d
Figure 4: d. Zoomify section zoomed into detail

The exhibit, at the time of this writing, has continued on its journey from the High Museum to the Art Institute of Chicago, where they followed our instructions on how to install the application and designed their own version of the kiosk controls and setup. Next stop, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Figure 5
Figure 5: Installation as seen in the Art Institute of Chicago (courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago)


The Gates of Paradise: Lorenzo Ghiberti's Renaissance Masterpiece is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta in collaboration with the Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure, Florence.  The Exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.

The Gates of Paradise interactive kiosk was made possible through the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in collaboration with ARTstor. The full set of photographs is available for study online at ARTstor.org.

Cite as:

AUTHOR, TITLE , in International Cultural Heritage Informatics Meeting (ICHIM07): Proceedings, J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. 2007. Published October 24, 2007 at http://www.archimuse.com/ichim07/papers/author/author.html