A modern antiquity

Catalogue: Une Antiquité moderne, exh. cat. L’Academie de France à Rome. Villa Medici, Rome 2019. ISBN: 978-88-3367-077-5 

Plaster casts are image vehicles par excellence. They can reproduce and multiply three-dimensional form, and serve the dissemination of visual ideas from one place to another; they can record lost stages of a work’s appearance, e.g. pre-completion, pre-damage, pre-destruction or pre-restauration. Often perceived as perfect one to one copies of the external form of a three-dimensional work, they can also accidentally or deliberately differ from what they reproduce, and with their white and even surface they can condition the perception of the works they represent. Thus, cast are also works in their own right, objects with their own history. Yet, for long, they proved rather evasive. Until recently, there have been few attempts to date them either through material or technical analysis. Given their status as copies, historicaly they were often not documented, and where archival references to casts exist, the objects under discussion are often either lost or impossible to identify beyond reasonable doubt.  

View of the exhibition Une Antiquité moderne, L’Academie de France à Rome – Villa Medici, Rome 2019. (photograph by the author)

This situation is changing, as a recent exhibition at the Villa Medici in Rome (November 2019-March 2020) demonstrated. Une Antiquité moderne narrated the history of plaster casts made for French authorities in Rome (and Paris) from the seventeenth to the twenty-first centuries. The visitor who followed the exhibitions trajectory explored this history through direct encounters with the objects, learning on the way how to interprete them as physical evidence. Thus, the display regularly induced the beholder to inspect the material make up of these casts and, e.g., examine internal supports where these were revealed in areas of breakage. Well judged labels helped to interprete this evidence, and explain it.

While many of the casts came from Paris, all of them derived from moulds commissioned and executed by the Académie de France à Rome. Founded in 1666 and set up in the small Palazzo Capranica, the Academy was originally designed to provide Louis XIV with copies of ancient Roman statuary and Italian paintings. A major task for the Academy’s directors was to obtain access to Roman collections, private, communal and papal. Once permission was granted to copy a work of sculpture, Roman cast makers would visit these collections to make elaborate plaster moulds. 

Typically, two casts remained in Rome. There they served foremost as direct models in the Academy’s workshops or were put into store. After the Academy’s move in 1737 to the much grander Palazzo Mancini they were also used by French authorities for social representation and served didactic purposes. Foreign artists visited the Academy to study this spectacular collection of casts, the originals of which were dispersed across Rome in often inaccessible private collections. 

If two casts stayed in Rome, a third, together with the moulds, was sent to Paris. Upon arrival, these usually had to undergo extensive repair before they were stored in the Louvre’s Salle des Antiques. Sculptors working for the King had access to the collections. Using the evidence of the casts, the exhibition shed spotlights onto a number of such cases. A cast of the Dying Gaul, for example, bears incisions and other traces suggesting that a secondary mould may once have been made from it. An examination of Giuseppe Vinaccia’s bronze copy of this sculpture, completed in 1688 for the gardens of Fontainebleau showed that this had been cast from this very mould, establishing thus not only a direct link between the two casts, but also an early date for the plaster.  

Many such insights rely on external data. There are two nearly identical casts in the exhibition of the figure of a son from the Niobe Group, now in Florence but originally found and displayed in Rome. The absence of the restored right foot in one of them indicates that this cast was made in the late sixteenth-century, when a casting campaign of the recently discovered group was recorded, while the second cast represents the work’s appearance after its restoration in the early seventeenth century.  

In Paris, the Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, also based in the Louvre, acquired casts from these moulds. During the revolution, casts from both institutions were exiled to the Musée des Monuments Francais, eventually to be looked after by the École des Beaux Arts. At the beginning of this century some 5000 casts were transferred to the Louvre’s Gypsothèque in Versailles.   

The visitor traces the history of these two collections through datable works and key objects. Progressing through the centuries, they turn towards an internal stair case where the casts are dramatically staged, and where the path turns into an inspired upward trajectory. 

In fact, plaster casts can provide exciting encounters, both with themselves and with the works they represent. Many of these underlying originals had been experienced in a fragmented stage by their early modern beholders, and, similarly, the visitors in this exhibition experience the early modern casts very consciously as damaged fragments from a later society  – thus these casts form une antiquité moderne. In a room at the top of the stairs, a dactiliotheca introduces a different, view of antiquity, one that that focuses on images rather than objects and on completeness. The drawers of this mahogony cabinet hold endless numbers of casts of small engraved stones, presenting us with an encyclopedia of ancient motifs. A collection of architectural casts presents yet another view of antiquity, before the display ends with nineteenth and twentieth century casts, used for artistic training. 

Une antiquité moderne had two declared aims: to present the outcomes and significance of recent research on the material and plaster cast, and to narrate the long neglected history of two long important collections. Beyond this it raised questions about the ever changing concepts and perceptions of antiquity.

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