The Vatican put its enormous art collection on the Web on Tuesday, launching a new site for the Vatican Museums that it hopes will attract more tourists while also disseminating the Church's message around the globe.
The high-tech site allows visitors to take a virtual tour of some of the dozen museums and galleries that make up the Vatican collection, zooming in on a frescoed panel in the Raphael Rooms or viewing Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel with a three-dimensional video.
Descriptions of the works accompany the images, translated into Italian, French, English, Spanish and German.
Vatican officials said the goal of the site was to give would-be tourists, scholars and curious Web browsers a sampling of the Vatican's holdings while taking advantage of the Internet and the "universal language" of art to spread Pope John Paul II's message.
"The tool of the Web, with its enormous potential, allows us to get closer to an ever growing number of people to spread the message of evangelization around the world," said Cardinal Edmund Casimir Szoka, whose office oversees the Vatican's museums and galleries.
The site was launched nearly eight years after the Vatican itself leaped into cyberspace with a Web site www.vatican.va that was mostly devoted to Vatican documents and information about the Roman curia. While there was a Vatican Museum link on that site, it contained little information.
Now through the same link, visitors can view entire galleries of the Egyptian museum, the Etruscan museum as well as the Pinacoteca painting gallery, the Raphael Rooms and the Sistine Chapel — part of a collection the U.N. culture agency, UNESCO, has recognized for its place in the world's cultural patrimony.
There is also information about museum hours and publications. There's no way to buy museum tickets online and save time once in Rome, but museum director Francesco Buranelli said that could be possible in the future, as well as an online museum gift shop.
During a press conference to launch the site, Vatican officials acknowledged that the Holy See had not been immune to hackers on its Web site — and said the most frequent culprits are young engineering students from the United States and an insomniac Franciscan monk who apparently has tried to get in at night.
"It makes you smile," said Monsignor Claudio Maria Celli, head of the Vatican's patrimony office. "He couldn't sleep."
On the whole, the Vatican site gets about 30 hits a week by would-be hackers, but none have yet been successful. Each month, the Vatican site registers 50 million hits, he said.
Still under construction is a part of the Web site dedicated to the Vatican's Secret Archives, including documents concerning the Vatican's disputed role in World War II.
Celli said that site would be ready in "the near future" but he noted that the Museum site had been in the works since 1998.