“Please Touch”

…is not a sign you usually see in an art museum. But Florence’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the Museum of the Cathedral of Florence, invites visitors to touch the art…at least some of it…okay…copies of some of it.


Above you see my hand on the head of Jesus in a copy of Arnolfo di Cambio’s sculpture of the Madonna and Child of 1296 that was on the early facade of the Florence Duomo.


Above you see the full copy at left and the original at right positioned at eye level and in the central opening of the reconstructed original facade you read about in an earlier post. The sculptures you see here were placed higher on the original facade but have been placed here at the center to allow visitors to see them more clearly while still getting some idea of where they were positioned.

Touching the copy was amazing! I could get a very good sense of the artist’s focus on sculptural details that would not have been seen by viewers at street level or viewers of the original in the museum. For example, Arnolfo carved curly hair on the back of Jesus’s head, as well as the little folds in the child’s ear. These details seem minor, but for a scholar of Renaissance art they suggest the artist’s desire to enliven the Christ Child with human details, a concept that theologians and Humanists as well as artists were exploring at this time. These are details that a scholar cannot “see” when a sculpture is placed against a wall in a museum…and we certainly are not allowed to touch the original. The “copy” allows scholars to explore the work in a different dimension while using the sense of touch as well as sight. And as with the “touchable” painting by Caravaggio in the Capitoline Museum in Rome (see an earlier post on this), the work is accessible to those who are visually impaired.

What do you think “touchable copies” means for scholars and students of art? What might we learn from these? What work of art would you most like to touch and why? What would the copy have to be like to answer the questions you have about the work?

A remodeled museum in Florence

Florence was settled by Julius Caesar in 59 BCE for army veterans, but in time the army camp became a Christian town. The Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, or the Museum of the Cathedral of Florence, is home to sculptures, paintings, architectural models (designs for the facade made in the 16th c.), mosaics, paintings, clerical vestments, furniture, and liturgical objects such as chalices and reliquaries. All of these objects were once in the 4th c. church of Sta. Reparata (the earliest church in Florence) and the later cathedral built on top of that Early Christian structure. The Cathedral has long owned this property. In fact, Michelangelo carved the David here between 1501 and 1504; his David was initially intended for the Cathedral. The museum reopened in 2015 after being closed for several years. As a museum closely connected to a Christian church, its focus is on interpreting objects within a Christian context. This is different from religious works (from any faith) you might see on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where the focus is primarily on interpreting art within an artistic context that includes faith, but is not exclusively about the faith.

Below is a view of the Cathedral facade today with the Campanile (bell tower) at right and the Baptistery at the far right.

When the church was finished in the 14th and 15th cs., sculptors were commissioned to decorate the facade with statues of Mary and Jesus as well as saints; however, the facade was never completely finished. These sculptures remained on the facade until the 19th c. when the facade of Florence Cathedral that we see today was designed and constructed (see above).


The drawing above dates to the 16th c. and shows the unfinished facade; the 19th-c. photograph shows the facade with the sculptures removed prior to the construction of the new facade in the 1890s.

The museum was remodeled between 2013 and 2015 in order to bring all of these medieval and early Renaissance sculptures together and place them onto a reconstruction of the earlier unfinished facade.

Instead of seeing sculptures on a pedestal against a wall or in the middle of a room, as one sees them in a museum, the visitor now sees these works exhibited in the reconstruction of the original facade. Further, sacred Christian music from the 14th and 15th cs. is heard in the background in an attempt to recreate the experience of a visitor hundreds of years ago.

What are the pros and cons of these curatorial decisions?