Original? The Copy in Art Historical and Museological Context

By Danielle Raad

I am looking at Apollo Sauroktonos, the Lizard Slayer. He is naked, nonchalantly resting his left arm on a tree trunk, arching his torso, and putting weight on his right foot. His boyish, idealized face is framed by curls and his gaze rests on a lizard climbing up the tree. More specifically, I am looking at an image in the online collections database of the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, Connecticut. The photograph is of a plaster cast of Apollo Sauroktonos located in the museum in Norwich, Connecticut. It is a cast of a Roman marble sculpture made in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD. The sculpture is one of several copies of a Greek bronze statue from the 4th century BC. 

Left: Digital photograph of the plaster cast of Apollo Sauroktonos in the Slater Memorial Museum. Right: Digital photograph of an albumen silver print (ca. 1870-1890) in the Getty Museum of the marble Apollo Sauroktonos in the Vatican Museums

This summer, I am working remotely as an Education Intern at the Slater Memorial Museum. I am researching and writing sections of a training manual for museum staff and volunteers all from my home office in Amherst. While writing the section on classical art history, I realized just how far removed I am from what would be considered the original work of art. With Apollo Sauroktonos and several other works, I am working from digital photographs of plaster casts of Roman copies of Greek sculptures. 

In this essay, I complicate the concept and value of the “original” and consider copies and representations as products of their times. My lens is that of a public historian and archaeologist of the contemporary and I see these media transformations and reconstitutions of material culture worthy of critical examination in their own right. I’ll zoom out through three levels of abstraction from the lost Greek bronze to the digital photograph. Interrogating each layer of replication reveals entangled stories of classical art, art historiography, and museum studies. 

First abstraction: Roman copies of Greek sculptures

During the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, as Rome expanded its reach across the Mediterranean, works of art from conquered cultures were brought back to the capital. Romans had a particular affinity for classical Greek art from half a millennia earlier, and as a result a neoclassical tradition blossomed in Rome. Artists made copies of Greek sculptures, using molds of originals to replicate them (Department of Greek and Roman Art, 2002). Roman sculptures were in turn rediscovered by Italians in the Renaissance and taken to be originals. Only after large-scale excavations in Greece in the 18th and 19th centuries did archaeologists and art historians realize that many Roman sculptures were in fact modeled after Greek art. At this time, art historians and archaeologists shifted to Greek, not Roman, art as the classical ideal. Greek art became lauded and Roman art in turn fell in estimation. As Greek bronze statues were often melted down, much of what we know about Greek sculpture actually comes from these Roman copies. They have been practically ignored by students of Rome and rather studied as Greek art (Gazda, 1995).

But Roman sculptures are Roman, not Greek. In recent decades, two long-standing assumptions about Roman sculpture have been challenged. First, that Greek art is original and Roman art is characterized in contrast by copying, imitation, and deviation. Second, that it is possible to learn about lost Greek art by studying Roman sculptures (Perry, 2010). We cannot assume that Roman copies are faithful replicas; some may be composites or otherwise altered. Decisions like recreating a bronze sculpture in marble or altering the size and orientation of a lizard were made by Roman artists. 

Romans consciously chose to copy Greek sculptures. The labels art historians use to describe artwork carry implications, as “classifying an object as a copy incorporates a fundamental denial of the validity of that object as a unique expression of its own time and culture” (Gazda, 1995, p. 124). These objects are more than surrogates for Greek art, they are the material culture of Rome. Instead of viewing sculptures “merely as informants on what has been lost of Greek culture’s artistic heritage we can appreciate them as selective and informed determinants of the artistic legacy of Greece in Rome” (Gazda, 1995, p. 148). By shifting the focus, we can instead investigate how the copy would have functioned in Roman sociopolitical life. We see how visual communication through the distribution of replicas was part of Roman propagandic and economic agendas. We also see how Roman aesthetics were guided by tradition and classical ideals. Emperor Augustus, who transformed Rome into an imperial capital, promoted the emulation of classical Greek styles and motifs. His intention was for Rome to eventually surpass the lauded achievements of ancient Greece (C. Hemingway, 2007). Thus the copying of Greek art is linked to Roman imperial aspirations.

The original Apollo Sauroktonos is attributed to the Athenian sculptor Praxiteles, based on passages written by Pliny the Elder. The Cleveland Museum of Art claims to have procured the original Greek bronze sculpture, thought to be lost to time. There is much debate about the validity of this claim and the attribution of the sculpture to Praxiteles. But does it matter? We do not need to identify a definitive first Apollo Sauroktonos for the Apollo Sauroktonos in the Vatican Museums, excavated in 1778 on the Palatine Hill in Rome, to have value. Not only can we learn about Roman attitudes and aesthetics, but also about the systematic collecting practices of the Catholic church in the 18th century and papal sponsorship of archaeological excavations.

