Discovery, reception and diffusion of classical art
The making and collecting of plaster casts from the antique is a result of the discovery in Rome of famous pieces, such as the
Laocoon Group, from around 1500. Michelangelo witnessed the discovery in 1506 and quickly identified the sculpture with one mentioned
by the Roman writer Pliny in the 1st century AD. Sansovino, among others, restored parts of the group, and Primaticcio had a cast
made for Fontainebleau.
There were earlier discoveries. A famous example is the Belvedere Torso which Cyriac of Ancona saw in Florence in the 1430s and
which the sculptor Andrea Bregno may have owned. Michelangelo esteemed it so highly that it was for some time known as 'Michelangelo's Torso'.
Much earlier, in 1165, Spinario, the bronze statue of a boy extracting a thorn from his foot, was recorded outside the Lateran
Palace in Rome where some monuments had probably remained visible from antiquity. In the Middle Ages they were seen as mirabilia
marvels. Later, as more examples were discovered, they became notabilia - things worthy of note.
Plaster casts were expensive to make and transport; diplomacy at the highest level was often needed to secure permission for the
taking of moulds. For example, François Ier needed the Pope's permission to have copies made of
his statues for Fontainebleau. For centuries the diffusion of knowledge of antique sculpture was primarily through the
two-dimensional medium of the engraving, not the three-dimensional plaster cast.
- Engraving of the Laocoon Group