The Daily Heller: The Greatest Story Ever Told

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The Sistine Chapel is one of the world's greatest artistic spectaculars. Now Nicholas Callaway and Callaway Arts & Entertainment have made it into one of the world's greatest printing wonders: The Sistine Chapel trilogy, a pioneering technological breakthrough.

For Callaway's 40th anniversary creating fine books and films, his latest feat, a magnum opus in the works for five years, is the definitive book on the Sistine Chapel in 1:1 scale. "It is also for me the latest in my long quest you know so well to make art sing on the printed page," Callaway explained in a recent email.

To create the three volumes, a team of photographers made more than 270,000 digital images over the course of 67 consecutive nights, while the Sistine Chapel was closed to the public. Using a 33-foot-tall scaffold and rig to capture every inch of the chapel, the result is an unprecedented 822 page, 27-inch-high set that brings to life the great masterworks by Michelangelo and his fellow Renaissance masters in actual life scale, with unprecedented accuracy and fidelity, thanks to a combination of state-of-the-art gigapixel digital photography and traditional bookmaking craftsmanship. It is the result of a collaboration between Callaway, The Vatican Museums and the Italian publisher Scripta Maneant. The English-language edition is limited to 600 numbered copies, will never be reprinted, and is priced at $22,000 (you will be glad to know this includes shipping and handling).

The Sistine Chapel can be experienced through these pages with a precision, color, detail and proximity not possible in person. The result is the first opportunity in history for viewers to appreciate the frescoes as Michelangelo and the other artists painted them, with images so clear, sharp and immersive that viewers feel as if they are side by side with the artist. We can observe in extreme close-up the artists’ precise colors and textures, down to individual brush strokes.

"The Sistine Chapel trilogy is for me the realization in print of Malraux's 'Musee Imaginaire—an exhibition between covers, an art experience that one cannot have in the same way as a visitor to the Sistine Chapel itself," Callaway added. "It really should be experienced in person. A lot of people cry when they behold it."

With the Sistine Chapel and museums around the world closed, and the nature of the art viewing experience undergoing profound transformation, the publication takes on a whole new meaning and relevance.

So incredible is this opus, I asked Callaway to guide us through his thinking and process.

What was your impetus for doing the trilogy in this ambitious manner?

My mission, first as a photographer in my teens, then as a printmaker, printer, curator, publisher, 3D-CGI animator, mobile and app developer and now immersive experiences producer, has been to make images sing. I have never lost my passion for the printed page, believing that, in the words of Maxwell Perkins, the great early 20th century Scribner editor, "there is nothing so important as a book can be."

I actually did not know that you had covered such widespread creative ground before becoming a (celebrated, in my view) independent publisher. Tell me more . . .

As a young photographer in the 1960s and 1970s, at the apex of the analog photo-chemical and photo-mechanical era, I used ultra-large-format cameras exclusively, from 8×10" up to 20×24" view cameras, printed 1:1 as contact prints that yielded a hyper-real degree of detail, resolution and length of tonal scale. It was all in search of revealing the visual banquet of the material world: the essence, "The Thing Itself," as Edward Weston called it in his Daybooks.

My teachers in that search were Minor White at MIT, Walker Evans at Yale, workshops with Paul Caponigro and Ansel Adams, and a 30-year collaboration with Richard Benson, among others. I had a good eye, but it was untrained, and they taught me visual literacy. My heroes were Alfred Stieglitz, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, and I later became their publisher.

As a publisher, I have wanted to use the printed page and the screen as an expressive medium to bring the magic and meaning of the art experience to an increasingly wide audience. It's a task that is doomed to fall short, because one is always at risk of falling into the Uncanny Valley of Art. But it's been my life-long quest.

I suppose that the Sistine Chapel represented the Mount Everest of this quest?

Although it is one of the most famous masterpieces of Western art, in fact we don't know it, and never have—because we can't get close enough to it. The in-person user experience, while profound, is less than ideal. The works are 65 feet up; the viewer is herded through the chapel in 15 minutes, with 20,000–25,000 other visitors a day. Books have reduced this monumental scale spectacle to postage stamps.

How did you orchestrate such a feat?

We thought that if we could convince the Vatican Museums to allow us to digitize the entire Sistine Chapel employing state-of-the-art gigapixel photography, and publish it in 1:1 actual life size, that we could bring to the world one of the most sublime experiences of art in a way that no one ever has in book form. We could be a bird sitting on Michelangelo's shoulder, seeing it as he painted it.

The fact that the entire chapel had been restored in the 1980s and 1990s gave it a raison d'etre. Digital proofing and color matching against the original frescoes every night enabled us to achieve 99.4% color fidelity.

Most books are miniaturist approximations of art, and do not convey the art experience itself; they are valuable primarily as reference and study tools. The internet is a low-resolution, uncurated digital firehouse, in which everything is equalized and we cannot trust our eyes. Even with the precision of 5K large-scale OLED display, we have no idea whether the source imagery is true or accurate. This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that if we spared no expense in uniting leading-edge technology with traditional Northern Italian, we could create something unprecedented and open a new market for a new kind of art experience. And three weeks after publication, it appears that we have.

