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SALA BOLOGNESE, Italy (Reuters) - When blind sculptor Felice Tagliaferri was forbidden to touch one of Italy's most famous statues, he decided revenge was best served not just cold but stone cold.
Tagliaferri, 41, spent much of two years creating his marble interpretation of "Cristo Velato," or "Veiled Christ," a 1753 masterpiece that he has neither seen nor touched.
Giuseppe Sanmartino's exquisitely detailed sculpture of the body of Christ lying wrapped in a fine shroud is one of the prime tourist attractions in Naples.
Busloads of blind and disabled people from throughout Italy came to Tagliaferri's studio near Bologna in northern Italy to take symbolic taps on his chisels. The result is a powerfully rendered life-sized Jesus that Tagliaferri punningly calls "Cristo (ri)Velato," or "Christ Revealed."
"There are so many messages. One is that a block of marble isn't ruined when it is lightly touched by expert hands," he said.
"Second, the disabled are sick and tired of waiting for others to decide and tell them what they can and cannot do."
In May 2008, Tagliaferri visited the Sansevero Chapel, eager to experience its famous "Veiled Christ" in the only way a blind person can: by touching it. He was blocked, he said, first by a guard and then by the administration, despite his protests that he was a professional sculptor who would do no damage.
Now, he is savouring a triumphal return to Naples when "Christ Revealed" begins a national tour at the Royal Palace from February 26 to March 13. The pope is expected to see it in Ancona on September 11. The statue will also travel to Messina, Rimini and Siena.
Blind since the age of 14, Tagliaferri was studying furniture restoration and working at a switchboard when he joined an experiment to test whether sight is necessary for sculpturing. The answer changed his life.
Since then, he has worked with master sculptors in Bologna, Carrara, Spain, France and Germany and his works have been shown widely, including in Prague, and appear in collections throughout Italy. The Omero State Tactile Museum in Ancona has a section devoted to his art.
"I see myself as very fortunate." he said. "I do what I want to do in life, I receive recognition, and I'm able to learn what pleases me."
"Christ Revealed" started as a small clay model; sighted artists advised Tagliaferri how to position the body. He raised 16,000 euros (13,499 pounds) through dinner-in-the-dark events and bought a 4,000-kg. (8,800-pound) block of Carrara marble that measured 1.9 metres long by 50 cm high and 1 metre wide (6.2 feet by 1.7 feet by 3.3 feet). He asked a friend to stretch out on top then measured the body.
"Forty normal sculptors could have tried it and none would have succeeded," he said. "I was so motivated by the idea of doing this for everyone else."
The result, like the 258-year-old sculpture that inspired it, is shockingly realistic. He eagerly runs a visitor's hands over the eerily lifelike marble kneecaps, feet and spiky thorns.
His Christ is more athletic than the original, the veil smooth instead of textured to convey a sense of transparency to the blind.
"It's forbidden not to touch," Tagliaferri said.