Test Announcement 123



Historical Overview

The practice of creating plaster casts dates to antiquity. According to Pliny the Elder (N.H. 35.153), Lystratos, brother of the Greek sculptor Lysippos, was the first artist to create "an image of a man in plaster taken from the surface (of the body) itself."(1) As early as the fourth century BCE, artists began using plaster to make realistic copies of the human body, and often to reproduce famous sculptures. By the 15th century, artists were using casts in their studios, not only as sources of inspiration but also as important pedagogical tools. Students training in these ateliers were thus able to study canonical masterworks from antiquity and, later, the "Old Masters" first-hand; even if, as some might argue, these casts were at one remove from the original and, therefore, somehow inferior.

Beginning in the 16th century, European Crowns began adding casts to their royal collections. Not surprisingly, plaster casts also grew in popularity amongst aristocrats and society's élite who, wanting to emulate wealthy heads of state, favored them as souvenirs from their travels abroad. By the 18th century, casts were increasingly common; a reflection of the raging "antico-mania" as well as the growing taste for these objects both in European museums and university collections, and, later, the United States, where institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (founded in 1870) began collecting them almost immediately for educational purposes.

In the first half of the 20th century, however, the tradition of displaying casts started to change in the America, and casts were no longer as popular as they had once been: many were relegated to warehouses or simply discarded as relics of a passing fad. Now, at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, the popularity of casts is once again ascendant, with older collections being re-evaluated in a fresh light and new collections being formed.

The renowned collection of historic casts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) has, over the years, been largely dispersed among university collections both in the U.S. and in Europe. Fairfield is among the recipients of the MMA's largesse, beginning in 1991 when the University received a number of casts from the museum on long-term renewable loan. Subsequent gifts from the MMA to Fairfield University were made in 2004 and 2009.

-Mara Giarratana Young '11, with Drs. Katherine Schwab and Jill Deupi, and Michael Keropian

(1) K.A. Schwab, Casting the Past: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Cast Collection at Fairfield University (1994), 4, quoting J.J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents (Cambridge, 1990), 104.


The Nature and Import of Casts

Casts are repositories of critical information. Not only is the individual "history," or provenance, of each cast often compelling in and of itself, but they also frequently preserve details from original works that may otherwise have been irretrievably lost through corrosive air pollution or the vicissitudes of history (including looting, warfare, or insensitive cleaning and conservation techniques). In spite of this, the meaning and value of casts is frequently subjected to intense scrutiny: Casts may have been returned to the spotlight, but are their functions still the same? Are they still educational tools or merely commercial souvenirs? Are they works of art in their own right, or are they derivative imitations? The answer is one that is still being puzzled out and articulated today.

Marguerite Yourcenar, in That Mighty Sculptor, Time, wrote: "(O)n the day when a statue is finished, its life, in a certain sense, begins."(2) The true history of sculpture, and indeed that of casts, is therefore of a piece with life and, inevitably, decay. In this sense, it seems clear that casts, with their remarkable pedigrees and private histories, have taken on lives of their own, establishing themselves securely in the firmaments of art and cultural history.

-Mara Giarratana Young '11, with Drs. Katherine Schwab and Jill Deupi, and Michael Keropian

1 Marguerite Yourcenar, That Mighty Sculptor, Time, trans. Walter Kaiser in collaboration with the author (New York: The Noonday Press/Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1993), 57.


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Technical Notes

Plaster casts are replicas of other works of art. While the methods used to create casts vary, most commonly a mould is created by applying plaster of Paris, gelatin, silicone rubber or polyurethane to the original artifact. After the mould dries, it is removed, retaining an impression of the source object on its interior surfaces. Wet plaster is then poured into the resulting cavity. When this is dry, the mould is removed and the new cast is revealed.

Parting lines, the meeting point between two pieces from the traditional piece-mould process, indicate much about the age, quality and history of a cast. A thin parting line shows that the cast came from a high-quality, new mould. Over time, these mould sections break down, resulting in larger parting lines. The collection of plaster casts in the Bellarmine Museum reflects visible, but very clean and neat, parting lines. From this we are able to observe the care, impressive craftsmanship, and attention to detail the artists utilized both in the mould-making process and resulting plaster casts.

-Mara Giarratana Young '11, with Drs. Katherine Schwab and Jill Deupi, and Michael Keropian


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