Casting the Parthenon Sculptures from the Eighteenth Century to the Digital Age

Emma M. Payne, Casting the Parthenon Sculptures from the Eighteenth Century to the Digital Age (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021). 9781350120341.

Reviewed by Kaley Aguero, Villanova University,

In Casting the Parthenon Sculptures from the Eighteenth Century to the Digital Age (2021), Emma M. Payne examines the history and importance of Parthenon cast collections from the eighteenth century through the present day. The majority of this book provides historical context regarding the cast collections in order to assess the accuracy both of the cast collections compared to the originals and of the digital scans created to analyze and quantify this accuracy. While the historical context of creating casts appears only tangentially related to the overall argument, the significance of this information is better understood in relation to the data set presented. Payne builds a complex argument that in each chapter relies on information provided in previous chapters, although the immediate importance of the information presented may not be evident to the reader at the time. The main argument is woven into the background information provided in the introduction and posed difficulty in understanding the breadth of the argument being made. The overall argument becomes clear as Payne details the supporting claims that are included within this volume. Within this framework, Payne’s main argument is that casts are significant and relevant objects with historical context, and they can provide avenues for understanding changes in the condition of originals as well as early efforts at conservation, restoration, and preservation, and they should accordingly be valued as significant archaeological objects.

The introduction of this manuscript focuses heavily on contextualizing her research. Payne gives a thorough explanation of the gradual shift of viewpoints regarding the popularity of plaster casts when they were being created and their waning popularity in the twentieth century as the reality of conservation and the focus on authenticity prompted more attention to be given to “original” works (pp. 1–4). Payne provides extensive background information regarding how plaster casts were constructed (pp. 5–10) and the chemical makeup of the plaster used to create casts (pp. 10–13). Following this, Payne provided an in-depth overview of the history of the Parthenon sculptures from their creation through their casting and finally as 3D digital scans in this project (pp. 13–18). With a solid foundation built for the reader, Payne concludes the chapter by reiterating the scope and importance of using the Parthenon sculptures within this project. 

Chapter one recounts the history of cast creation beginning with the fourteenth-century artist Cennino Cennini (p. 19). After the fourteenth century, casts were more regularly created in bronze to copy works for ease of transport and display in private homes or collections. It was not until after the eighteenth century that the use of plaster casts became more popular, as it allowed sculpture to be made more readily available to a larger audience. During this discussion, Payne focuses on providing extensive context around the societal conditions that would set the stage for Louis Fauvel and his commission by Auguste de Choiseul-Gouffier, a French aristocrat, which led to the creation of molds of the Parthenon frieze and metopes in 1786 (pp. 23–25). Due to the hardship of getting resources for scaffolding and plaster for casts, Fauvel resorted to creating clay molds. Clay molds were seen as inferior in terms of the quality of the cast created, were extremely fragile, and required metal supports that rusted through to the cast (p. 25). The state of politics within the region made it difficult for Fauvel to continue his work casting items from the Acropolis between 1793 to 1802. Upon Fauvel’s return to Greece in 1803, the Ottoman government’s favor laid with the new British contingency led by Lord Elgin (p. 28). Fauvel vehemently disagreed with Elgin’s method of removing items from the Parthenon rather than merely creating the casts, and much was removed or destroyed by 1805 when the official intervention of Elgin’s team occurred. The context Payne provides regarding the practice of creating casts of the Parthenon sculptures beginning in the eighteenth century is valuable for an audience that does not have extensive knowledge of the history of the Parthenon. While this chapter provided extensive detail regarding the context in which Fauvel was working and the details of his career, its relationship to the main argument of the book was difficult to follow at times. However, Payne concludes this chapter by demonstrating the connection between how casts and other replicas fell away from being objects for display and scholarly examination and how they were later rediscovered by modern scholars, who have led projects to preserve them. 

Chapter two follows up on the previous chapter by continuing the history of Parthenon casting through Lord Elgin’s time in Greece. This chapter provides context for Lord Elgin’s activities and his methods of obtaining “originals” and casts, as well as addressing the shift in the methodology and creation of a “new type of cast made by, or under the direct instruction of, archeologists in the field” (p. 38). With preservation as his justification, Elgin collected both originals and casts in large numbers during his time in Greece. While the removal of the Parthenon sculptures was not authorized by the Ottoman government, many of the original sculptures in the Elgin collection demonstrate the limited oversight that Elgin’s team had during their time at the Parthenon, as mentioned in the previous chapter. In the general assessment of the motivations for Elgin’s expedition, Payne provides a well-rounded account of the looting of the Parthenon by several earlier expeditions, including by Fauvel (pp. 48–49), which provides context for the controversy around the original Parthenon marbles today. With time, casts became a way for scholars to analyze and examine pieces of the Parthenon sculptures even if they were not the original marbles. This became especially pertinent when the Elgin collection was moved to the British Museum’s permanent room for display where restored casts were used to fill in spaces that were missing in order to give the audience a continuous program (p. 50). While casts were elevated and used in different ways, the capture of the original marbles by Lord Elgin was justified using the rationale that these marbles “were important historical relics that must be preserved, rather than part of a continuous living fabric” (p. 51). While the methods of obtaining these original sculptures along with casts is not condoned, one area of innovation that occurred during this time was the development of archaeological casting, which influenced how casts were perceived and used by scholars (p. 56). Payne concludes this chapter by tying its contents back into her main argument, that casts hold importance and significance beyond merely being facsimiles of the original work because they have a rich historical context. 

