One of the most iconic images of Judith is Donatello’s bronze sculpture in the courtyard of the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence – discussed in “Judith enters politics” back in 2011. While my holiday will NOT take me to Florence (this time!), it will allow me to visit a plaster cast taken from the original.
Why a plaster cast? According to the V&A:
The collecting of plaster casts reached the height of its popularity in the mid to late 19th century. At that time few people in the UK could afford to travel to mainland Europe, so museums acquired reproductions of important monuments and works of art to complement their collections. Art schools collected plaster casts so students could study and draw from the best examples of classical and Renaissance sculpture. Individuals and collectors bought casts for their own personal interest or to decorate their homes.
Plaster casts were so popular, in fact, that V&A has two “Cast Courts.” The East Court (Gallery 46a) has a high ceiling and has casts of Italian monuments. The West Court (Gallery 46b) is topped by a roof of glass that admits sunlight and predominantly contains casts of Northern European and Spanish sculpture and Trajan’s Column. The Cast Courts opened to the public in July 1873 with almost 100 reproductions to provide an eclectic and “aristocratic grand tour for the armchair explorer, conveniently compressed into two rooms.” (1)
In August 1892 the Italian Government gave the rare opportunity to cast Donatello’s sculpture. I mean, obviously they were not going to sell off one of the most important autographed work by Donatello and obviously there was a clammer to see it but those who could not travel to Florence. The casting was done by the Florentine-based plaster cast manufacturer, Oronzio Lelli — the official mould maker of the Royal Galleries in Florence. Oddly, it does not reside in the Cast Courts but is on display in the Simon Sainsbury Gallery in the Medieval and Renaissance gallery (Room 64b). <sniff> Probably because they had to make room for THREE plaster casts of David in the Cast Court, those misogynists.
Of course in modern times, reproductions have fallen into disfavor. When the galleries were once crowded with plaster cast reproductions, they have now been thinned — but still give an idea to the space that thrilled the Victorians and admiration for the works they reproduced.
See you at the V&A!