Masterpieces Unveiled for the Blind

Since 2011, the Vatican Museums has partnered with the Francesco Cavazza Institute for the Blind of Bologna in developing multisensory tours for its blind and visually impaired visitors.  After creating a wonderful three-dimensional copy of theTransfiguration this past August, they have fashioned a bas-relief translation of the Fayoum portrait of a young man (inv. 56605) from the Zeri collection.

The Fayoum portrait reproduction, an ad hoc creation by experts of the Cavazza Institute, further enriches the Vatican Museum’s path for blind visitors as the first implementation of its kind within the Gregorian Egyptian Museum.  Now, this section of the museum joins the Gregorian Profane Museum, the Ethnological Museum, and the Painting Gallery as an area of the Vatican Museums that has successfully adopted this tactile approach.

This addition was made possible thanks to the generous initiative of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museums, who promoted the project at a fundraiser benefitting museum education for the blind on June 22nd, 2012.  At the Italian/International Chapter event, Father Mark Haydu expressed his deepest gratitude for the launch of this shared, fruitful, and mutually reinforcing effort, extending prayers to the all the magnificent collaborators involved in the project.


Masculine El Fayoum Portrait

Encaustic on wood

Provenance unknown

220-250 A.D.

Donated by Federico Zeri (Stroganoff Collection)

In this portrait, the man is represented in his youth with a rosy complexion, large eyes with thick eyebrows, a straight nose, and a moustache.  His hair is short and dark, with locks combed forward and long sideburns—a style characteristic of the dynasty of the Severi. In accordance with the Roman fashion of his time, the figure is wrapped in a creamy-white tunic fastened by red clavi.

This wood panel portrait is a funerary mask, belonging to a distinct type known as “Fayoum portraits:” the classification is named after their frequent provenance of El Fayoum, a large lowland area south east of Cairo, though, in reality, this mask type spread further and has been found across Egypt.  Product of combining Egyptian funerary traditions with Roman portraiture and the great Alexandrian painting tradition, the “Fayoum portrait” style spread during the first four centuries A.D.

It has been possible to date these portraits very precisely, thanks to the artists’ accuracy in representing the current hairstyles, clothing, and jewelry of each subject depicted. These people were tied to Rome—elected officials of the province—which explains the direct link of the portraits with Roman fashion.

These funerary portraits were placed on the face of the mummy and framed with linen bandages.   Continuing the tradition of the oldest funerary mask, their application intended to preserve the integrity of the deceased for eternity.


The so-called “Fayoum Portraits” were painted in encaustic, a painting technique that consists of applying, either in coats or directly mixed together “a tempera,” pigments diluted in hot wax.


Federico Zeri (d. October 5th,1998) was one of the most authoritative and influential academics and historians of Italian art.  As freelance professor, he taught at the university level in Europe and in the United States (at Harvard and ColumbiaUniversity), also working as an art consultant for various museums and private collectors.  He was Vice President of the National Council of Cultural Heritage and a member of the Academie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He lived in Mentone, north of Rome, in a villa-museum surrounded by eleven acres of parkland, with a library that held over one hundred thousand volumes and housed a rich photographic archive.  The villa has been inherited by the University of Bologna.

Zeri willed his legacy diversely—to the FrenchAcademy in Rome, to the FrenchAcademy in Paris, to the CarraraAcademy in Bergamo, Germany—but all with same obligation of exhibiting the donor’s name.

In the testament of his will, he also made an important donation to the Vatican Museums: ten Palmyran (Syrian) portraits and this Fayoum mummy portrait.  These finds, acquired in 1999, represent the last important donation to the VaticanMuseum’s Egyptian Collection. All of these objects have been on display in the GregorianEgyptianMuseum since their installation on June 15th, 2000.