For centuries, artists and architects who wished to closely examine important sculptures or building elements had two choices. They could travel to see these works in person, which was often prohibitively expensive. Alternatively, they could study exact, three-dimensional copies of these works, known as “plaster casts”.
The most common way of creating these copies was to cover all or part of the original piece in plaster, and after the plaster had set, remove the plaster in one piece so as to leave a negative image. This would then serve as a mould or “cast”, from which copies could be made, by pouring fresh plaster into the voids. In the case of large or complicated pieces, after all of the component pieces had been cast, the pieces could then be joined together, in order to create a complete, full-scale version of the original.
Beginning in the 16th century, artists and private collectors had plaster casts made of original works that they themselves could not possess, or that were located far away. They would display these pieces in their homes for themselves and their associates to study and discuss. This practice later became institutionalized, with art and architecture academies, as well as museums, obtaining plaster casts for their students and the public to see and learn from.
With the decline in classical education in the West, the idea of maintaining a gallery of such copies eventually fell by the wayside. The Cast Courts at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, one of the most popular sections of that institution, were once among the largest in Europe. Today, they do not display all of the casts in the museum’s possession, although they still give a good idea of the wide variety of what was considered worth copying. Visitors can see everything from small statues to entire walls, such as the copy of the famous Romanesque sculptural-architectural Portico de la Gloria, from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
Here in the US, the Metropolitan had an enormous collection of such casts, numbering over 2600 works in all. They were removed from public view back in the 1950’s and placed in storage, but some have reemerged at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art in New York. About 120 of the Met’s casts are at the Institute’s headquarters, where they can be studied by artists, architects, and the public, as originally intended by their donors. The Institute also offers drawing classes of these objects, for those interested in following this time-honored method of education.
Even if, as in my case, you appreciate aspects of both classical *and* modern art and architecture, the idea of “both and” is far more attractive than the choice of “either or”. Our major institutions have largely forgotten that to innovate for the future does not mean to abandon the study of the past. While studying a cast copy of a Baroque capital is never going to replace the impact of seeing the original, it is still an extremely valuable tool for promoting both education and connoisseurship for us today, as well as for future generations.