Second abstraction: Victorian plaster casts of Roman sculptures

The Slater Memorial Museum opened in 1888 displaying exclusively plaster casts of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculpture. The selection of art was carefully curated with the aim of educating the public and allowing them to contemplate the intrinsic beauty of classical art (Norwich Free Academy, 1889). Henry Watson Kent, the museum’s first curator, reflected in his memoir that it “was to be entirely a museum of reproductions, but of reproductions treated with the gravity and respect due their great originals” (1949, p. 39). Today the Slater Museum boasts one of the largest plaster cast displays in the country. Still on display, the casts continue to be used as teaching tools, a three-dimensional art history textbook, for both the general public and for students at the Norwich Free Academy. 

The history of plaster casts begins centuries earlier, in Renaissance Europe where the wealthy commissioned casts to decorate their homes and gardens. This trend spread to Colonial America; George Washington had casts of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar sent over from London to decorate Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson intended to decorate Monticello with casts of classical sculptures (McNutt, 1990, p. 160). Plaster casts were used to teach the values of Western civilization to artists and to “elevate” public taste.

Many museums, like the Slater and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), were founded with collections of casts. During the Victorian era between 1874 and 1905, European museums made casts of sculptures in their collections and sold them to American museums (Born, 2002). This arrangement worked well for Europeans who did not want to lose objects of their cultural heritage to the United States (Fahlman, 1991). Casting studios capitalized on this market. For example, Caproni and Brothers, founded in 1900, traveled around Europe making over a thousand direct molds which they used to create and sell casts out of their Boston studio. The plaster cast industry resulted in a canonization of classical works of art displayed in American museums. 

These museums eventually began acquiring original art and artifacts, and interest in plaster casts declined. In 1904, Matthew S. Prichard, the Assistant Director of the MFA, was vehemently against displaying casts in the galleries. He asserted that casts are “engines of education and should not be shown near objects of inspiration. They are data mechanically produced; our originals are works of art” (Whitehall, 2013, p. 202). He robs the cast of any artistic merit or ability to evoke inspiration. His perception of casts, shared by many others, also applies a double standard. Why not reject, too, works like the Apollo Sauroktonos at the Vatican Museums? Are the Roman marble copies not analogous to the Victorian plaster casts?

While many museums have relegated cast collections to storage facilities, sold them off, or otherwise let them deteriorate, a few like the Slater Museum still attest to the educational use of the replicas. Over a century after the plaster casts were made, they are historical artifacts which “do not merely replicate and embody famous ‘originals.’ Rather they testify to the reception and heritage of sculpture” (Nichols, 2006, p. 127). Looking at the history of casts, for example, we can learn about 19th century aspirations (Born, 2002). Americans attempted to elevate themselves culturally by appreciating a canonized European artistic heritage. Linked to the circulation of casts, we also see a rise in the reproduction of the classical body as an artistic ideal, which was subsequently dismissed by Modernists (Nichols, 2006).

Slater Museum’s casts are reproductions created from molds of the original sculptures, however they are not without some last minute modifications. Henry Watson Kent recounted events that transpired the day before the Slater Memorial Museum opened in 1888:

Somebody, somehow, had at the last moment thrown up horrified hands at the unconcealed naturalism of the Greek sculpture that was going to be displayed on the morrow. Cico, the plasterer, was called to the rescue with a sheaf of proper if hastily made fig leaves, and, after a bit of rushing round, the Museum was ready to be opened with, it was hoped, irreprochable dignity. A month later, some of the New York and Boston newspapers raised a hullaballoo about this desecration of pure art, with appropriate sneers at provincial prudery, but Norwich stood its ground. (1949, p. 42).

Alterations such as the addition of censoring fig leaves present on Apollo Sauroktonos and many other nude male sculptures reveal Victorian attitudes toward propriety. In addition, the cast of Apollo Sauroktonos at the Slater Museum differs in a few small ways from the one in the Vatican, namely the placement of the fingers of the right hand, the number and location of the tree branches, and the size of the lizard’s body. An investigation into these differences would elucidate the technology of plaster cast production as well as choices and perhaps shortcuts taken by the cast makers (artists? crafters?).

