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A BRIEF HISTORY

1 Introduction

2 Studying Art History

3 Photography and Art History

4 Teaching Art History

5 Magic Lanterns and Slides

6 Reproductions

7 Digital Technology

Bibliography

2 - Studying Art History

The roots of the discipline we practice today emerged during the Renaissance, initially in the context of collecting art, and subsequently in the lecture halls of the art academy. A new technology, the printing press, contributed significantly to these developments in two areas, that of the book and that of the print. Giorgio Vasari, for example, was able to take advantage of the printing press to produce multiple copies of his book of artists' biographies. His book provided both a framework and a methodology for the study of art history.

Frontispiece of Giorgio Vasari's Vite 1550
The book was published in multiple copies by Lorenzo Torrentino in Florence

By the time the first edition of Vasari's Lives was published in 1550, cities in Europe were awash in prints - woodcuts and engravings - that enabled the person in the street to see and possess images of art. A large number of the prints produced at this time are called "reproductive" because they reproduce other works of art, both paintings and sculptures.

Part of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling
A reproductive engraving by Cherubino Alberti, 1577

For the first time, someone in Antwerp or Paris could see an image of an altarpiece or a fresco in Rome, such this engraving by Cherubino Alberti of part of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling. Prints were actively collected and through them a person could supplement a study of art with reference to examples in distant places. Prints were portable and relatively inexpensive, and could be used also as illustrations in books.

During these same years (we are still in the sixteenth century), there also emerged the institution of the art academy, in Florence and Rome, where instruction included studying examples of ancient art, mostly sculpture. However, original examples of antique sculpture were not always available firsthand. Although prints served the need somewhat, the preferred solution was to reproduce the sculpture in the form of a plaster cast.

The making of casts of sculpture from plaster of Paris was not a new technology, but it was a technology nonetheless that was utilized by art academies who acquired casts in order to increase the range of examples available to the student. By the 18th century, practically every academy in Europe was in possession of a collection of plaster casts of ancient sculptures. Collections of casts survive in many institutions. Indeed, casts are currently enjoying something of a revival in interest.

The Cast Gallery at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The gallery was built in 1961 to house the cast collection of the University of Oxford

Those once in the collection of the University of Oxford have been moved recently into a specially built gallery at the Ashmolean Museum. The cast collection at the University of Austin, Texas, is now housed and exhibited in a museum on campus.

William J. Battle Collection of Plaster Casts
Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas, Austin

The William J. Battle Collection of Plaster Casts replicates some of the finest examples of Greek and Roman sculpture and architectural elements, the originals of which date from the sixth century B.C. to the third century A.D. The casts were purchased with funds from the University's Department of Classical Languages between 1894 and 1923 at the behest of the late Dr. Battle, a longtime classics professor, who served as president ad interim from 1914 to 1916. The majority of the works were cast in the late 19th century by August Gerber in Cologne, Germany, and the Caproni Brothers in Boston

The Crawford Cast Collection in the Crawford Municipal Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland, has a splendid collection of casts of sculptures in the Vatican Museum.

Crawford Sculpture Gallery Circa 1900
The Crawford Cast Collection in The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork, Ireland

Most of these plaster casts were made under the supervision of the master neo-classical sculptor, ANTONIO CANOVA, (1755-1822). They are copies of works in the Vatican Collection during the time of Napoleon's raiding of major European art collections. Pope Pius VII, fearing the permanent loss to Italy of these treasures, sought to minimise the blow by commissioning these and many other copies, to be retained after Napoleon's plunder. The collection was put on public display by the Cork Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts in 1819.

The Pushkin Museum in Moscow has a gallery of casts.

The Cast Gallery at the Pushkin Museum, Moscow

The museum claims to have one of the world's largest and most complete collections of casts of the famous sculptural monuments of the Ancient world, Middle Ages, Renaissance. The casts were commissioned by Prof. Tsvetaiev of sculptures in leading museums of Berlin, Munich, Paris, London, Rome, Naples.

An exhibition of approximately 850 plaster casts of ancient Greek sculpture is on view at the Free University of Berlin. The Berlin collection is the remnants of a cast collection established in 1695 for the Academy of Arts. By 1921 the approximately 2,500 pieces were housed in the Friedrich-Wilhelm University in Unter den Linden where it occupied 24 rooms. It stayed there up until the Second World War during which much was broken or lost.

It is difficult for us today to grasp the pervasiveness of the use of casts in the study of art. A report in 1917, titled "On Reproductions for the College Museum and Art Gallery" given by David Robinson of Johns Hopkins University to the College Art Association, and printed in volume 3 of the Art Bulletin, includes lists of casts recommended by Edith R. Abbott of the Metropolitan Museum in New York.


image source: Art Bulletin 3, 1917, 17

CLICK HERE for the complete list

Miss Abbott's lists are included in David M. Robinson's report, "On Reproductions for the College Musuem and Art Gallery," Art Bulletin, 3, 1917, 15-21. The list was drawn up by Edith R. Abbott of the Metropolitan Museum. The minimum list is priced at $1000 and was confined to the historic periods of Greek Art. The second is priced $3000 and includes some Egyptian, Assyrian, Byzantine, Medieval, and Renaissance Art, as well as Greek and Roman. A third list, priced at $5000, is divided into $3000 for casts of classical art (list provided), and $2000 to be spent on other styles.

Casts could be obtained from the following firms of cast-makers:

  • Brucciani, 254 Goswell Road, London
  • Sabatino de Angelis, Naples
  • Gillieron & Son, 43 Rue Skoupha, Athens
  • Giuseppe Lelli, Florence
  • Pietro Pierotti, Milan
  • Caproni Brothers, 1914 Washington Street, Boston

It will be noted that the cast-maker August Gerber in Cologne, Germany (mentioned in the caption to the previous image), is not included in this list drawn up in 1917 during the First World War.

A minimum list is priced at approximately $1000; a lot of money in 1917. Another longer list is priced at $3000. Miss Abbott explains that "the object is to secure the best working collection for the use of college classes." By 1917, however, the heyday of the plaster cast was over. Casts continued to be used (after all, colleges had spent thousands of dollars on them), but another type of study aid was becoming more popular - the photograph.


Top of the Page 3 Photography and Art History

1 Introduction

2 Studying Art History

3 Photography and Art History

4 Teaching Art History

5 Magic Lanterns and Slides

6 Reproductions

7 Digital Technology

Bibliography