Chapter three focuses on the changes between the Parthenon sculptures casted by Elgin and the state they were in when Charles Merlin examined and recasted them around seventy years later. The driver behind this new comparison was the need to recast the West Frieze due to the deterioration of the original casts. Once a noticeable change was discovered, the West Frieze was molded again and new casts were created to document the change. In the approximately seventy years between Elgin and Merlin, the level of weathering the Parthenon had experienced was greater than in the previous two thousand years (p. 57). Payne describes several causes for deterioration, starting with the several shifts the building went through when it was converted from a Greek temple to a Christian church (pp. 58–60). There are also biological, chemical, and mechanical processes that contributed to the increased rate of deterioration of the sculptures. Payne provides a useful list of biological processes along with easily understood definitions to guide the reader through the observable changes on the sculptures (pp. 70–71). With the increase in deterioration, molds and casts of these sculptures hold a new level of importance for comparative analysis. Payne argues there was a renewed interest in the Fauvel and Elgin casts because they “predate much of the continued pillaging, vandalism, and war damage of the nineteenth century [and] they were also moulded in pre-industrial Athens” (p. 71). Modern technology, including 3D scanning and printing, now allows for moldings to be taken of the Parthenon sculptures that are less invasive and require little to no contact with the original. Payne provides several examples of techniques for digital scanning and 3D printing along with definitions of each that can be understood by those with limited knowledge of this technology (pp. 74–75). The end of this chapter reexamines the significance of these casts in this new digital age as a way to test the accuracy of digital scanning technology and to quantify the accuracy of casting technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is the first chapter that clearly relates to the argument laid out in the introduction of this manuscript. Payne provides a connection between the modern techniques used to collect data (which is discussed more in the following chapter) and the importance of the casts themselves as objects. Payne also enables a larger audience to understand the implications of deterioration and the modern technological advances that enable more comparative analysis of the Parthenon sculptures through the use of clear, concise definitions that are applicable within this context. 

Chapter four builds on the theme of the previous chapter by taking a deep dive into the new digital scans of the West Frieze using a method called structured light scanning. Payne defines the method of structured light scanning as “a known pattern of lights [that are] projected onto the object…a point cloud [is] calculated using triangulation or projection geometries” (p. 74). The collections that were used in this data set were the Elgin and Merlin cast collections and the original marbles. The 1802 Elgin cast collection consists of second-generation casts that were made from the Elgin molds due to the poor preservation of the first-generation casts. The 1872 Merlin casts are first-generation casts that were made from new molds that were commissioned. The original marbles were scanned in the late 2010s. Each of these collections capture the West Frieze and parts of the North Frieze under unique environmental conditions which influence the accuracy, resolution, and precision in the digital scans that were created. Payne’s hypotheses regarding the digital scans compared to the physical collections are that there would be “deviations from the original of >1 millimeters in the Merlin casts and >2 millimeters in the Elgin casts” (p. 86). The data revealed that the casts were more accurate than posited in her original hypotheses, which lends credibility to the practice of casting. This aligns with Payne’s overall argument for elevating the casts created of the Parthenon sculptures from their place within the academic arena as second-hand items that depict ancient originals and have little value to a higher status in which these casts convey their own historically important context as well as accurate depictions of their original counterparts. Along with being more accurate than hypothesized, the Elgin and Merlin casts capture the deterioration and weathering damage that the original marbles incurred over time. Payne argues the level of damage present within the dataset suggests both weathering from biological and chemical agents, as well as direct human engagement and destruction (p. 111). Payne also argues that the data collected from this comparative analysis supports the claim that the level of deterioration on the original marble sculptures was more significant prior to Elgin’s expedition than previously thought. Payne concludes the chapter with a note of caution for the audience regarding the use of casts as objects “to view the original…[as] they contain additional layers of touch and intervention and are objects in their own right, separate from the sculptures from which they were moulded” (p. 129). This chapter provides quantitative support for the claim that plaster casts are unique items in their own right and also duplicate the original sculptures with accuracy. In this small dataset, the author acknowledges the statistical limitations of the results and opens the door for further research that is statistically significant.

