The art and craft of cast-making and manipulation.
Many of the casts in the Battle cast collection are Roman "copies" of lost Greek originals (or perhaps mash-ups that just look like originals). We know that the Romans often used precision methods to create accurate, scaled copies in marble of Greek originals in both stone and bronze, using a technique known as "pointing". With the rediscovery of ancient sculpture from the 18th century on, however, came a new interest in making plaster copies of the Greek and Roman sculptures emerging from the ground in Rome and at sites like Pompeii. The casting process had the advantage of involving a mold that could be reused numerous times, making it possible for a mass market in plaster casts to develop over the course of the 19th century.
The cast making technique is an art process involving several steps and requiring time, patience, and practice to master. First, a mold of the original object is made. For large or complex objects, molds are made in several pieces so as not to risk damaging the original object or subsequent cast(s) when it is released. Next, the mold is released and, when necessary, reassembled to reveal a hollow impression of the original object in 3D. Then, the casting material is applied to the mold; small objects or particularly fragile elements tend to be cast of solid material, while larger objects can be hollow. In the case of Battle’s plaster casts this step involves the application of several layers of plaster, the last of which is mixed with a stabilizing material—the Caproni casts use burlap, for instance—and set with an armature of wood or metal rods to prevent the finished cast from collapsing in on itself. When used, the interior armature often remains visible in casts with multiple parts: wooden braces are readily visible in the open ends of Battle’s Parthenon Goddesses when the two sections are separated. Finally, the cured cast is removed from the mold and finished by hand to smooth any rough edges, add delicate details, and apply the selected sealant, polychromy, or patina. This process has remained generally unchanged since the lost wax casting technique was developed in the ancient world and used in making prestigious art objects, including the original Greek Charioteer sculpture of which a plaster cast is present in Battle’s collection.
Plaster casts of sculpture and architectural decoration rose to the height of fashion in 19th century Europe and America, when museums, schools, and private consumers alike rushed to build collections that would broadcast an elite status of worldliness and “good” taste. Among the top producers of plaster casts were P.P. Caproni and Brother (now Caproni Collection) in Boston and August Gerber in Cologne, both of whom established special connections with international museums and galleries—for example, the Louvre, the National Museum in Athens, the Vatican, the Uffizi Gallery, and the British Museum—allowing their artisans to enter and make molds directly from masterpieces. These companies then made casts available for purchase through illustrated catalogs distributed directly to consumers. Rather than selecting from prefabricated items, the casting technique meant consumers could personalize each advertised cast according to their own taste. Within catalogs, casts were offered in a range of sizes and with custom finishes thought to preserve their ideal Classicism—often white, ivory glaze, or bronze patina, but never polychromy; selections of variously shaped pedestals and bases provided for additional display options; some nudes, such as the Kouros from Tenea, had the option of a removable fig leaf for when modesty was a condition of the cast’s display; and consumers preferring an ideal over the authentic form could even select limbs be added to a cast when the original object lacked them, as with Battle’s Charioteer. Combined, the broad range of customizations available for plaster casts speaks to the preference of aesthetics over accuracy by 19th and 20th century consumers who wished to establish personal connections to a fabricated Classical past.