A short introduction to three of the principal agents in my research at the Museum of Classical Archaeology:
Domenico Brucciani (1815-1880)
Brucciani, a formatore from Lucca, was manufacturing and selling plaster casts in London from 1829. Having supplied the Government Schools of Design, British Museum and South Kensington Museum with casts, he opened a showroom near Covent Garden called the Galleria delle Belle Arti in 1864. His obituary in The Builder offered the following endorsement: ‘Although chiefly a plasterman in calling, he was an artist at heart’. After his death, the business was purchased by a fellow Italian, Joseph Caproni (1846-1900), who retained the name D. Brucciani & Co. It is this incarnation of the business that supplied many of the plaster casts to the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Museum of Classical Archaeology.
Sidney Colvin (1845-1927)
Colvin usefully bridges the gap between classics and fine art for the purposes of this project. He studied classics at Trinity College and became a fellow in 1868. Having established a reputation for writing on the fine arts in the periodical press, he held the position of Slade professor of fine art in Cambridge between 1873 and 1885. During this time, he also took the post of director of the Fitzwilliam Museum and was instrumental in the establishment of the Museum of Classical Archaeology. Colvin’s views on art were very much informed by John Ruskin, to whom we now turn…
John Ruskin (1819-1900)
Ruskin perhaps remains the most well known commentator on the visual arts in the nineteenth century. He is of interest to this project for his role in the inauguration of the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, at which he delivered an important address on art education that was subsequently published as a pamphlet and much discussed in the periodical press. His central argument was that Schools of Art should teach operatives and artisans to see, rather than blindly copying their way to empty technical facility. Ruskin’s connection to Cambridge continued through visiting lectures and a donation of 25 drawings by Turner to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1861.
This project will investigate the nineteenth century plaster casts of the Museum of Classical Archaeology and the mechanisms through which casts were acquired until the Museum established its own discrete identity in 1884. The origins of the Museum have been addressed in an important article by Professor Mary Beard and in the two decades since its publication, scholarship on plaster casts and other facsimiles has proliferated and new approaches to the subject have been established.
Building on my doctoral research into teaching collections for mid-nineteenth century art and design education, this project aims to trace the particular conditions of production, acquisition and display related to this collection. It will be particularly useful to determine the degree to which the manufacture, circulation and interpretation of these plaster casts intersected with those distributed to the national network of Government Schools of Design from the 1840s onwards, through which plaster casts of antique statuary were deployed as instruments for the instruction of industrial design.
It will also be important to establish the extent to which the Cambridge School of Art, founded in 1858 with the support of John Ruskin (1819-1900), appropriated the collection of plaster casts for the teaching of drawing. The intersections between classics, archaeology and the practice of fine art were embodied in Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge from 1873 and Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum from 1876. Colvin’s donations to the Museum will therefore form a specific area of investigation.
I hope this body of research will extend the understanding of the early collections of the Museum of Classical Archaeology through their use as pedagogic objects across the disciplines of fine art, industrial design, classics, art history and archaeology. Although oriented towards the history and historiography of the collection, this study may also point towards new ways of interpreting these objects for different audiences.