Reviewed by Michael Fotiadis
Transformationen der Antike 18. Pp. xii + 752, figs. 339, color pls. 32. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin 2010. $129.95. ISBN 978-3-11-020856-6 (cloth).
I opened this book with the expectation that it would be about, at least principally, plaster casts of classical antiquity's statuary (e.g., Roman, Greek, Near Eastern). Wrong! The volume—36 papers, originally delivered at a conference organized by the editors and Donna Kurtz and held in Oxford in 2007—has in fact a much broader scope. Plaster has been used for making images and models of just about everything, from human figures to mushrooms, from death masks to mathematical models, from a peasant's crippled hand to Michelangelo's David, and the casts have served religious, scientific, artistic, pedagogical, and many other purposes (e.g., as substitutes for renowned artworks made of more precious materials, or just as curiosities worth collecting). The book under review is not about all of those kinds of casts (mushrooms and mathematical models are only mentioned in the last contribution ; the crippled hand is mentioned in the volume's introduction ), but it "deliberately focuses on plaster casts for artistic ends" (10). That turns out to include works that may not have been received as art when they were created (e.g., the colorful plaster reliefs in the Church of Our Lady in Halberstadt, Saxony-Anhalt, executed ca. 1200 C.E., which are expertly discussed in the book by their 21st-century conservators). No paper, however, deals with casts of artworks from outside the European tradition (e.g., the casts from Angkor Wat, first shown in Paris in 1878; the casts of Maya and Aztec art in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University).
The volume includes sections on classical antiquity, on the Renaissance, on the making and distribution of casts since the 18th century, as well as separate sections on casts in various contexts during the last 250 years (in art academies, artists' workshops, museums). It also includes a section on lessons learned from the conservation of casts, while collections of gem impressions are treated in yet another section along with architectural models. Given the size of the book, my task—and the task of the reader—would have been easier if the individual papers had been consecutively numbered. (Strangely, the color plates in the back of the book are numbered in a way that presupposes the consecutive numbering of the papers; but try to go from the plates to the papers, and you will find it rather laborious.) The first two papers concern the use of plaster casts in classical antiquity, and one of them (Frederiksen) includes a list of surviving ancient pieces, save for those of Baiae, which are compared with Roman marble statues in the other paper (Landwehr). The paper on the Halberstadt reliefs (D. Arnold, T. Arnold, and Rüber-Schütte), mentioned above, is the only one devoted to medieval material, but Marchand discusses continuities from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance in another contribution, which surveys the uses of plaster in Renaissance Italy. A second paper on Renaissance practices (Cupperi) traces the 16th-century beginnings of the production of casts of antique sculptures for royal clients located beyond the Alps and the spread of the taste for plaster casts (substituting for ancient originals and bronze casts). The Renaissance section ends with a new paper on the stucco decorations of Nonsuch Palace, contributed by Biddle, the excavator and long-time researcher of the ruins of Nonsuch.
Most of the papers pertain to post-Renaissance times, especially to the period from ca. 1750 to the present. An impressive variety of topics is treated, and the papers are accordingly arranged in thematic sections, as mentioned above. I give here a partial list of topics, while retaining the order in which the papers appear in the book:
Clearly, then, the contributions pertain not just to reproductive casts for display or as models in art academies but also to molds and casts in the sculptor's studio as indispensable aids or as the original artwork, and to other topics. Limitations of space prevent me from giving fuller accounts of the individual contributions and discussing their merits. I only note that the scholarship in most cases is of very high quality and that many of the papers are based on original archival research. Most of the 44 contributors are academics or curators of collections, but the list also includes several conservators, an artist, and even a collector of plaster casts. I also note that very few of the authors have attempted systematic cross-referencing (for which there is much scope), but the problem is partly remedied by 25 pages of indices for names and, separately, for subjects. Among the hundreds of figures, especially valuable are 19th- and early 20th-century photographs of museum and academy exhibitions of casts. My favorites are two photographs of the Auckland exhibition from ca. 1882 that show the skeleton of a giraffe facing Apollo Belvedere (581, 588). The aesthetic result of this arrangement is sensitively commented on by the contributor (Cooke ).
In its main lines, the story of the rise and decline of plaster casts reproducing original artworks is by now rather well known. But it is known only thanks to a resurgence of interest in such casts since ca. 1980. While in the first half of the 20th century, museums were busy removing reproductive casts from their exhibitions, and art academies were taking their plaster models out of the teaching studio (themes that are visited by many contributors to the volume), in more recent times, some institutions at least have been curating and redisplaying the surviving parts of their old collections (see, e.g., the paper on the Hercules and Flora Farnese). At the same time, scholars have turned their attention to plaster casts as objects of display and their reception and also as instruments of instruction and their disciplining effects. Plaster casts and their biographies are by now sources of historical knowledge pertaining to the previous five centuries; by studying them we expect to learn about such issues as the transformations of taste, the formation of artistic canons, or the economic stakes associated with the modernist ideology that drove reproductive casts to the warehouse and put in their place "original" artworks (an issue brought into focus in Dyson's paper about casts in the United States ). "Transformations" is a key notion here (note the title of the series in which the book is published), not least because, as many contributors point out, plaster casts are themselves materially unstable: they are virtually continually altered by—acted upon, or better, interacting with—collectives of human and material agents.
Since the 1980s, reproductive casts and their history have been the subject of many conferences, and proceedings from some of those conference have been published (for a partial list, see www.plastercastcollection.org). The volume reviewed, also the product of a conference, distinguishes itself from most previous undertakings by its expanded thematic (and also temporal and geographical) scope. It is, as the editors note, "representative of the richness and range of present research interests" that bear on plaster casts (2). The history of reproductive casts still occupies center stage, but it is here brought into contact with research projects that range well beyond it.
Department of History and Archaeology
University of Ioannina
Ioannina 451 10