PROVIDENCE, R.I. - The Garibaldi Panorama tells a story of dedication and Italian pride, of bloody battles and acts of life-threatening bravery.
The 19th-century artwork, painted on a 136-foot paper canvas, is meant to be slowly unspooled before an audience as a narrator explains the action. But it is so fragile and large that seeing it from start to finish is a cumbersome endeavor.
Now, Brown University is bringing the panorama into the 21st century, putting the painting online so that the Internet-viewing public can view it with a simple mouse click. The project allows historians and others access to a unique art form that was once used to convey current events to the public.
"Had we lived in the 19th century, this would have been state of the art," said Peter Harrington, a library curator at Brown, which received the panorama as a donation in 2005. "This would have been the news of the day."
The watercolor panorama was painted on both sides of the 4 1/2-foot-tall canvas, and spans 273 feet. Painted in 1860 or 1861, it chronicles the life of Giuseppe Garibaldi, regarded as one of modern Italy's founding fathers.
At the time, panoramas were a popular art form, particularly in Europe. Some panoramas, like the one installed at the Gettysburg National Military Park, were designed to surround the audience as stationary paintings. Others were portable and could be moved from town to town.
The Garibaldi Panorama was designed as a "moving" artwork, cranked out piece by piece along with a running narration. The name J.J. Story, written on the inside cover of a manuscript that accompanies the panorama, is the sole reference to an artist.
Harrington said it's hard to know for sure where the panorama was displayed, but the manuscript suggests it was exhibited in Nottingham, England.
Garibaldi, a revered Italian icon, made a logical subject.
Born in Nice in 1807, he is best known as a military leader who helped unify the Italian peninsula, which at the time was divided into small states. Years earlier, he escaped to South America after being sentenced to death for participating in a failed insurrection. He returned and, in 1860, led an army of roughly 1,000 volunteers - known as the "Red Shirts" - that conquered Sicily, then victoriously marched north to Naples.
"In 1860, he was the number one guy, because he was sort of taking on the big guys - Austria and France and so forth - and showing them up," said Harrington, curator of the Anne S.K. Brown Military Collection. "Everybody wanted to read about this guy."
The first scene shows Garibaldi, at 13, rescuing friends from a boat in a storm. That's followed by scenes of fiery explosions, arduous mountain treks and fierce battles so intricately rendered that blood is seen oozing from the heads of fallen soldiers.
The panorama was donated by Dr. James Walter Smith, a plastic surgeon whose great-great-granduncle purchased the work during a visit to England.
Harrington said he contacted Smith after learning from a London book dealer that Smith wanted to part with the panorama.
Smith, who died last year, agreed to donate it. The painting arrived one afternoon in 2005 in a truck, wrapped in a wool blanket and tied with cord.
"I wanted to get a clear idea of what this thing looked like, because I thought, 'Where on earth am I going to store this thing?' " Harrington said.
Massimo Riva, an Italian studies professor who last spring organized a symposium on Garibaldi to coincide with the bicentennial of his birth, said digitizing the panorama seemed the best way to make it accessible.
"Certainly with the Web, we can disseminate knowledge of the panorama - and we can reach audiences all over the world," Riva said.
Brown hired Boston Photo, a museum reprographics company, which last summer assembled a photography studio in a campus building. The panorama was unrolled several feet at a time over a platform while workers photographed it with an overhead camera. Individual scenes were merged together online.
In November, the entire panorama was posted at dl.lib.brown.edu/garibaldi, where Internet users are able to zoom in and scroll backward and forward. Later, it will be narrated in English and Italian. The project is part of a broader effort by Brown's libraries to digitize its rare collections, including African-American sheet music and Civil War-era maps, posters, and other documents.
"One of the things that the Brown Library has been working on for the past five years has been, 'Unlock what we have locked up, and at least let people see it,' " said Patrick Yott, head of the library's Center for Digital Initiatives.
The panorama is currently in storage, though a section of it was briefly displayed last spring. Now that it's off-limits and fragile - rips are visible, especially on the top and bottom edges - the only way to view it will be the Internet.