The girl asked for my consent and tied a black blindfold over my eyes. The visual world disappeared.
Instantly, I felt alert and vulnerable.
Rather then by their faces, I could only identify the people around me by their voice. The girl said: ‘I will walk you around in order to disorientate you’. Arm in arm with her, I stepped forward, reassured by her tight grip. In my mind’s eye, I grasped at the last visual representation that I had glimpsed of my surroundings.
To the left was the entrance to Move! – the new tourism and hospitality show which took place over the week-end in Vicenza. Straight down from us were the row upon row of booths covered with colourful posters of the delights that await the lucky tourist in the different regions of Italy and neighbouring Croatia.
Too soon though I lost my bearings as my eyes, covered by the blindfold, were unable to follow the optical markers that we take for granted.
At this precise moment the girl stopped me and instructed me what to do. Following her voice, I lifted my arms as high as I could and placed my hands on the object which I found right in front of me.
It was warm and soft to the touch, unlike the sharp coldness of marble, so to the girl’s delight I correctly deducted that it was made of wood.
I kept sliding my hands down the sides of the object, following its rugged surface, trying to discern what it was. A small protuberance under my palm gave me the first clue. At my fingertips was a human face.
It felt a bit strange to get so close to another human being (albeit carved of wood). With my index finger I was able to trace the eyes, the cheeks and the lips. They were all fine symmetrical features giving me my second clue that the statue was of a young girl.
I continued with my exploration. The girl made of wood was wearing a dress cinched at the waist. Her arms were crossed in front of her slim body and the dress flared at her ankles. Her feet were bare.
Once I had finished at the front, my guide took me to the back of the statue and encouraged me yet again to identify as many details as I could.
Appreciating art in such a tactile way felt very personal and physical at the same time. Instead of simply eyeing up the statue from top to bottom, I stretched my arms, slid my fingers up and down, bowed my head and even knelt. Instead of accepting that the statue was indeed a three-dimensional form of art, I could explore it with my fingertips and feel for myself its actual shape.
My guide took off my blindfold.
I was in the exhibition booth of the Homer State Tactile Museum. Based in Ancona, on the Adriatic coast, this is the only museum in Italy and one of the very few in Europe allowing its visitors to sense art through touch.
The museum was founded in 1993 by Ancona City Council. In 1999 it was recognised by the Italian Parliament as a State Museum. Its exposition houses the plaster and resin casts of the most famous sculptures of all time – from Egyptian masterpieces to Greek art, from Etruscan and Roman works through Mediaeval, Renaissance and Gothic ones all the way to statues from the early 20th century.
Currently 150 works are on display in chronological order. The aim is to double this number and to spread the casts in a multi-sensory, technologically advanced exhibition area of 3000 sq m.
Intended primarily for the visually-impaired people, the museum is open to everyone, as it gives you a chance not just to admire art from afar, but to actually sense it in a completely different way. There are also educational guided tours aimed at schoolchildren who can experiment with ‘touching art’.
Being so close to art in such a multi-sensory way made a deep impression on me.
If you have a chance to visit Ancona, make space in your schedule for a visit to the museum. I know I would.