Chapter five progresses from analyzing the dataset to discussing how the sculptures were conserved and restored beginning in the early 2000s. Payne details the conservation efforts taken on the Parthenon sculptures from antiquity through the twenty-first century and closely follows the evolution of the practice as a more scientific field. Payne breaks down the types of conservation discussed within the chapter and provides useful definitions for each type, including general, preventative, and remedial conservation, and restoration (pp. 131–32). It was during conservation and restoration events in the twentieth century that the original marbles were cleaned using a variety of methods that led to the stripping of pigmentation from the sculptures. Payne takes a measured approach in this chapter regarding the relationship between early conservation efforts to clean the original marbles and the results of that process. The author uses the technology and practices recently developed by Giovanni Verri that reveal traces of Egyptian blue pigment on the sculptures as evidence that any cleaning techniques performed previously did not extensively damage the surface of the sculptures as was feared (p. 147). This argument is one of many that have been made from the twentieth century onward regarding the conservation of the Parthenon sculptures; however, it differs in that with evidence from these new techniques the author can make a more general statement regarding previous cleanings of the sculptures. For example, Payne uses 3D imaging of a plaster cast made prior to the cleaning of the original marble sculpture and the original marble sculpture of the head of one of Selene’s horses to test whether 3D imaging is a viable method for gathering quantitative evidence of surface damage (p. 148). She concludes that the surface damage done by cleaning methods employed in the 1930s was minor (p. 156). This conclusion is based on an examination of a single piece of the Parthenon sculptures, which Payne acknowledges makes these conclusions “not as secure as those drawn for the Parthenon frieze” (p. 156). At this moment, it is difficult to determine how significant these conclusions are owing to their extremely limited sample size. However, the 3D-imaging technique used by Payne allows for future research on more sculptures from the Parthenon that ight examine the strength of her conclusion regarding cleaning methods and the extent of damage that was left on the originals.

Chapter six details the main issue concerning plaster casts: their authenticity. The two primary components of authenticity within this context are veracity and accuracy (p. 158). Payne provides definitions of authenticity and these two terms (veracity and accuracy) in a way that helps one understand the contested place of casts within the museum and academy: veracity is defined as the item being what the item claims to be, while accuracy, in this context, is defined as a reproduction depicting, as close as possible, a copy of the original with the technology and methodology available. I found Payne’s inclusion of “as far as possible with the technology available” (p. 158) within her definition of accuracy inclusive and forward-looking, because there is the suggestion that while 3D scanning and printing may be the most advanced method to analyze casts and originals now, this may not always be the case. This definition serves to contextualize Payne’s argument within the framework of the technology available for scanning, the data that was collected, and the results drawn from that data. Therefore, the definition of authenticity presented by Payne in this context is the quality of an item that is what it claims to be and is as close a copy to the original as possible. However, during this chapter, Payne explores the ways in which human intervention creates an “authentic antiquity” that never existed, contrary to the definition provided (p. 167). The “authentic antiquity” occurs through the manipulation of the reproduction, whether that be making restorations on a cast that were not present on the original, using monochromatic plaster casts in photographs of items, or washing the originals to effectively remove any polychromatic elements (pp. 169–73). The “authentic antiquity” perpetuates a false reality that did not exist. This chapter concludes by proposing we discontinue the use of “authenticity” as a marker for value, especially in regards to cast collections (p. 183).

This book concludes with a “Closing Remarks” section that emphasizes the importance and significance of cast collections, especially those of the Parthenon. Each cast contains valuable information about the purpose, method, and material of its creation, “even if they are not straightforwardly accurate replicas” (p. 187). Casts serve as a 3D representation of the changing conditions that original sculptures experienced from their creation. Modern technology will continue to assist in documenting the changing conditions of the original sculptures. However, in order for this work to continue, cast collections must be carefully conserved and preserved to enable further comparative analyses in future research.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations (vi–x)
Acknowledgements (x–xi)
Introduction (1–18)
1. The Emergence of Fauvel and His Successors (19–34)
2. Plaster Casts, Elgin, and the British Museum (35–56)
3. Condition Studies and the Role of 3D Imaging (57–82)
4. 3D Imaging and the West Frieze (83–130)
5. 3D Imaging and Cleaning the Parthenon Sculptures (131–56)
6. An Authentic Source of Evidence? (157–84)
Closing Remarks (185–90)
Appendix (191–92)
References (193–208)
Index (209–12)

1 Comment

  1. Manuel Aguero says:

    Very thorough and concise job.


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