Plaster copies of Greek and Roman sculpture

This is a BBC video from Britain, about ancient Greek sculpture.

The antiquities museum says about one of its present non-permanent exhibitions, Models of beauty. Masterpieces in plaster:

13 June through 16 November 2008

This exhibition shows beautiful 17th, 18th and 19th-century plaster casts of the finest sculptures of Antiquity. The timeless beauty of classical sculpture is the focal point of this exhibition. Further attention is paid to the role played by plaster casts in science, art criticism and art education in the past four hundred years.

Today Dr Ruurd Halbertsma of the museum showed us around this exhibition.

He started with talking about Rome, as in that city, in the sixteenth century, were the origins of copying sculptures from antiquity. When, early in that century, visitors came to Rome, they might know from writings that during antiquity, there had been many sculptures in public places. However, when they visited the city, they saw only a few sculptures said to have survived from the Roman empire or earlier: the she-wolf of Capitol hill; the Marcus Aurelius statue; Trajan’s Column.

When, while building churches or other buildings in medieval Rome, sculptures or parts of them from antiquity had been found, they had been recycled as building material. After 1500, however, people found out that discoveries like these might add to knowledge about antique art. In this way, new sculptures which became famous, were found, like the Laocoön group and the Apollo of the Belvedere. They attracted many artists and other visitors from many European countries to Rome.

The popes and other élite people from the papal states sometimes, as a favour, started giving plaster copies of antique sculptures to princes in other countries. One example was Trajan’s column, a copy of which was given to King Louis XIV of France. In 1824, these plaster copies were found in a windmill in Leiden. the Netherlands. It is not known how they had ended up there. As, since the seventeenth century, in the open air of Rome, the original Trajan’s column has suffered much from pollution, these plaster copies are today valuable, as they show details which are no longer clear in the original.

In the exhibition are also cork models of ancient Roman buildings, which used to be sold to tourists. And reproductions of idealized paintings of ancient Roman remains, by the neo-classicist Giovanni Paolo Panini (1692 – 1765).

During the eighteenth century, drawing academies, based on neo-classicist views, arose in many countries. First, the students had to learn to draw skeletons and muscles for human anatomy. Then, they had to make drawings of Greek and Roman sculptures, considered as models of perfect human bodies. Only after that did they draw nude human models, with bodies not as perfect as antique sculptures.

Among the plaster copies often found in drawing academies were the Venus of Arles. And the “Borghese gladiator” which does not really depict a gladiator, as gladiators did not fight while naked. The nude statue probably depicts a hero.

The Venus of Arles was considered the ideal female form, until 1820, when the Venus de Milo was discovered in Greece.

One of the drawings, depicting a statue of the Greek god Apollo, at the exhibition, is by nineteenth-century drawing academy student, later famous painter, George Hendrik Breitner.

When female students had to draw plaster copies of statues, fig leaves were attached to prevent the women from seeing male genitalia.

Certainly since the 1960s in the Netherlands, neo-classicist ideas in art education became weaker. For the plaster copies, that often meant they were hidden away or even destroyed.

In the sixteenth century, mainly Roman sculpture and Roman copies of Greek sculpture had become known in western Europe. In the early nineteenth century, for the first time, classical Greek sculpture became widely known. Eg, after the Parthenon marbles arrived in London. People had difficulty in getting used to them. The poet John Keats was one of not very many people admiring the Marbles right from the start. While fellow poet Lord Byron attacked Lord Elgin for taking the sculpture from Athens. More about Byron: here.

When sculpture from the Aegina temple, still older than the Parthenon, became first known in Germany, famous author Goethe did not like it, as it did not conform to his preconceived ideas of what Greek art should be.

Bronze Horse Head Hints at Roman Ambitions in Germany: here.

MSU art professor’s theory about ancient decorating choices casts new light on Roman paintings: here.

Why the ancient Greeks and Romans reclined for a meal: here.

3 thoughts on “Plaster copies of Greek and Roman sculpture

  1. I love the old Greek and Roman arts. One of the first realistic drawings that I ever did was of a Greek statue (Unfortunately, I am not well-versed enough in history to know which statue). I am huge fan of the mythology as well and have drawn Artemis more than once.

    Thanks for pulling all these links together, and thanks for the information!


  2. Pingback: Greek, or Roman, sculpture exhibition in London | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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