Blog post

The evolution of the bas-relief

How bas-relief went from a Classical tradition to a modern aid for visually impaired people

a gray stone slab on a black background with a relief sculpture of two female faces and necks pointing looking to the left, in Ancient Egyptian style
Selene Carboni (opens in new window)

One form of art has been almost universal throughout human history, adorning the walls of buildings and rock faces throughout the centuries: relief art. A relief sculpture is a specific type of sculpture that uses depth to add an extra dimension to a figure, a landscape, or architectural or ornamental elements. This ancient Mesopotamian relief has two human figures slightly jut out of a stone slab.

Reliefs are divided into two broad categories: high relief has some parts of the artwork partially raised from the background at a level that is equal to at least half or more of their natural shape from the background. Then there is low relief or bas-relief, where there is a less pronounced level of projection. Other techniques include mid-relief and 'stiacciato', the latter being a kind of relief where the difference between completely flat and raised parts of the artwork is barely visible, only noticeable if one would run their fingers along the piece. A fascinating example is Donatello’s Miracle of the Mule, in the first half of the fifteenth century CE.

One of the most innovative subtypes of relief is the use of bas-relief for perspective, originating during the Florentine Renaissance between the Fourteenth and Sixteenth centuries CE in Italy. Lorenzo Ghiberti’s 'Door to Paradise' on the Baptistery in Florence is a prime example of this kind of relief work.

Ghiberti's work is a technical marvel, using relief to convey depth by following a specific use of perspective. Looking up close to one of the panels reveals how this perspective relief brings the work to life.

It was based on this technique that, in 1999, the Anteros Tactile Museum at Francesco Cavazza Institute for the Blind in Bologna, Italy, was inspired to start its own bas-relief project. The museum team asked themselves: "how is it possible to make paintings accessible for visually impaired people? How is it possible to strengthen the perceptive, cognitive, and intellectual faculties of visitors who are visually impaired but also to appeal to and educate sighted users?" Both questions are important, and neither is easy to solve.

Visually impaired people can experience three-dimensional sculptures easily through touch, but this is not possible with paintings. Through a bas-relief, though, one could convey the artist's 'vision' of a two-dimensional painting in a way that could be experienced through touch.

Anteros started creating bas-reliefs for several specific paintings that the museum workers selected, as well as ones which were commissioned to them by other important museums or associations. The collection accordingly includes bas-reliefs that translate masterpieces from the medieval to the contemporary age. You can find bas-relief translations of the Mona Lisa from the original by Leonardo da Vinci as well as Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli and Okita by Kitagawa Utamaro.

Translating an original painting to a bas-relief is not an automatic process. Rather, a team composed of experts in the history of art, psychology of tactile and optical perception, pedagogy, and the community of people who are blind study the original artwork. They seek to understand the style of the composition and choose details that borrow the rules of Florentine perspective spatial representation to convert into tactile values. They then create a prototype in clay, test it and, if the results are positive, reproduce it in plaster or fibreglass.

All the bas-reliefs are intentionally white. The colours of the painting can be conveyed verbally to people who became blind later in life and have prior experience of colours or can be communicated to partially sighted through enlarged photographic reproductions. This results in iconic images accessible by touch.

Through these bas-reliefs, Anteros museum has made paintings tangible and comprehensible to people who are blind. The bas-reliefs are also interesting to sighted users, allowing them to experience the beauty of art using the sense of touch they otherwise don't use in a museum. Visitors can experience the bas-reliefs on their own or be guided by blind and sighted guides. They can follow the curve of the giant wave in The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa by Hokusai, and feel how the rippling force of the water will come crashing down on the little boat down below.

This may seem like an easy task, but it's not at all. Visitors have to make an effort to concentrate and to recreate the shapes, know the different layers of the perspective composition, remember each detail, and make it their own. But the reward fully justifies the effort! By internalizing tactile reading techniques, both blind and sighted art lovers can reach aesthetic enjoyment of the artwork in ways they couldn't before.

Using bas-relief art results in an enhanced understanding, breaks down preconceptions by changing people's attitudes, and creates a new and exciting way to perceive art, both for visually impaired and sighted people.

This blog was written by Selene Carboni through Europeana's Diversity and Inclusion Grants Programme. Selene is an art historian, museum educator, and haptic consultant.

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