I’ve talked a lot about the struggles I’ve had here in Italy because I am blind, but now I want to talk about something really wonderful I discovered, something that I have never experienced before, not even in America.
There was no school last Tuesday because of the holiday for the founding of the Italian republic, so my mother and I went to Ancona to meet my Italian professor from Kenyon. Professor Dubrovic took us to the Museo Omero—an art museum for the blind.
Here’s the thing: I rate art museums below bookstores on things that are useful for me. At least in bookstores, I’m interested in the stuff I can’t see. In art museums, I have virtually no concept of what is interesting about anything. There’s a painting. So what? And why is everyone making such a big deal over a sculpture of a naked guy? Sometimes, if I can get close enough to paintings, I can see the colors, but in Italy, where the art museums are packed with people and you’re being herded from one exhibit to the next, I couldn’t take the time to try to see anything. And even with people describing the paintings to me, there’s only so long I can stand there before I’m bored out of my mind. So, yes, I’ve been to the Vatican and the Uffizi and the Accademia in Florence and the Egyptian museum in Turin, but all I can really say about them is that I’ve been.
But this was different. The Museo Omero is an entirely tactile art museum, filled with models made from plaster casts of famous sculptures. It’s funded by the European Union, not by Italy, and it takes its name from Homer, who apart from writing the Odyssey and the Iliad, was also blind. When I was first applying for the Fulbright and planning my volunteer project to work with blind children and explore the differences between American and Italian society’s treatment of people who are blind, my Italian professor told me about this museum, and I knew if I was accepted to the Fulbright and came to Italy, I wanted to go see it. And I was accepted to the Fulbright, so here I was.
The museum was small, but the collection ranged from ancient Greek and Roman art, to Renaissance, Romantic, and Baroque art, to contemporary sculptures and modern art, and I could feel all of it. All of it!
I have never experienced anything like this, and I’m not sure how I can explain it. Suddenly, what everyone was looking at made sense to me, took on a whole new meaning, even. I never imagined there was so much movement, so much kinetic energy, so much life bound up in these statues.
For example, I just thought Michelangelo’s David was a naked guy standing there. I didn’t understand what the big deal was, unless it was that he was naked. But I had no idea that his left hand is cocked back over his shoulder, gripping a sling, and that there’s a stone clutched in his right hand. It made sense—he is, after all, the David from the story of David and Goliath—but I never really appreciated that until I felt the sling and the stone in his hands.
I had a similar experience, though not quite as drastic, with the Pieta. Feeling the Blessed Mother holding Jesus in her arms moved me. I could finally appreciate the complexity and intricacy of the statue. So that’s why it’s so famous.
There was more. Sculptures of people playing musical instruments, dancing, walking, gazing at their reflections in bowls of water—their reflections were sculpted too. I felt some of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures, and it was like the people were walking out of the stone, just like that idea that the statue already exists within the block of marble and the sculptor just has to chip away the excess. And, of course, we can’t forget the tactile representation of modern art—a pair of gloves, a towel, aluminum foil, a sponge, a brush, a cheese grater. I have no idea what the point was, beyond representing modern art in a tactile form. Perhaps something to do with common household items and what they mean. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it was certainly cool to feel.
We were the only people in the museum, so we could take our time exploring everything. Professor Dubrovic knew all about the history of the pieces, as well as the artists, and that made it even more special. We spent the rest of the day in Ancona with Professor Dubrovic, eating a delicious seafood lunch, visiting the cathedral, walking along the port and through the historic center, but for me, the Museo Omero was the highlight of the day. It was one of the most interesting things I have done in Italy—and I’ve done some really neat things—and it completely changed how I perceive visual art. It’s hard to describe, but something that I did not—could not—understand, even with the help of descriptions from friends and family, suddenly had real meaning for me. I saw.