Cast Courts (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Cast Courts (Victoria and Albert Museum)

The Cast Courts (originally called the Architectural Courts [page 182, European Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, Paul Williamson Editor 1996] ) of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, comprise two large halls. Unusually for a museum, the Cast Courts house a collection not of originals, but copies. Here are to be found reproductions of some of the most famous sculptures in the world. Most of the copies were made in the 19th century and in many cases the copies have better resisted the ravages of time, 20th-century pollution and over-zealous conservation than the originals.

The Courts were designed by Major General Henry Scott of the Royal Engineers and were opened to the public in July 1873. The Courts are architecturally dramatic: they are large and high, topped by a roof of glass that admits sunlight which is supplemented by electric lights. The two Courts are divided by corridors on two levels; the mid-level corridor allows the Courts to be viewed from above. The Court that includes Trajan's Column also has a high walkway around it at a third level; this walkway is not open to the public. It is said that the proportions of the West Court were informed by the need to display Trajan's column and the imposing "Portico de la Gloria".

The West Court predominantly contains casts of Northern European and Spanish sculpture and Trajan's Column. The East Court has casts of Italian monuments.


The practice of reproducing famous sculptures in plaster dates back to the sixteenth century when Leone Leoni assembled a collection of casts in Milan, he collected: "as many of the most celebrated works... carved and cast, antique and modern as he was able to obtain anywhere". Such private collections, however, remained modest and uncommon until the 18th century. By 1800 there were extensive collections in Berlin, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere.

Early in the 19th century there was growing interest in medieval art, and, perhaps as an expression of national pride, casts were made of outstanding national monuments particularly in France and Germany.

In Britain, from 1841 onwards, a collection of art from all periods and countries was being assembled by the Government School of Design. In 1852 this collection was taken over by the Museum of Manufactures when it was established at Marlborough House. At this time casts were regarded as an essential part of the collection.

Marlborough House was small and the space available for the museum's collection of casts was felt to be inadequate. In 1858 the museum moved to its current location in South Kensington and the casts were displayed in various corridors and galleries. By around 1860 the previously haphazard means of acquisition was supplemented by a more systematic approach: a list was drawn up of copies it was thought desirable to acquire and soon plans were drawn up to house them. In contrast to other national collections, the collection at the V&A was conceived as being international in scope.

Casts were acquired throughout the 1860s and 70s. Many of the casts were commissioned by the Museum or purchased from French or German firms. Other casts were obtained through exchange with other museums. In 1864 plans for an international exchange of copies of 'the finest works of art which each country possesses' were drawn up; the assistance of the Foreign Office's was sought to obtain lists of major works in the possession of other European governments. This ambitious scheme culminated in 15 European princes being persuaded to sign up to the 'International Convention of promoting universally Reproductions of Works of Art' at the Paris International Exhibition.

Major exhibits

Trajan's Column

The full height of Trajan's Column could not possibly be accommodated and the column is divided into two roughly equal parts. The original column in Rome is some 30m high and included an internal spiral staircase which led to a platform at the top. The cast is of the huge pedestal and the entire column, but excludes the viewing platform. The original statue on the top was lost in antiquity. The pedestal is covered in illustrations of booty from the Dacian Wars and the column is covered in a detailed frieze illustrating the conquest of Dacia by the Roman emperor Trajan.

The frieze spirals around the column and is in narrative form something like a comic strip. There were in fact two wars against Dacia, the first (AD 101–102) is illustrated in the lower portion of the column, and the second (AD 105–106) in the upper portion. The dividing point on the column is marked by a personification of Victory writing on a shield and this is approximately the point at which the cast of the column is divided.

The column was cast in many small parts and these parts were reconstituted on brick chimney-like structures built especially for the purpose. Just as on the original there is a door on the cast of the pedestal that affords access to the interior, but within the cast there is nothing to be seen but the white painted interior of the brick chimney. The upper portion is similarly hollow, but there is no means of access and presumably it has not been visited since it was built.

