The multisensory museum

Stefano Zuffi, art historian, Curator Pinacoteca Civica Ancona

I first visited the Pinacoteca Civica di Ancona over forty years ago. At the time I was studying at the Università Statale di Milano and had travelled to the Marches Region on the advice of my tutor, Pierluigi De Vecchi, to visit a memorable Lorenzo Lotto exhibition, curated by Piero Zampetti across a number of venues. Despite the occasion and the appropriate focus on sixteenth century art in the Veneto-Marches Regions, the painting that struck me most was the Guercino altarpiece with Saint Palatias. I bought a postcard, which I keep to this day, and which I consider a sort of talisman that brought me, so many years later, to concern myself with this very gallery. By continuing to look at that masterpiece which I feel so attached to, and thanks undoubtedly to my Ancona experience with the Museo Omero, I think I have finally grasped why it never fails to strike me: having reached the peak of his artistic maturity and of his career, and possessing a vast international culture, Guercino realised that his painting ought to strive beyond the mere sense of sight. In fact, in the picture the beautiful young saint swings a strikingly realistic incense burner.

The Olfactory Guercino
A wisp of incense wafts towards the onlooker, and thanks to Guercino’s extraordinary skill the museum room seems to be permeated with its scent. It is a mere suggestion, a hint which evokes the sense of smell (though I trust, sooner or later, to be able to make it an actual sensation for the visitor by using an aroma dispenser), and it certainly supplements and enhances the synaesthetic effect of the painting.
And we need to remember that this is an altarpiece: it was originally placed in an intensely multisensory setting: real – as opposed to fictive – incense, the sputtering and the tremulous light of the candles, their waxy scent, the tolling of bells, the echo of prayers and chants, even the creaking of pews and the pleasant coolness of a marble balustrade… All sensations, I say again, which were an integral part of the physical reality for which the painting was conceived, and which have been lost with its removal to the inevitably more impersonal context of a museum.
Compared to a few decades ago, Italian museums have shown that they can adapt their criteria: alongside the function of preserving and protecting artworks – given priority until almost the end of the twentieth century – is the no less important obligation to welcome visitors, and to consider their needs, not as a useless nuisance, but as a point of reference and a parameter for assessing the quality of the museum. But this alone is not enough. In recent years there has been a steady increase in the number of cultural events described as “experiential” or “immersive”. There is certainly nothing new in this: without going back as far as those viewers frightened by the arrival of a steam train in the Lumière brothers’ film, we only have to remember the naive thrills provided by the old “ghost trains” in period funfairs.

Beyond sight: scents and sounds
However, there can be no doubt that what is offered by traditional museums, based exclusively on the sense of sight, is in danger of becoming less and less attractive. This enforced involvement of a single sense reminds us of the strict warnings of the past (“Look, but do not touch”); the visitor feels passive, boredom threatens, the temptation to check our mobiles proves irresistibile, and the exit is the place to head for without delay.
Let us be clear: it is not a question of coming up with tacky special effects or fairground-style attractions. Among the many purposes of an art museum there is also the pleasant duty to nurture in the visitor a feeling of respect, possibly even of gratitude, towards the artistic heritage. The emotional experience offered by the Museo Omero – which I sincerely believe should be considered the most original cultural venture that Ancona can boast – has already produced a knock-on effect: the Brera Gallery in Milan has recently installed a series of panels enabling visitors to touch samples of fabrics identical to those depicted in the paintings. So, by means of touch, they can now experience the different textures of velvet or lampas, of satin, silk and wool.

Podesti alongside Rossini
I mentioned earlier the example of the hovering incense in Guercino’s picture of Saint Palatias, but the Pinacoteca Civica di Ancona contains other works which look as if they are potentially conducive – the experiment might be made – to multisensory exploration, offering the prospect of a more engaging visit. In his Memorie, Francesco Podesti recalls being in touch with Gioacchino Rossini while painting his Giuramento degli Anconetani (The Oath of the People of Ancona), and explicitly mentions Rossini’s William Tell: the incomparable final three minutes of that opera (“Tutto cangia, il ciel s’abbella”) might provide the perfect aural counterbalance to Podesti’s majestic Risorgimento canvas. With the appropriate caution, one might appreciate the natural produce depicted in Crivelli’s Madonna even more intensely by savouring a slice of apple or even a small cucumber. And I dream of the time when we shall be able to look at Titian’s Gozzi Altarpiece while hearing the distant lapping of the sea which plays such a key role in the masterpiece, as Titian makes little attempt to conceal.