Vatican Museums Offer Hands-on Approach to Art for the Blind and Deaf

By Carol Glatz

The Vatican Museums have launched special tours for the deaf and blind. The two-hour tours are free to the hearing- and visually impaired and seek to offer a multi-sensory experience of some of the Museums' most famous works.

The initiative also marks the first opportunity for the deaf in Italy to receive training and work in a museum as an experienced guide rather than solely as an interpreter, said speakers at a news conference March 1.

Seven women, five of whom are deaf, received specialized training in art history and archaeology at the Museums so they could work as professional guides for the new tour for the deaf.

One of the new deaf guides, who introduced herself as "Anna," said through an interpreter that she and her new co-workers were happy the new opportunity to work as a professional museum guide "happened at the Vatican Museums."

The tour for the deaf includes stops in the Raphael Rooms, the Sistine Chapel, and visits to the classical statues collection. The guides are fluent in a number of sign languages, including British and French sign languages.

The itinerary for the blind and visually impaired includes a blend of sensory experiences to help the person appreciate a work of art "without making them wish they could see," said Isabella Salandri, who is in charge of the new tours.

For example, to examine Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio's "Deposition From the Cross," visitors first listen to a passage from the Bible explaining the scene in which Christ is taken down from the cross and readied for burial.

Then they listen to a Gregorian chant whose lyrics are connected with the biblical event and hear a brief account of the artist's life.

One by one, each visitor's hands are then placed on a resin bas relief of the scene in the painting of Nicodemus and John laying Christ on a stone while Mary and other women look on.

Helping guide the person's hands across every detail of the bas relief "lasts a long time," Salandri said, "because it's like a puzzle; they need to create a mental picture" of how the many faces and limbs, including Christ's limp body, are arranged.

Visitors then feel real items depicted in the painting such as the thick velvety leaves of a common mullein herbal plant and a linen shroud that smells of myrrh and aloe, the same herbs used in burial cloths at the time.

Sara di Luca, a restorer at the Museums, said she used the same materials and techniques Caravaggio used in his masterpiece to make a sample canvas and oil painting of a section of the "Deposition."

She said she used similar brushes and thickness of paints in her sample piece so that visitors could touch the copy and feel the same kind of rough canvas, trace the brushstrokes, and smell the oil medium of the paint just as Caravaggio would have used.

Di Luca also made a sample fresco of Melozzo da Forli's "Angel With Lute" to give visitors a similar sensation of feeling and smelling how the design and medium are represented.

Visitors also receive a booklet written in Braille and bold large print; it includes raised dots tracing the outline of both Caravaggio and Melozzo's two works.

Copyright (c) 2011 Catholic News Service /USCCB. All rights reserved.

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