In Rome, the frieze is extremely difficult to see. Unfortunately, viewing conditions in the museum are hardly any better. The lower section is atop a huge pedestal some 4m high. Consequently, the only part of the frieze that can be examined closely by the public is the bottom of the upper portion. The mid-level corridor does afford an alternative view albeit at a distance and only from one side. The upper-level walkway looks down on the column and does give views all round, but at a significant distance and this is not open to the public.

When the courts first opened to the public they attracted much attention although the initial press reaction was mixed. The "Art Journal" was particularly critical of the inclusion of Trajan's Column which had the 'effect of crowding out of sight those (casts) of more sensible proportions' — a criticism that seems justified. Today's visitor might wonder what the effect would have been if the column's frieze had been reconstructed in an unrolled manner and presented at eye level, as it is at the Museum of Roman Civilization and National Museum of Romanian History. [ [] Dead link|date=March 2008]

Portico de la Gloria

The portal, known as the "Portico de la Gloria" is from the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The original dates from the 12th century and is by the Master Mateo. [ [ Portico de la Gloria by MASTER MATEO] ] The casting of this immense structure required an arduous sea voyage and protracted, delicate negotiations with the ecclesiastical authorities.

At the opening of the Cast Courts, the cast of the "Portico de la Gloria" was critically acclaimed and was applauded as a "glory to the museum".

Baptistry Doors

This copy is an Electrotype of the Florence Baptistry Doors known as the Gates of Paradise by Lorenzo Ghiberti.

chool of Athens

There is a painted copy of Raphael's School of Athens over 4 metres by 8 metres in size, dated 1755 by Anton Raphael Mengs on display in the eastern Cast Court.

Pulpit from Pisa Cathedral

A plaster cast of Giovanni Pisano's pulpit from Pisa Cathedral.

Three Davids

Michelangelo's David was the museum's first major cast of Italian figure sculpture. It was acquired in 1857 when it was sent as a gift from the Grand Duke of Tuscany to Queen Victoria — apparently in an attempt to placate English anger at his refusal to allow the National Gallery to export Ghirlandaio's Madonna Enthroned. The gift was entirely unexpected and the Queen promptly gave the cast to the then South Kensington Museum which is now the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In the reign of Queen Victoria, displays of male nudity was contentious and the Queen herself was said to find it shocking. The museum commissioned a suitably proportioned fig leaf that was kept in readiness in case of a visit by the Queen or other female dignitary: the fig leaf was then hung on the figure using a pair of hooks. Today, the fig leaf is no longer used, but it is displayed in a case at the back of the cast's plinth. [ [ David's Fig Leaf — Victoria and Albert Museum] ]

Donatello's bronze statue of David (circa 1440s) is notable as the first unsupported standing work in bronze cast since classical times. The cast is painted to resemble the bronze of the original.

Replicas of two earlier Davids, one by Donatello and another by Verrocchio.

Other notable casts

Early in the 20th century, there was something of a reaction against copying works of art and interest in the collection — and other similar collections — declined. Only more recently has revivied interest in the collection, led to once again, it being fully appreciated.

In recent years, the Cast Courts have been used to display the works of contemporary artists. From November 2003 until June 2004, artist Rachel Whiteread's cast of Room 101: the BBC office where George Orwell worked some years before writing his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-four. The original room 101 was demolished in the restructuring of Broadcasting House. [ [ Archive: Reports: BBC Broadcasting House Commissions Programme] ] [ [ Rachel Whiteread: Untitled (Room 101) — Victoria and Albert Museum —] ]


External links

* [ The Cast Courts — Victoria and Albert Museum]
* [ "A story of two halves: The Trajan column cast"] , by Diane Bilbey.
* cite web |publisher= Victoria and Albert Museum
title= The Cast Collection
accessdate= 2007-09-22

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