Page 88 - Montecito Journal Glossy Edition Winter Spring 2012/13

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one of the most astounding features of the V&A. Originally called the
“Architectural Courts,” the two huge galleries were designed by military
engineer General Henry Scott. The new configuration enabled the cast
collection to be gathered in one place, rather than spread haphazardly
throughout the museum. A massive scale was specifically used in order
to accommodate the largest pieces in the V&A’s cast collection, which
include the Portico from Santiago de Compostela, and Michelangelo’s
David, which stands over eighteen feet tall. But even triple-height
ceilings aren’t high enough to fit Trajan’s Column, which is divided into
two cylinders. The cast collection is distributed between the two courts,
with the west court containing casts of works from Spain, Northern
Europe, and Trajan’s Column, while the east court is dedicated to casts
from Italian works.
Predictably, some criticism of the Cast Courts began as soon as they
were opened to the public. One publication, the
Art Journal
, complained
about the paint colors used on the walls (which were retained for
more than fifty years, despite the nitpicking). Others have noted that
the panels of Trajan’s Column, of which a few casts have been made,
are installed in a more reader-friendly fashion in other museums. For
example, in Italy’s Museo della Civiltà Romana (Museum of Roman
Civilization), the triumphal frieze is displayed as a horizontal series
of panels, which makes it undeniably easier to see the depictions of
Emperor Trajan’s second century conquest of Dacia (an area that now
encompasses parts of Bulgaria, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Serbia
and Ukraine). But the eye-level installation negates the towering
monumentality of Trajan’s Column, even if the Cast Court’s version
cut in half, displayed in two sections, and missing the viewing platform
and bronze statue of Saint Peter (added by Pope Sixtus V in 1587) that
crowns the original. The base alone is thirteen feet high, establishing the
colossal scale from ground level. It’s odd to stand next to it, looking at
what are actually the middle panels, here seen as the bottom part of the
upper half of the artificially bisected column.
Within a few short years of the 1873 opening of the Cast Courts, the
influential German art historian, curator and museum director Wilhelm
von Bode (1845-1929) is said to have argued that “a small fragment of
an original was of far greater value than a complete cast of a masterpiece.”
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