Though the small statue with the greenish hue is nicknamed "The Modest Venus," she is anything but.
It's true that the 10-inch figurine from the Italian Renaissance has one hand demurely covering her fig-leaf area, and the other held up as if to fend off unwanted advances. But around 1500, an anonymous metalworker crafted the Venus from bronze, which is naturally cool and pleasing to the touch. He gave her rounded limbs and an abundance of undulating curves; her buttocks might have been expressly designed to fill an adult's cupped palm.
Despite her outward reserve, this little lady is a flirt who practically begs to be caressed.
The statue is one of about three dozen artifacts making up "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture," opening Jan. 21 at the Walters Art Museum. Part art exhibit and part science experiment, the show poses provocative questions about how our brains process tactile information, and about how artists throughout the centuries have exploited the inborn human preference for certain physical sensations.
"When we were reinstalling the Palace of Wonders, I picked up a statuette of the nude Venus," says Joaneath Spicer, the Walters' curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. "It fit exactly in my hand, and I thought: 'What do you know? This feels fantastic.'"
"I wouldn't have guessed that. I said to myself, 'Whoa. What's this about?' Could it be that in the 1500s they realized that this statue is incredibly satisfying to touch, and that it wasn't accidental?"
"Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture" is the second Walters exhibit to involve a collaboration with the Johns Hopkins University's Mind/Brain Institute.
In 2010, "Beauty and the Brain" explored whether humans have an inherent predilection to find some shapes more appealing than others. The new show poses similarly provocative questions about touch.
Visitors to the Walters will be asked to hold replicas of famous artworks, some of which have been modified. They'll be asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how enjoyable it is to handle statues with rough or smooth surfaces, statues that vary in how much they are curved, and statues of different sizes and shapes.
Brain scientist Steven Hsiao is in the midst of a four-year research project. He's trying to pin down whether touching certain objects generates identifiable patterns of neural activity that people find pleasurable, and whether those configurations are activated when humans encounter great works of art.
Studies have found, Hsiao says, that stimuli such as lines, curves and motion generate similar responses from the neurons in the brain associated with vision and from those linked to touch.
"If the basic physical properties of vision and touch are processed the same, what about the cognitive things, like aesthetics?" he asks.
He has a hunch that people enjoy laying their heads on soft pillows and stroking a cat's silky fur because they cause neurons in the brain to fire at a relatively low, but constant, rate. We perceive this as restful and soothing and, hence, enjoyable.
In contrast, sandpaper, the sharp visual angles created by high-rises in an urban streetscape, or a cacophony of horns and voices cause neurons to fire in extremely irregular patterns, and are therefore perceived as stressful.
In addition to the data collected at the Walters, Hsiao is conducting related experiments at the Maryland State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, and at the Mind/Brain Institute.
For now, test volunteers are being asked to subjectively rate how much they enjoy various physical sensations caused by touching objects that differ in roughness, hardness, size and shape.
Eventually, these intuitive assessments will be compared to the neuronal activity generated inside our skills by the same activities. Hsiao will look first in an area of the brain called the somatosensory cortex, because that's where touch initially is processed. Later, he'll explore the insular cortex, which handles pain and pleasure, and the frontal lobe, which regulates judgments.
One of the project's main goals will be to develop a template of brain activity when Hsiao's subjects are experiencing physical pleasure. The scientists will then try to determine how closely that blueprint corresponds to the neuronal patterns generated by gazing at and handling sculptural masterpieces and other artworks with tactile appeal.
"I think there's a sensory component to pleasantness, but there's also a higher, cognitive component that stems from memories and learned behaviors," Hsiao says. "Art taps into both of these."
When they're not providing data, museum visitors will have about a dozen beautiful statues to look at that will also make them think about human beings' often-ambivalent feelings about touching and being touched.
For instance, while life is replete with ugly sights and irritating noises, no one turns against the organs that provide these impressions. But in the Middle Ages, Spicer says, touch itself was considered sinful.
"The prevailing notion was that touch had too many erotic overtones," she says. "Obviously, people did touch, but one was supposed to be very, very careful because it could lead to carnality. Enjoyment took people's minds away from its proper focus on higher things."
Cloistered nuns were prohibited from touching anyone, though an exception was made for statues of the infant Jesus in manger scenes. "The nuns were allowed to dress and care for the baby Jesus," Spicer says, "possibly to keep them from going nuts due to sensory deprivation."
Historically, when touch wasn't undervalued, it was over-praised.
Through the Renaissance, Spicer says, touch was considered the most basic sense, one that underlay the other four. For instance, it was falsely believed that rays of light physically struck people's eyes.
"Somehow, in order to see, it was thought that those little molecules had to actually hit you," she says.
And there's no denying that touch is a crucial information-gathering tool. Ask any mother who has ever placed a hand on a child's forehead to determine if his flushed face is caused by running outdoors, or by a fever.
Our fingers, Hsiao says, provide information about an object's shape, while our palms contain receptors that register vibrations.
(He speculates that our bellies contain receptors that are adept at picking up reverberations, causing that area to tingle when someone creeps up behind us. If Hsiao is correct, it would lend credence to the folk saying about "a gut feeling.")
He thinks that touch is emotionally loaded for humans because it is the most immediate, the least abstract of the five senses.
"Our sense of touch is tightly coupled with our motor system," he says. "It's how you grasp and move things. It's the only sense that permits us to directly manipulate our environments."
In addition, Hsiao says, it's through touch that humans build the social bonds essential for group life — not just between lovers, but between parents and children, and between neighbors who greet one another with a handshake before setting to work on a common task.
"Through touch," Spicer says, "we recognize the world."