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Despite war and wasting fire

In its simplest definition, a cast is a physical, 3D copy of another object. For ancient historians, casts were a common method to make a record of archaeological objects and create a supplementary object that can be displayed elsewhere.

Yet as Emma Payne argues in her brilliant new book, casts are not just replications of ‘original’ items. They are objects in their own right, with their own histories and secrets to tell. They are also, in some cases, ‘false copies’. Close study has also shown that some casts of ancient statues were often reconstructions, with broken sections joined together or new appendages or faces fabricated in clay for the purpose of creating a more aesthetic cast. 

Payne writes:

Casts are not pure, cryogenically frozen versions of their originals; they are separate entities with their own distinct origins and histories.

We must think about casts as more than ‘copies’.

Casts have a long history, beginning in antiquity, but their modern history begins in the Renaissance with workshops in Rome specialiasing in making copies of ancient sculpture, many of which were Roman period copies of ancient Greek masterpieces. 

Some of these copies were cast in bronze, but a lot were copied in the cheaper and lighter ‘plaster of paris’ (named after the Parisian gypsum mines which had been the source of a key ingredient in the medieval period). 

These casts were often collected by Kings and other political leaders, demonstrating their ‘social capital’.

King Charles I of England and Scotland ordered a full set, as it were, including the Borghese Gladiator, the Belvedere Antinous and Commodus as Hercules, all in bronze. When that monarchy was abolished, the government sold the collection but Oliver Cromwell held on to the Antinous.

The expansion of educational institutions in the nineteenth and early twentieth century saw an expansion in the demand for casts. In the UK several museums and universities had large collections. These are often said to provide opportunities to people unable to travel to Europe to see the ‘original’ sculpture, yet they were often elite presentations in their own right.

Oxford began its cast collection in 1884, which you can still view in the Ashmolean Museum, alongside ‘original’ antiquities. The collection’s first cataloguer separated casts of “originals” from casts of “copies”, referring to the Roman copies and Greek originals. Ancient sculpture also has the added issue that some statues were heavily ‘restored’ or in fact fabricated in the early modern period. As research revealed later additions to statues, the curators in the Ashmolean amended their casts accordingly.

The importance of casts to the spread of art history is often less obvious. Early publications often used photos of casts rather than the originals, as they were easier to manipulate to get the most effective and ‘objective’ shots.

Casts were also used as archaeological tools around this time, beginning with excavations at Olympia in the 1870s and at Delphi in the early 1890s.

Casts fell out of flavor in the Twentieth Century, perhaps due to the expansion of cheaper international tourism. Their popularity returned in the Twenty First Century. One positive sign of this, in Britain at least, is the restoration of the V&A’s Casts Gallery.

The Parthenon Marbles are a late, but crucial part of this history. 

In 1798, Lord Sir Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin was made British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul. He had lofty aims for his time and wanted to make records of ancient Greek art available to the public. He assembled a crack team around him. Failing to get the services of JMW Turner, he employed Lusieri, a Neapolitian painter recommended to him by Sir William Hamilton, the British Ambassador to Naples.

Thanks to the complex geo-political wrangling of France and Britain, Elgin received authorization to take sketches and casts of the Parthenon Marbles, and to take away ‘any pieces of stone’ with engravings or inscriptions. The copying project soon became a large-scale ‘excavation’, as scaffolding was put up and stones that survived millennia were brutally hacked off. Elgin ended up with nearly half the frieze which had surrounded the outside of the temple and casts of the blocks which proved too hard to take.

The casts made by Elgin’s team were presented alongside the ‘original’ for many years to provide visitors in London a comprehensive sense of the entire sculpture.

The moulds offer important sources of evidence for scholars of the parthenon.

In 1929, the Illustrated London News ran a spread comparing moulds taken by Elgin and the sculptures still on the parthenon. These show clear signs of damage. This has often been blamed on atmospheric pollution which increased exponentially over the 130 years, and only got worse in the Twentieth Century.

Digital scans of the moulds made by Elgin in 1802, the moulds commissioned by Charles Merlin, in 1872 and scans made by Payne in the Acropolis Museum in 2015 show that this damage was not evenly spread throughout these years. Most damage happened between 1802 and 1872, at a stage before pollution was as critical as it later became.

Later Payne argues that the damage to the engravings was less the result of natural weathering processes (including pollution), but instead “violence enacted on the marble”. 

We could argue Science is only catching up with art and this research only proves Lord Byron’s words

Lo! here, despite of war and wasting fire,
I saw successive tyrannies expire.
Scaped from the ravage of the Turk and Goth,
Thy country sends a spoiler worse than both

Payne’s new book is a fascinating study of the history of casts and 3D visualization, highlighting much of what can still be revealed about the history of the Parthenon Marbles.

Yet it sidesteps, what is for me, an important consideration: who owns the moral right to grant permission to make copies of the marbles. This issue will only become more pressing as the question of repatriation becomes more vocal.

The British Museum claims its legal right of ownership on shaky foundations. Any previsory study of the accounts given by Elgin and his agents makes it clear that they knowingly exceeded the authorisation given them to make molds, sketch and take away stones. It is likely they bribed local Ottoman officials, to overlook them breaking the law.  

Yet as long as the Museum holds a large share of the Marbles, it also retains a power over access. 

The Nefertiti bust, currently held by Berlin’s Neues Museum, also has a long and contentious history since its discovery in the early twentieth century. The Museum made 3D scans of the bust, which it refused to release publicly as it would “threaten its commercial interests.” 

In 2016, high quality 3D scans were made freely accessible on the internet. Nora al-Badri and Jan Nikolai Nelles claimed they had made the scans themselves by smuggling in a scanner under their coats, but the quality was too good. Experts quickly realized the data was actually hacked from the Museum itself. This led the German artist Cosmo Wenman to get access to the data. After three years,  the Museum released the scan but put a Creative Commons Attribution copyright notice on the bottom of the sculpture, whose legal basis has been questioned. Michael Weinberg writes that the sign acts as a ‘giant “keep out” sign’. 

The case sets a moral precedent for visualizations.

To me it is clear that the moral right of ownership both physical and digital, of original and copy, belongs squarely with the Greek nation. Britain has produced nothing of comparable artistic or cultural value with the exception of a few literary greats (Shakespeare, Jones, Goldstone) and so fails to understand the unjustness of its position.

To gaze at the parthenon marbles is to see an instant of time set in eternity. It is to understand what Eliot meant when he wrote “at the still point, there the dance is”.

The marbles transcend both their physicality and are defined by it. They belong in Athens, and yet belong to the world. Casts are not just the solution to the questions of ownership and access, but also seem strangely suited to the sensual sculptured stone of Phidias which still speak to us across the millennia.

Casting the Parthenon Sculptures from the Eighteenth Century to the Digital Age by Emma M. Payne is published by Bloomsbury Academic.