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Renaissance Casts

04 November 2023

Juvenal, the Roman writer and poet, commented rather cynically on the use of plaster casts for decorative purposes.

They’re ignorant, though their houses you’ll find filled with plaster busts of Chrysippus; for the most perfect is he who’s bought the most lifelike Aristotle, or Pittacus, and ordered an antique Cleanthes to watch over his bookcase. Put no trust in appearances. (Juvenal, Satires, 2.1-35, from A.S. Kline, 2011,

Juvenal’s passage allows us to understand that plaster casts were used for artistic purposes as well as being easy to purchase and replicate. In cases like Juvenal has described, casts could be bought to reflect positively upon the status of the owner. Literary evidence such as this shows that contrasting views on casts were topical to the ancient Romans.

Plaster copies used during the process of design work in the Renaissance were seen as valuable objects and educational tools. Used during the process of sculpting, the intermediary plaster casts were useful for teaching perfection, imitation and the process of reproduction. Plaster casts were used by both beginner and experienced artists as models for sculpting.

Reproductions of art in plaster casts increased substantially during the High Renaissance in the beginning of the sixteenth century. Works of Michelangelo and Donatello reached a celebrity-like status and demands for copies were huge. Private collections owned by royalty and aristocratic families were popular, as there was a desire to associate themselves with the status of artists, as well
as to flaunt their cultural knowledge. Plaster casts of famous works developed a prestige of their own, and workshops intended specifically for the creation of plaster casts became common.

Intaglio; chalcedony; head of Minerva to left in plain helmet, on side of which is owl in relief; signed. This gem was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941 and is known only from the surviving cast (made in the 18th century) which was not on display at the time. British Museum, 1799,0521.80.a. (AN713240001)

Josiah Wedgwood, practicing in the eighteenth century, believed that copies displayed good taste in both educated and uneducated people, and could train the eye to appreciate the quality of Classical art. In his words, “the more copies there are of any works, as of the Venus Medici, the more celebrated the original will be.” The value of casts, and their effect on the prestige of the original artwork, is still debated today.

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