Although Rome’s hilly terrain and cobblestone streets make it a complicated city for visitors with disabilities to navigate this is in many ways offset by the accessibility afforded at Rome’s major tourist attractions, hotels and restaurants. Particularly so at the Vatican Museums where art access is available to blind and partially sighted visitors, and other disabled visitors.
The philosophy of the Vatican Museums is to be a museum for all and a place for involvement, participation and inclusion. And that means art access for everyone including blind visitors and visitors with other disabilities.
After many months of closure due to Covid the Vatican Museums are set to reopen in less than a week on May 3. This is welcome news for all those who have been missing the splendor of the exquisite Vatican Museums, including disabled visitors.
Vatican Museums Art Access for Blind & partially sighted visitors
Many may think that art access to the wonders of the Vatican Museums from the paintings to the sculptures and the gardens can only be enjoyed by sighted visitors. At the Vatican, thanks to the magnificent work done by The Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, blind and partially sighted visitors can also enjoy art access at the Vatican Museums.
Although it seems like a complicated and difficult task to impart the beauty of the Vatican‘s works of art to the blind and partially sighted it’s been achieved with the help of thermoformed panels and prospective bas-reliefs made with captions in braille or using large characters. Blind and partially sighted visitors can also listen to poetry and music that help evoke the visual aspect of what’s represented in the works of art.
About the Italian and International Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums
This nonprofit organization is comprised of benefactors and patrons dedicated to the restoration, conservation and perpetration of the vast, unique and priceless art collection of the Vatican Museums, along with programs for art access for the blind and deaf. Among other things they have raised funds to restore some of the Vatican Museum treasures including the Pauline Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments and the frescoes on the side walls of the Sistine Chapel. Sabrina Zappia is the chairperson of this fabulous organization.
About Sabrina Zappia
Sabrina is an Italian American woman born and raised in Rome Italy. She is the founder and director of CITYnet, an international communication, PR and branding agency that promotes the development of business opportunities for companies and cultural entities in Italy and abroad. Sabrina helps her clients find ways to do good through business, to have a positive impact on society and to make the world a better place. Some of her customers include the Bambino Gesù hospital, the Hassler Hotel, the Ara Pacis museum, Gruppo BNP Paribas, Cartier and others many of which have helped to support Vatican Museum initiatives that make art accessible to everyone.
Sabrina has been the Chair of the Italian and International Patrons of the Arts (hereafter referred to as Vatican Museum Patrons) in the Vatican Museums since January 2012. In addition to what the organization does to restore and conserve the Vatican Museum’s priceless art collection, it’s also involved in making these works of art accessible to all.
Sabrina is especially passionate about finding ways to promote art access for blind and partially sighted visitors and make the magnificent works of art at the Vatican accessible to all. She works with patrons and benefactors to achieve this goal, along with some of her own CITYNet clients, to help fund tactile versions of visual works of art.
It Takes a Village…
Deborah Tramentozzi is a tactile expert and collaborates with the Vatican Museums as a typhlologyst (a specialist that studies blindness). Deborah and Sabrina met at the Vatican Museums in front of Caravaggio‘s Deposition. Deborah was explaining the details of this work of art to a group of blind visitors on her tour and thus began her relationship with the Vatican Patrons and Sabrina. She helps the Vatican Patrons build specialized tours and itineraries that promote art access for the blind. Deborah’s life mission is to constantly challenge limits and restrictions people encounter in life and to find creative and innovative ways to face these challenges, such as blindness. Listen to Deborah‘s TedX Rome talk from 2019.
Touching Art and Anteros
Anteros is a tactile museum of ancient and modern art at the Bologna-based Institute for the Blind Francesco Cavazza. This organization works to enhance art access and make paintings and sculptures accessible to the blind and partially sighted.
The first work of art created by the organization was the three-dimensional translation of the Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci, in Milan. The organization then moved on to work with the Vatican Museums in the development of a multi-sensory itinerary for the blind and visually impaired. A few of these works are Caravaggio‘s Deposition, Raphael’s Transfiguration and Melozzo Da Forli’s Angel Playing the Lute. After each three-dimensional work in bas-relief is created it’s first tested by the blind to make sure that the representation of the original work of art manages to communicate the work of art through the combination of tactile perception and audio contact. The goal is to create an aesthetic equivalent of the work of art.
