The practice of creating plaster casts dates to antiquity. According to Pliny the Elder (N.H. 35.153), Lystratos, brother of the Greek sculptor Lysippos, was the first artist to create "an image of a man in plaster taken from the surface (of the body) itself."(1) As early as the fourth century BCE, artists began using plaster to make realistic copies of the human body, and often to reproduce famous sculptures. By the 15th century, artists were using casts in their studios, not only as sources of inspiration but also as important pedagogical tools. Students training in these ateliers were thus able to study canonical masterworks from antiquity and, later, the "Old Masters" first-hand; even if, as some might argue, these casts were at one remove from the original and, therefore, somehow inferior.
Beginning in the 16th century, European Crowns began adding casts to their royal collections. Not surprisingly, plaster casts also grew in popularity amongst aristocrats and society's élite who, wanting to emulate wealthy heads of state, favored them as souvenirs from their travels abroad. By the 18th century, casts were increasingly common; a reflection of the raging "antico-mania" as well as the growing taste for these objects both in European museums and university collections, and, later, the United States, where institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (founded in 1870) began collecting them almost immediately for educational purposes.
In the first half of the 20th century, however, the tradition of displaying casts started to change in the America, and casts were no longer as popular as they had once been: many were relegated to warehouses or simply discarded as relics of a passing fad. Now, at the close of the first decade of the 21st century, the popularity of casts is once again ascendant, with older collections being re-evaluated in a fresh light and new collections being formed.
The renowned collection of historic casts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA) has, over the years, been largely dispersed among university collections both in the U.S. and in Europe. Fairfield is among the recipients of the MMA's largesse, beginning in 1991 when the University received a number of casts from the museum on long-term renewable loan. Subsequent gifts from the MMA to Fairfield University were made in 2004 and 2009.
-Mara Giarratana Young '11, with Drs. Katherine Schwab and Jill Deupi, and Michael Keropian
(1) K.A. Schwab, Casting the Past: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Cast Collection at Fairfield University (1994), 4, quoting J.J. Pollitt, The Art of Ancient Greece: Sources and Documents (Cambridge, 1990), 104.