Third abstraction: Digital photographs of plaster casts

Interest in plaster casts revived in the 1990s, which corresponded both to a renewed interest in Roman sculpture for its own sake and to museum collections going online. As early as 1935, the philosopher Walter Benjamin considered the democratizing potential of photographs of art. He wrote, “technical reproduction can put the copy of the original into situations which would be out of reach for the original itself. Above all, it enables the original to meet the beholder halfway” (Benjamin, 1969). In some ways, an online collection mirrors that of a plaster cast exhibit, making art available to more and more people.

Indiscriminate and widespread digitization resists canonization, allowing members of the public and scholars alike to curate their own set of artifacts and artwork with endless possibilities. New advances in the digital humanities have even opened up big data to art historians, like the creation of a visual search engine that can detect attributes of digital representations of art (Seguin, 2018). 

However, along with the push to digitize came hesitations. Museums feared that if their collections were viewable online visitorship would decline. Actually, scholars of museum informatics have found that an online presence increases physical attendance at museums (Marty, 2010). Museums have also grappled with copyright issues and an unease in making images of their artwork available. Others have completely embraced open access, like The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which has waived their copyright for images of artwork in the public domain, and the Getty, which allows anyone to use their digital images for any purpose with no permission under their Open Content Program

During the COVID-19 pandemic, museums have virtually opened their doors to field trips. Especially now, students like myself are able to conduct productive research from quarantine thanks to online collections and archives. In my internship, I am writing the art historical and ethnographic sections of the Slater Memorial Museum Interpretation Manual which will be a training manual for future staff and volunteers. I am tracing the development of art historical trends exhibited within the museum’s permanent collections, including ancient sculpture from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, art from Africa, East Asia, and the Islamic World, and American fine and decorative arts.

In order to continue to act in their role as institutions to serve and educate the public, museums must have a substantial online presence. The images of and information on the plaster casts on the Slater Museum website provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the founding of the museum, the story of the casts, and the attributes and art historical significance of the works in the museum. Cornell University has a database of their bygone plaster cast collection, attempting to digitally reunite damaged and scattered collections and allow for the study of casts as a historical medium of the 19th and 20th century. 

Artwork of the past lives multiple lives (Bergmann, 1995). Their second and subsequent lives may be lived as replicas and photographs. The transition between lives, the act of reproduction, is a rich area of art historical and archaeological attention. The exact identity of the original ceases to be the object of fixation. Whether it be Roman marble replicas distributed through the empire, plaster casts sent off to American museums, or photographs hosted on a server accessible from any device with an Internet connection, copies have their own value.

Danielle Raad is a Public History Graduate Certificate Candidate and PhD candidate in Anthropology, UMass Amherst.  Her 2020 internship was supported with a Judith A. Barter Scholarship for UMass Public History interns.

Works Cited

Benjamin, W. (1969). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In H. Zohn (Trans.), Illuminations (p. 26). Schocken Books.

Bergmann, B. (1995). Greek Masterpieces and Roman Recreative Fictions. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 97, 79–120. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/311302

Born, P. (2002). The Canon Is Cast: Plaster Casts in American Museum and University Collections. Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, 21(2), 8–13. JSTOR.

Fahlman, B. (1991). A Plaster of Paris Antiquity: Nineteenth-Century Cast Collections. Southeastern College Art Conference Review, 12(1), 1–9.

Gazda, E. K. (1995). Roman Sculpture and the Ethos of Emulation: Reconsidering Repetition. Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 97, 121–156. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/311303

Kent, H. W. (1949). What I Am Pleased to Call My Education. Grolier Club.

Marty, P. F. (2010). Museum Informatics. In M. J. Bates & M. N. Maack (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition. Taylor & Francis. https://doi.org/10.1081/E-ELIS3

McNutt, J. K. (1990). Plaster Casts after Antique Sculpture: Their Role in the Elevation of Public Taste and in American Art Instruction. Studies in Art Education, 31(3), 158–167. JSTOR. https://doi.org/10.2307/1320763

Nichols, M. F. (2006). Plaster cast sculpture: A history of touch. Archaeological Review from Cambridge, 21(1), 114–130.

Norwich Free Academy. (1889). Catalogue and Brief Description of the Plaster Reproductions of the Greek and Italian Sculpture in the Slater Memorial Museum, Norwich, Conn. J. Wilson and Son, University Press.

Perry, E. E. (2010). Sculptural Copies and Copying. In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780195170726.001.0001/acref-9780195170726-e-1137

Seguin, B. (2018). The Replica Project: Building a visual search engine for art historians. XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 24(3), 24–29. https://doi.org/10.1145/3186653

Whitehall, W. M. (2013). The Battle of the Casts. In Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: A Centennial History, Volume I. Harvard University Press. https://hup.degruyter.com/view/title/323589

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