Anteros is also involved in an art access initiative at the Uffizi gallery: Uffizi to Touch.
Art Access for the Blind at Ara Pacis, created by Tooteko
This program allows blind and partially sighted visitors to explore the reproduction of a work. As visitors touch different parts of the reproduction they hear an audio description of that part of the work. This gives visitors more independence as each visitor moves at their own pace and receives information each time they touch one of the hotspots.
Patron and Donor Support
The Vatican Museum Patrons also worked with the Vatican Museum curators to design special tactile displays. Resin casts of chosen works offer a complete experience to the blind and partially sighted, especially when accompanied by an informational panel in braille.
Michelangelo’s Madonna di Bruges in the Vatican Museum Pinacoteca is one resin cast work that blind and partially sighted children especially love. When they touch the cast and the Madonna’s face and the entwining fingers of mother and child children feel like they too are holding their hands. Michelangelo’s Madonna di Bruges was re-produced from a cast and one reproduction is at the Bambino Gesù hospital in Rome so that children can touch and explore the sculpture.
One of the American donor-patrons funded the cost of this cast and has funded the re-production of the sculpture for other locations in Italy so that more blind and partially sighted children and adults can enjoy it.
Guided tours for the blind and partially sighted
These tours are free of charge and also include free entry for a companion. The tours are offered in several languages and each tour last several hours. The tours are for a maximum of seven people and reservations must be made in advance.
Vatican Museum art access programs for the deaf and hearing impaired
Vatican Museum masterpieces speak to the hearing impaired
The Vatican Museum collaborated with the Italia Creativa Association in the design of an innovative educational art access activity that can be enjoyed by both deaf and hearing children. These visits are offered in different areas of the Vatican Museums. The special programs for the hearing impaired use B-Sense platforms which convert music and sound into vibrations so that both the hearing and the deaf can listen and feel melodies through the body.
Sign Language Tours
There are also sign language tours available that you can access from your smartphone. This encourages independence so the deaf can visit the museum without an in-person guide just by accessing the sign language app. The app is available in both Italian and English sign language.
Roberto Wirth Foundation (owner Hassler Hotel, Rome)
Roberto Wirth, the owner of the Hassler Hotel in Rome, formed a nonprofit foundation dedicated to assisting deaf and blind children through the promotion of early intervention and awareness programs. He’s helped out with projects at the Vatican Museums, especially those for children with a hearing impairment.
Multi-sensory itinerary in the Vatican gardens
Art access extends to this itinerary for the visually impaired, blind, deaf blind and mentally disabled and allows the visitor to experience a multi-sensory journey through the gardens. Due to new Italian governmental Covid restrictions it’s unclear whether this particular itinerary will be resumed and if so in what kind of a modified format.
Guide dogs for the blind can enter with a visitor as long as the guide dog is on a leash and wears a muzzle. These visitors should let the museum know they will be bringing their guide dog several days in advance by email.
About the Vatican Patrons
Patrons often choose to support the restoration of a specific work of art and they can then access the restoration labs and observe the restorers at work.
Each year museum curators decide which works of art need to be restored. These are listed in a Wish Book and patrons can choose which restoration to support. Patrons can choose to be the sole restorer of a piece, or a group of individuals can come together to support a specific restoration. There are also crowd funding initiatives and long-term support initiatives that require financial support over a few years time, like restoration of the Bramante Courtyard and the restoration of the four different façades.
Support begins with an Annual Membership
With an annual membership you have access to special patron tours, lectures, access to events, access to restoration labs, invitations to special openings. The cost of an Individual annual membership is €500 and with this you’re invited to any openings and special events. Beyond that it’s possible to make additional donations in any amount. When you decide to support a very large work of art there are often many more events associated with that particular restoration.
There are no family memberships, but with each individual membership the member may bring a minor along to any member events.
Become a member here.
When you visit Rome you might also enjoy visiting the Rome Opera House or the Santa Cecilia Basilica in Trastevere. If you'd like to experience some great Italian food then how about a Culinary Walking Tour of Rome or a One Day Cooking Class?
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