What else has Callaway Arts & Entertainment been doing since, I p
resume, so much of your energy has gone into this milestone?

In 2010 we made a big leap. At the invitation of Steve Jobs, [we] went out to Apple HQ in Cupertino and secretly developed some of the first apps for the release of the then-new iPad. We focused on mobile and tablet apps for the next five years, which taught us a great deal about building interactive experiences for mobile and tablet. The early business model of apps was elusive, but it made us think deeply about the future direction of media. In a sense I think we have applied the UI and the UX principles we learned developing apps to the book experience of the Sistine Chapel—the design incorporates elements of zoom, pinch, scale, swipe, sequence, scroll and immersion in print form.

Our years as app developers also led us to launch Callaway Immersive, which are location-based, digital, interactive experiences—both projection-based and via AR, VR, MR and XR. Think of it as being Alice in Wonderland and walking through the Looking Glass. These experiences are made possible by creating digital assets in all media with technologies that have only converged in the last two years—weaving together still photographs, video, music, 2D and 2D animation, sound design, even fragrance—into a digital magic carpet that takes the viewer on a Magical Mystery Tour to the other side of The Uncanny Valley

We are very focused on a small number of large-scale meaningful projects that have a global audience, for which the assets are all created in an ultra-high-resolution digital matrix that can therefore be executed across many media platforms. Last year, Leonardo by Leonardo (a $125 hardcover) by the great Leonardo da Vinci scholar at Oxford University, Martin Kemp, presented all 26 of Leonardo's extant paintings newly photographed in gigapixel digital photography. We are now working on the Leonardo Immersive Experience.

What in heaven's name (no pun intended) gave you the idea of making a $22K book, and who is the customer that this is aimed at?

The publication is aimed at the entire world, hopefully for generations to come. Our marketing and sales campaign is built around optimizing and maximizing the audience we can reach. Purchasers include the expected audience: art collectors, architects, designers of all disciplines, photographers, film directors, cinematographers, technologists and artists.

One of our primary goals is to place as many sets as possible in the permanent collections of educational, art and religious institutions around the world. We are offering a substantial discount to collectors who donate a copy to a university, museum, public or private library, art school, church or diocese or their choice. A number are buying multiple sets: one to keep, and one or more to give.

We have also discovered that many sets are being purchased by global, prosperous individuals who want to have an art experience, but do not have the time, inclination or expertise to tour museums or build a private collection. For them this is Malraux's Musée Imaginaire—the book itself as an art object and experience, to treasure and to share.

The edition in 600 (English). How many other languages will there be?

The Sistine Chapel was first released in Italian, Russian and Polish two years ago. Those editions have sold out. We are the publishers of the English edition worldwide, which is strictly limited to 600 copies, and will never be reprinted in this format.

Many of the elements of our edition are different from the other languages: We made a new English translation; we chose a different typographic font design rooted in High Italian Renaissance typography (Jonathan Hoefler's Requiem, with design and layout by book and type designer Jerry Kelly, who was also involved in the design of Requiem). We designed new endpapers that utilize patterns from the Cosmati mosaic tile floors in the Chapel, and are debossed, with silver foil on Italian handmade paper. The covers are silk-printed in gold, silver and platinum inks in a Bodoniana binding with hand-beveled edges, and white calf spines that echo our white, gold, silver and platinum palette.

You had no idea that the pandemic and its lockdown consequences would impact your work and this documentation. How do you see the role of art books changing in the future?

The strong initial success confirms our belief that there is a global luxury market for the book as art object—books in the $5,000–$50,000 price range—and we are hard at work on the next volumes in the series, which feature modern and contemporary artists and icons. The pandemic accelerated and catalyzed technologies and trends that will be the building blocks for our future business.

We are taking an innovative approach to distribution and sales that we believe will be important in the future of art books. Multiple, international sales channels, both traditional—bookstores, museum shops, luxury retailers (The Sistine Chapel is being sold by Neiman-Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, Gump's San Francisco, Barnes & Noble, museums shops, art galleries and independent booksellers in the U.S.; Waterstones, Hatchards, Foyle's and Daunt Books in the UK; with display copies in stores and available by special order on retailers' dot.coms).

But interestingly, our sales are also being increasingly driven by our own e-commerce store on our website, direct to the consumer, via credit card purchase, and driven by targeted digital advertising, social media and traditional media coverage, all shipped via air courier to the end customer from our warehouse in Bergamo, Italy.

We are building a global community that we engage deeply with, with whom we closely communicate continually, and learn about their preferences through correspondence, metrics and analytics that enable us to know what our customers want and tailor our program accordingly. Of course, as publishers we also lead the market and create products for our customers before they know that they want them, following Steve Jobs' philosophy at Apple. For us, this is the future of art books and publishing.

Are you now going to take a breather or are you onto your next exhaustive project?

Next up after The Sistine Chapel trilogy is The Beatles: Get Back, a $60 book that tells the story in the words of The Beatles themselves of the making of their last album, Let It Be, their last months as a band, and subsequent break-up. It is the companion to Peter Jackson's documentary of the same title. The book, movie and 50th anniversary boxed set from Universal Music Group will be released next Labor Day, 2021, in 15–20 languages on the same day.