Once destined for dumpsters, U of I’s collection of plaster friezes from Greece’s Parthenon are now recognized as priceless snapshots in time.
The songwriter Joni Mitchell famously crooned in the 1970s that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
She was protesting the “paving of paradise” but the director of U of I’s Spurlock Museum, Wayne Pitard, could say the same about beautiful plaster reproductions that were once a mainstay of museum collections worldwide. In a flurry of house cleaning from the 1940s to the 1970s, leading museums abandoned these once-popular reproductions, many of them centuries old, in favor of originals only.
“You might say it was luck that the World Heritage Museum [the predecessor of U of I’s Spurlock Museum] was too broke at the time to hire the staff to throw ours out, otherwise today we would not be glorying in the collection we have,” says Pitard.
Pitard is standing before one of the museum’s most famous collections of plaster casts—45 casts of friezes from Greece’s 2,400-year-old temple to Athena, the Parthenon. The casts turn 100 this year—as does the museum itself—and are symbolic of the sometimes unexpected role that museums play in preserving human cultural heritage.
The original friezes, which are at the British Museum and to a lesser degree museums in Paris and Athens, were carved in massive slabs of marble and encircled a 524-foot inner colonnade of the Parthenon. They depict a procession of horsemen, townspeople, and gods that are remarkable for their vitality and also for being groundbreaking in their day—they were the first Greek art to tell a continuous story.
The greatness of these classical pieces is evident in the collection at Spurlock, as is something else.
“See Aphrodite and Eros,” says Pitard, pointing towards the god and goddess in the all-important culmination of the procession. “You won’t find that in the British Museum.”
The replicas attract scholars and artists from across the country to Spurlock, according to Pitard, because the replicas were cast from the earliest molds made of the Parthenon, and like time capsules, preserve details lost in the originals.
“It is one of the largest and most unique collections of the friezes in the United States,” says Pitard. “There is a museum in Switzerland that has the complete collection of friezes from the same era. But we have 45. More than any other American museum.”
The University of Illinois got into the business of buying the frieze casts in 1911 when the ambitious, young university opened a classical museum on the fourth floor of the then-new Lincoln Hall. Among the first purchases by its curator, Arthur Pease, were 40 of the 83 Parthenon frieze slabs (five more were purchased years later). His source was P.P. Caproni Brothers of Boston, the best plaster cast studio in the country at the time.
The original molds were made in Greece in 1787, by Louis Fauvel, an artist and French consul stationed in Athens who was unsuccessful in pilfering the original marbles and, instead, settled on making reproductions. The Parthenon had remained remarkably intact for 2,000 years until 1687 when Venetian troops lobbed a canon ball into the temple, where the Turkish troops stored gunpowder. The resulting explosion blew off the roof and destroyed the north and south sides, leaving only the west and east ends standing.
Fauvel’s making of molds of the frieze 100 years later was fortuitous, because a few years afterwards many of the marble blocks, now mostly lying on the ground, were vandalized. That his casts predate the serious damage is why the details they preserve are so important.
A decade later Britain’s Lord Elgin proved more resourceful and shipped crates of sculptures and friezes to England in what some consider the greatest pilfering of antiquities in history. Elgin eventually sold his collection to the British Museum for a small fortune, where they remain today. The scale of his appropriation was scandalous, even for the age that glorified plundering, and it is still a source of tension between Greece and Britain.
Casts were popular when travel was limited, and the replication in plaster allowed greater numbers of people to experience the world’s masterpieces.
When travel abroad became more commonplace after World War II, museums sought authenticity in their quest to remain relevant, and either mothballed or simply tossed their casts in dumpsters like mementos of a failed love affair. Pitard says there were even rumors of cast-smashing parties at U of I during that time.
Poor finances spared the collection now housed in the Spurlock Museum—the museum too broke to pay for staff to discard them. By the time the museum’s finances had improved in the 1970s, so had scholars’ opinions of old casts.
A steady stream of scholars—including the future Academy Award-winning animator Paul Debevec—began showing up at the museum to study its collection. Debevec, who teaches computer graphics at the University of Southern California and is an Urbana native, visited in 1989 and was taken by the friezes and the Parthenon’s remarkable story of survival. Eventually he incorporated scans of the friezes into his animated re-creation of the Parthenon, which has appeared in PBS’s NOVA, National Geographic’s Treasure Wars, the Louvre, and the 2004 Olympics.
Today they are recognized as gems. Only about a third of the original Fauvel molds still exist, according to Robert Shure, owner of Giust Gallery, which now owns what remains of the Caproni collection. Thus collections made from the original Fauvel molds—such as Spurlock’s—are rare.
“What I like about this situation,” says Pitard, referring to the casts, “is that they were considered worthless for 50 years and now they turn out to be invaluable.”
Apparently, you sometimes can save a little bit of paradise.
By Holly Korab