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Seeing with the hands is possible; learning to see throught touch is indispensable. By Azzurra Pizzi

Azzurra Pizzi

It was the need to learn new methods and the desire to forge a career path which led me to enrol on the national training course on accessibility to the culural heritage, devised by the Museo Tattile Statale Omero in Ancona, and held last April.
Fascinated by the breadth of the programme and the calibre of the organization, as well as by the wide-ranging involvement of the lecturers, I arrived at the museum in the Mole Vanvitelliana – one of the symbols of Ancona – with the idea of letting myself be guided towards novel explorations which would prompt unbiased reflections, offer different viewpoints and reveal horizons free of preordained academic criteria.
My mother’s illness has often had a bearing on my own conduct, but the specialist diploma in historical and artistic heritage made me aware of a priority: to try to fill some gaps concerning the role of art, over and above a knowledge of historical periods, the changes that have followed on from one another, with their respective artists, patrons and collectors.
I was concerned to question the traditional museological canon, to reflect on the concept of copies and their possible effective uses, to consider the needs but also the resources latent in the various ways of enjoying art adopted by the different publics, and to turn a critical eye on the issue of cultural inclusion, pondering the conditions required in order to create a multisensory museum space.
Learning to look while setting aside the primacy of sight had become crucial – and still is, given that nothing is ever definitive since everything is susceptible to change and to possibilities which are constantly emerging.
The following subjects were addressed during the course: besides the presentation of relevant legislation, technological aids, the specifics of visual impairment, blindness, deafness, the characteristics of inclusive architectural design, educational services, teaching equipment, the planning of complex pedagogical programmes based on the aesthetics of the hand, the main focus of the course in its day to day progression was the recognition of tactile qualities. The analytical discernment practised by the sense of touch provides us with information (too often casually taken for granted) about temperature, smoothness, texture, weight, and the multiple variables potentially present in surfaces and the processes that they have undergone.
In order to guide tactile and kinaesthetic exploration, the nature and dimensions of the materials used cannot be disregarded; time, too, is essential so that you can gradually build up a mental image, slowly and subtly developed through sensitivity to details and associations.
In this sense, the haptic experience in the museum’s contemporary sculpture room proved extraordinarily illuminating in making me actively aware that we can see different things through touch: a specialist guide led me blindfold in front of a sculpture about which I had received no information except where the top was. So, unconstrained by visual stimuli, I started to touch the work whose dimensions, on a first impression, seemed quite small. Following advice to start from the highest point of the sculpture, I gained a sense of a slender figure whose anatomy, to my fingertips, seemed to present some simplifications: it was rough in some places, vibrant in others. The intense mental activity triggering associations brimming with references drawn from art history called up the repertoire of the so-called primitive arts and the impressions conveyed by artists such as Pablo Picasso, to name but one.
The image steadily took shape as a result of the unusual added data, and the discoveries of tactile exploration were supplemented by the smells of the metal alloy which gives substance to the sculpture. After recognizing the main constituents of the piece and revolving the plinth to get a feel for the workmanship in the round, I removed the blindfold and instantly recognized Marino Marini, an artist whom I had studied in depth because he was integral to the subject of my Master’s thesis.
My fingers had been touching a dramatically modelled work of Marini, Il Giocoliere (“The Juggler”), from 1953, cast in bronze and patinated.
Marini’s formal hardness, observed and noted by the critics, had revealed itself beneath my touch and I had at last been able to feel the irregularities of the plastic passages which make his works memories of the past: in attempting to process the complex mental image, I recognized the influence of Etruscan-Italic art, I felt the distortion and the harshness.
If, then, the form is grasped, if the meaning insists on the cognitive domain and the symbol belongs to the interpretative sphere, art serves to develop and extend our abilities because it implies building up a grammar of forms.
Through touch, the gap separating the two entities, i.e. the work of art on the one hand and the onlooker on the other, really is eliminated: if the former returns to life – from a material, tactile viewpoint – the artist who conceived, manually produced and physically created it, is known because his work is felt and re-traversed. The person who experiences the artwork ultimately becomes an actor, protagonist, interpreter – no longer the hasty consumer of art, satisfied (and perhaps not that much) with the contemplative vision afforded by the retina.
By dint of its universality one could argue that art is not merely a formal game but amounts to a representation of the essence of things, becoming a pursuit provided with its own cognitive function.
The perceptible world is not merely appearance but reality which can be known, and when you grasp the form, you experience pleasure and gain knowledge: the sensitivity which produces the pleasure is not separate from the intellect, whose task it is to perceive form.
For example, Aristotle held that beauty is synonymous with adequacy to form: he thought that a thing is beautiful when it completely fulfils its purpose, which coicides with its form, and art – one of the dianoetic virtues proper to the rational soul – is the ability to produce (with the aid of reason) any object which fulfils this requirement.
By listening to accounts of the experiences of experts in this field, imbued with a deeply informed sense of the urgency for art to be accessible, I came to understand how for everybody – and not just for the blind and those with visual and/or auditory deficits – it is important to touch in order to make our knowledge of what is around us complete, just as it is true that (to borrow a comment from Italo Calvino) we write so as to make it possible for the unwritten world to express itself through us.
The great twentieth century storyteller repeatedly described the loss on the part of contemporary man of the conscious use of the five senses, stressing, too, man’s very approximate tactile sensitivity. Calvino also said that for each of the senses he personally had to make an effort to master a range of sensations and nuances: like him, I, too, wanted to change myself and understand how much we have effectively seen, how much we have helped the world to see itself, to be present.
Art creates and transmits “visuality”, impressions which are visual, and these must be made available to everyone. And if the hidden signs are to be searched for, as Calvino said of mushrooms, the world is not a panopticon but a pancripticon and we must vary our propositions, find new ways, discarding the beaten track in favour of accessible thought, nurturing our multimedia aptitude in the full awareness that “to touch is to know, to know is to represent, to represent is to communicate”. The Sardinian artist, Maria Lai, approached the journey as a metaphor for research, and even today her Geografie conjure the possibility of the conjunction of distant planets and invite us to discover unexplored places: she herself said that she always sought cosmic spaces that were highly tactile, and invented new ones. If “to create an emotion is to bring all these different tactilities together”, then let us continue to travel and learn to see through touch. Or, to put it in a way that invokes the etymology, let us learn “to make contact through touch and tact”.