In praise of copying

Detail of a Roman copy of a fifth century BC bronze figure of an Amazon, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

Detail of a Roman copy of a fifth century BC bronze figure of an Amazon, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Stuart Cox

The other day I was having a discussion with a colleague about the relative merits of original works and copies. Although I am as keenly interested in original works of art as the next heritage-minded person, I found myself defending of the value of copies – in particular the copies of antique sculpture.

The North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

The North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

The Romans copied famous Greek sculptures, and following the Renaissance the Italians copied Greek and Roman works as well as combining disparate ancient fragments. These copies and hybrids tend to be beautifully made objects in themselves, but apart from their purely visual appeal I also find them fascinating because of what they tell us about our how our culture interacts with its past.

Roman figure of Agrippina as Ceres, Roman adaptation of a Greek original, restored in the eighteenth century, with two busts, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Roman figure of Agrippina as Ceres, Roman adaptation of a Greek original, restored in the eighteenth century, with two busts, in the North Gallery at Petworth. ©National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

The past was being rediscovered, and the products of that past were so desirable that a reproduction market arose to satisfy the demand. Regardless of whether these objects are ‘originals’, ‘copies’, ‘bodges’ or ‘fakes’, they embody an ideal that was so powerful that people felt compelled to fill their houses with them, and indeed to rebuild their houses to realise that vision even more fully.

Volunteer Room Steward in the North Gallery at Petworth, next to a Greek seated figure of a philosopher, with a Roman head added in the eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

Volunteer Room Steward in the North Gallery at Petworth, next to a Greek seated figure of a philosopher, with a Roman head added in the eighteenth century. ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

And of course we are doing more or less the same thing when we visit a historic place today, and buy the guidebook, and add images to our Pinterest boards, and change something in our own home inspired by what we have seen. When we look at our ancestors looking at their past, we are also looking at ourselves.

8 Responses to “In praise of copying”

  1. Andrew Says:

    For ancient works, in many cases, the “original” artwork has disappeared, and the only surviving record is the later “copy”. I am not aware, for example, that any works of Praxiteles have survived. But at least we have some ancient sculptures: where are the works of Zeuxis or Apelles?

    There is certainly something to be said for the unique experience of standing in front of an original artwork. There is also something to be said good prints and copies and other derivative works.

  2. The Devoted Classicist Says:

    I love accurate copies of all sorts. One of my favorite group of not-so-old objects in the Metropolitan Museum is a set of copies of the drawings from the walls of an Egyptian tomb.

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, yes and the resonance between the originals and the copies is almost like an invisible ‘third category’, isn’t it? ‘Inframince’, as Marcel Duchamp would have said:)

    Classicist, I had a look on their website and spotted these rather charming geese: http://bit.ly/16tm5HX – beautiful and apparently accurate tempera on paper representations of Egyptian tomb paintings. Perhaps not what you are referring to, as their are lots of other possibilities in their database, but they are rather wonderful.

  4. Andrew Says:

    Of course, a Roman “copy” is an antiquity in its own right, unlike say a modern copy of a Victorian copy of a Renaissance copy of a Roman copy of a Greek original.

    Have you visited the cast gallery at the classics faculty in Cambridge?http://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/museum/information/

    There is simply no other way to see that number of famous sculptures in the same place. And with a plaster cast, you can do interesting things like this: http://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/museum/peplos_kore/

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Andrew, I like your ‘infinity mirrors’ sequence of copies:)

    No I didn’t know about that collection, must try to visit.

    And what a wonderful project to ‘colour in’ that cast of the peplos kore – and amusingly revealing that since it was done we have found out that the colouring was even more elaborate.

    Since we are talking about changing perceptions of classical sculpture, how about this rather wonderful and very stylish sequence of doctored images of classical sculptures, clothing them as dudes and babes: http://bit.ly/19fr4yX

  6. Andrew Says:

    As we are discussing copies… I first saw those “dressed” sculptures referred to over here – http://todayilearned.co.uk/2013/06/13/classical-sculptures-dressed-as-hipsters-look-contemporary-and-totally-badass/

    Good that they both include credits for the photographer and retoucher at http://www.leocaillard.com/?folio=1&idcat=25 and http://www.behance.net/alexis-persani

  7. Andrew Says:

    Somewhat similar, although less accomplished: http://www.britishmuseumshoponline.org/history-geography+culture/confronting-the-classics-by-mary-beard/invt/cmc9781781250488

    The US edition has a much more boring cover.

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes a brilliant collaboration. Thanks for those links.

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