Imagine you had $22,000 to spend on something frivolous. What would you buy? Maybe an extravagant vacation? Or perhaps a 1.7 carat cushion-cut yellow diamond ring from Tiffany. Art collectors might snag a signed Warhol lithograph. We spend half our time in quarantine daydreaming, anyway, so think big.
Publishing house Callaway is hoping you might consider spending that money on its latest release: The Sistine Chapel book trilogy. It’s the result of a five-year collaboration between Callaway, the Vatican, and the Italian art publisher Scripta Maneant to digitize the Sistine Chapel frescoes in their entirety, at a 1:1 scale. The set costs $22,000 and is sold direct to consumer, sight unseen, and no returns.
From Audible to Netflix, the humble art book has a lot of competition these days. But that’s exactly why this extravagant set makes sense, according to Callaway founder and CEO Nicholas Callaway. It’s more than just a repository for information. Callaway says they’re establishing a new publishing model—in which the book itself is a work of art.
In some sense, the model is a throwback to that of gilded books of the Middle Ages. Prior to Gutenberg’s printing press, bookmaking was a time-intensive practice of craft. Scribes in monasteries wrote and illustrated books by hand. They used expensive parchment, ink, and gold leaf. Bookmaking was an art form, and a book on the shelf was a covetable indicator of class.
In that tradition, the Callaway team worked with craftsmen across Italy to bring the 822-page, 75-pound trilogy to life. It all started with the digitization of the Sistine Chapel itself, which the Vatican had never done before. A team of photographers took more than 270,000 photographs over 67 nights. Each super-high-resolution frame is 2.5 centimeters long. Then they composited them together into a seamless photographic mosaic.
Then there’s the book itself. “The cost of the book is really by the inch,” says Callaway. “The approach of design is to take you up [to the Chapel ceiling] and make it as exciting a visual exploration as possible.” To do this, the book employs six-color printing, which is more vibrant than the standard CMYK, images that span entire pages, and 220 triple gatefolds, which allow the reader to unfold pages for even bigger compositions.
Callaway worked with several manufacturers across Italy to produce the book, which was bound by hand. Endpapers were hand-debossed in relief to match the Cosmati tile floors of the Vatican; the book was bound in Bodoniana silk binding; and white calf leather spines were debossed in silver, gold, and platinum foil stamping. “Since the original is the pinnacle of Italian craftsmanship, we wanted it to be executed in that tradition,” says Callaway.
The book also solves for a user experience issue at the Vatican itself—it’s actually difficult to see the frescoes, even in person. They’re about 65 feet up, you’re shoulder to shoulder with a crowd (remember those?), and you’re given a brief window of time to soak it all in. One of the Vatican’s goals for the books, according to Callaway editorial director Manuela Roosevelt, was to emphasize details of the fresco that you wouldn’t be able to see from ground level. And because we’re living in a digital world, Callaway compares the book to an Apple interface: “It’s a print version of being able to swipe, pinch, and zoom.” But on an even bigger scale—the book is two feet tall.
Callaway says they’ve had broad interest in the trilogy so far, including everyone from the “world’s wealthiest individuals,” to artists, designers, Hollywood directors, and at least one Sistine Chapel-obsessed couple with no claim to fame. It’s a family heirloom, or the ultimate wedding gift, he says. But if you don’t have an extra $22,000 lying around, you can always experience the Sistine Chapel the way we experience everything else these days: virtually.