The Hall of Architecture, with its collection of over 140 plaster casts of architectural masterpieces from the past, opened in 1907. At that time, collections of casts were numerous in both Europe and the United States. Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection survives today as the largest architectural cast collection in the country, rivaled internationally only by collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and in the Musée National des Monuments Français, Paris. Pittsburgh’s architectural cast collection is distinguished for having remained essentially intact in the grand skylit space designed especially for it, Architecture Hall, which was itself inspired by one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. Having persisted through changes of taste and decades of public exhibition, the Hall of Architecture offers an opportunity to appreciate a cultural phenomenon of international scope.
Guided by the view that a replica of a masterpiece was superior to a mediocre original, collectors from the time of Rome’s first emperor until the early 20th century amassed great plaster-cast collections of recognized masterworks. As early as the fourth century BCE, the Greeks made plaster casts of famous marble statues. In Roman times, the passion for Greek sculpture resulted in the reproduction of works of art. Plaster casts were also popular during the Renaissance, when the “rebirth” of antiquity influenced artistic taste. By the late 18th century, inspired by new archaeological finds, collections of plaster casts could be found in most European cities.
In the 19th century, the demand for plaster casts skyrocketed. As centerpieces of the great international fairs, casts nourished nationalistic pride, while independent cast “galleries” served the Victorian fervor for education by providing instruction to both the amateur and the art student. Also, the dominance of historical styles in premodern architecture required that the architecture student study the outstanding buildings of the past; in this pursuit, plaster casts played an essential role.
Andrew Carnegie’s Vision
By 1907, under the enthusiastic leadership of Andrew Carnegie, Carnegie Institute’s collection totaled 144 architectural casts, 69 plaster reproductions of sculpture, and 360 replicas in bronze (on view at the rear of the Hall of Architecture). This collection of casts was, on the whole, representative of the times. The beloved favorites from classical antiquity—the Apollo Belvedere, the Venus de Milo, the Nike of Samothrace, the famous discus thrower by Myron—can all be found here, as well as such Gothic masterpieces as the Florence Baptistry doors. The inclusion of several Romanesque pieces, notably the facade of St.-Gilles-du-Gard, which was reproduced in its entirety directly from the original, added depth to the collection. By means of plaster casts, the world’s masterpieces of sculpture and architecture were brought to Pittsburgh, where everyone, not just those who could afford to travel, could study their form and detail in full scale.
Today, due to the widespread reaction against copying works from the past and to the fragility of original works of art, few casts are being made. While most other collections have been either dispersed or destroyed, Carnegie Museum of Art’s collection has endured as an exhibition of world-class significance.