“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?

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?