Visual art for the visually impaired

The Capitoline Museum in Rome has several paintings by Caravaggio, a Baroque artist active in the city from around 1594 until shortly before his death in 1610. Caravaggio is known for his realism, earthy colors, and depiction of everyday scenes populated by characters one might encounter on the streets of Rome ca. 1600. The museum has developed a way to share these paintings with visually-impaired visitors through panels that “depict” the painting in raised relief. All visitors are invited to touch these panels to gain a better idea of Carvaggio’s painting which is, by definition, to be “seen.”


The painting here is an early work by Caravaggio, The Fortune Teller of ca. 1595.

What do you think of this? What other ways might art museums make their collections available to the visually impaired?


How do we get the public to visit?

Marcus Aurelius may seem esoteric to many Americans, but this late 2nd c. CE Roman emperor was a philosopher, and some scholars today consider his Meditations to be one of the most important texts from the ancient world.

Yes…this is interesting and important! But will it bring people to a museum?

The Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, one of Rome’s museums of ancient art, is located in one of the busiest sections of the city…right next to Rome’s main railroad station. Posters showing objects from the museum’s collection together with passages from Hadrian’s writings inform passersby what treasures lie within. Keep in mind…these are not ads but posters with objects from the museum’s collection and philosophical passages about life from Marcus Aurelius’s writings.

Do you think these are inviting? Do you think they bring visitors into the museum? Do you think the goal is to attract visitors, teach the public, something else?

A museum without walls?

Yesterday we visited the Colosseum in Rome. Yes…it’s amazing! What’s also amazing is that one of the top floors has been set up with “exhibition rooms” or small galleries to present different aspects of the history of the Colosseum. But this area is completely open! To pigeons…seagulls…wind…rain…snow (it can snow in Rome)…and extreme heat. So how and why is it done?

Below you see two views of introductory panels that have reproductions of views of the Colosseum from the 15th to the 19th cs.



Above are two views of “gallery spaces” that have been built to hold large-scale models of the Colosseum, various ancient sculptures and architectural pieces found in the excavations of the Colosseum, 18th- and 19th-c. paintings, micromosaics, drawings, and contemporary sculptures and videos. You can see the arches of the Colosseum are used as both supports as well as “walls” within the new “gallery spaces.”


Above is one of the displays in the new “gallery space.” You wouldn’t know you were in the Colosseum…and completely outside! You see a painting (a landscape), a glass case with four micromosaics, and a detail of one of the micromosaics depicting the Colosseum. (Micromosaics are just that…mosaics made of tiny tiny tiny tesserae [the different colored pieces of stone]. These were very popular in the 18th and 19th cs. Here is a link to some information about micromosaics.)

What are the curators’ concerns here? Why exhibit these materials here (sculptures, architectural pieces, paintings, decorative arts, reproductions of prints and paintings)? What value do they add to a visitors’ experience of the Colosseum? What problems do curators and registrars face when exhibiting precious objects in the open?

Exhibiting ancient jewelry

The popes have been collecting art for centuries, and from at least the 16th c. visitors to Rome made a special point of stopping at the Vatican to see the collections of ancient and contemporary art. One important area of collecting has been ancient Roman and Etruscan art, including jewelry.

Why would the center of the Roman Catholic world have such a focus on these areas? In part because 1) this is Rome, 2) the papacy is in Rome, and 3) Early Christian art developed in the Late Antique period, from around 200 to around 400 CE. Jesus was born sometime around the year 1 BCE/CE, but there was no “Christian art” to speak of until Christians gained a political presence in the major cities of the Roman empire, including Rome. Christian artists and patrons relied on established symbols and iconography when creating “Christian” art. For example, you will see many winged figures in ancient Roman art; these are sometimes cupids, sometimes a genius (spirit) figure that Christians developed into angels.

So why would the popes be so interested in collecting objects from ancient Rome? And from the even more ancient Etruscan civilization? (The Etruscans were a powerful people who lived in the center of the Italian peninsula between ca. 800 and 100 BCE, and co-existed with the Romans once the Romans conquered Etruscan cities after the sixth century BCE.)

Collecting Roman and Etruscan objects is one way Renaissance popes demonstrated their sincere interests in understanding Christian history.  It was also a way to demonstrate that Christianity conquered Rome, as Rome had conquered the Etruscans.

The Etruscans were among the finest goldsmiths in the ancient world. Indeed, their exquisite gold jewelry has seldom been equaled. The Vatican Museum is fortunate in having some of the most important Etruscan objects in stone, bronze, and gold. Here, you can see how they exhibit gold earrings next to what survives from a stone sculpture of a woman’s face…the woman is wearing the type of earring in the collection. All of these objects were found in tombs.


