Casting Light: Rediscovering The Value Of Copying In Art And Architecture

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.

College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)

 

Thomism Goes Online

For those of you interested in philosophy, theology, and/or St. Thomas Aquinas, a friend from the Adler-Aquinas Institute is kicking off a program on the work of the Angelic Doctor which you may be interested in: an online graduate Thomistic studies concentration.

Dr. Peter Redpath, Rector of the Adler-Aquinas Institute and Chair of the new philosophy graduate concentration in Christian Wisdom.at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Connecticut, will initiate this concentration by offering a course on Aquinas’ teaching about “The One and the Many” for the Fall semester, starting the last week in August.  Students will be exploring the metaphysical teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas concerning the nature of the metaphysical principles of unity and multiplicity, and the essential role that these principles play in the existence of things and all other principles of being, becoming, and knowing, including those of experience, art, philosophy, science.

The course will be held entirely online, but there will be optional live, synchronous meetings on Tuesday evenings at 7:00 pm Eastern Time for those who can make them. The meetings will be recorded and made available later for those who wish to hear them. To register for this class online, you can visit the Holy Apostles web site linked to above, or email Prof. Heather Voccola (hvoccola@holyapostles.edu) in the online learning office at Holy Apostles College.

One of the great things of modern technology as a pedagogic tool, which I’m sure Aquinas himself would have appreciated, is its ability to bring experts like Dr. Redpath into contact with students who, for reasons such as distance, might not otherwise ever be able to study under him.  The number of students who crowded into the lecture halls of the University of Paris to hear Aquinas speak on metaphysics was far fewer in number than the number of those around Europe who would have loved the opportunity even to hear him lecture just once.  So if you are out of school and looking to continue learning and studying, take advantage of this and similar opportunities for your intellectual growth.  All you need is an internet connection.

Thomas Aquinas Teaching

St. Thomas Aquinas teaching a group of Dominicans Medieval Manuscript, 14th Century