Renaissance Casts

Plaster cast copying reached its peak in the Renaissance, particularly in the sixteenth century. Artists sought to recreate and perfect nature - thought to be the purest source of artistic inspriation - through copying. In this they were following in the footsteps of Classical artists who, as they believed, had also used nature as a subject for art. Renaissance artists wanted to copy and improve on Classical ideals for proportion, harmony, and visual aesthetics, partiularly with reference to the human body.  

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). More information.

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.

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.

Next: 19th and 20th century Casts