I’ll have a second post on the Vatican’s Etruscan collection. I’d like for you to think about how these objects can be exhibited.

How do we exhibit objects from an ancient culture that demonstrates both respect for that culture and teaches the public about that culture?

Here’s a link to the Vatican Museums’ page on this collection of gold jewelry.

Disaster: Earthquake Territory!

There are so many churches in Italy. And in Italy churches can be museums…not only because they have amazing works of art, but because they have been turned into museums. The new cathedral in Ravello was built in the 15th c. next to a church that dates back to the 11th c. That 11th-c. church is now a museum with church furnishings that date back to the 11th, 12th, and 13th. cs. But this is earthquake territory. How does the museum address this potential disaster?


You can see brass supports on this 13th.-c. eagle, a symbol of St. John the Evangelist that was once part of a pulpit. These supports work to stabilize the object. They allow for some movement, but the sculpture will likely not be thrown to the ground and smashed.


Mosaic reliefs are also supported this way.

Here is a view of the original church as it appears today…as a museum.

How do museums plan for disaster? Fire? Flood? Earthquake? American museums are faced with all three potential and real disasters. What have you observed?

Museums of obsolete technology

How do we exhibit technologies we no longer depend on? As in…when was the last time you wrote on handmade paper?

Today we visited Il Museo della Carta, the Museum of Paper, in Amalfi. Once upon a time…starting in the 13th c. for Europe…people wrote on paper that was made from old clothes or any textiles that were no longer useful. Paper was invented in China in the 1st c., and came to Europe via the Moslems in North Africa and the Iberian peninsula. The city of Amalfi on the east coast of Italy just south of Naples was one of the strongest maritime powers in the Mediterranean in the 13th c. (the others were Genoa on the northeast coast and Venice on the northwest coast). Amalfi is located directly on the water and at the foot of a mountain range with many natural springs. The springs were used to power mills to make all sorts of things…including paper. The mill we visited today was built in the 13th c. and functioned into the 1960s! The last owner made provisions in his will to turn the mill into a museum.

The photos below show views outside and inside the mill, including the spring that was funneled into the structure to serve different mill wheels, each of which did a different job in the creation of paper.

The basin where the textile pulp is blended with water for scooping onto a screen…to make your sheet of paper.

This is an old press for flatening the newly made paper after it has dried.

At the left of this image is a cupboard that protect workers from the wheel carrying water that moves the “textile smashers.” This was incredibly loud and dangerous! The two vertical posts move up and down in a stone basin, thus smashing the textile into pulp.

These stone basins and sluices are cut from the mountain and either allow the water to move forward or direct it via basins into the mill where it runs the various wheels.

One member of our group is dipping the screen into the slurry of pulped textile and water; she will then lift it up with “raw paper” on it. That is then pressed onto the leather at the far right where it is allowed to dry before it is “finished” with a sizing. In the Middle Ages sizing was made from boiled rabbit bones; today it is made from a vegetable product.

The screen is at right and its frame is at left. You can see the slurry of textile and water in the stone basin.

And how did they bleach the slurry and make it white? In the Middle Ages urine was used…animal and human.

This museum is at a high point in the city of Amalfi…not at the top of the mountain but high enough that the water still comes rushing swiftly through to power the wheels.

What are the “museums of obsolete technologies” of the future? Have you visited a “museum of obsolete technology”? What do you think of this museum?

Ancient Roman Villa

What do you do when you discover an ancient Roman villa under your home? This is a question many Italians face today. If it isn’t a villa, it could be an amphitheatre or rooms from an ancient bath. This happened in 1934 in Minori, Italy, a very small town on the Amalfi Coast of Italy. In the 19th c. it was thought that some spaces below modern buildings belonged to ancient Roman baths — hypocaust systems (how the Romans heated water to make floors and interior spaces warm). Then in 1934 and again in 1954 the town suffered disastrous floods that revealed what this area really was….an impressive personal villa that could hold its own in a contest with Imperial villas. What was Minori to do?

This doesn’t just happen in Italy. Just a few weeks ago in Fredericksburg native American objects were found in the soil near were a new urban city park along the river.

Issues to consider: What if the land is private? What if the objects found are part of your national and personal identity?

Consider the above two issues and create a solution that will both for all parties: owners, a city.state/nation, future generations, your “humanist ideals.”

Above and below are images of the Roman Villa. You can see just how far below the ruins are located below the level of the city…and all of the houses and shops that have grown up over the ancient site.

The apartment building was built on top of the ancient villa…and so much of the villa is still not excavated.