In this new 8-part series, we explore the stories of our Sculpture Galleries and uncover curious things that usually only curators get to see! Discover sculptors’ secrets and makers’ marks, focus on flashlines and fig leaves, and seek missing arms – and even extra feet – as Abbey Ellis traces the tales of our cast collection.
In this instalment of SCULPTURE SECRETS, we meet the goddess of love and discover a mystery surrounding her feet that has left our curators stumped!
Adding to Aphrodite's Mystique
In the first part of this series – Secrets of the Sculptor's Workshop – we introduced you to our cast of Apollo Belvedere, who is sadly missing his arms. By contrast, our cast of Venus of Melos has the opposite problem: over the course of her history, she has gained a body part!
When the original marble Venus (Aphrodite) was first discovered on the Greek island of Melos two hundred years ago, in April 1820, this representation of the goddess of love was found without her arms or left foot. However, a glance at the Venus in our Sculpture Galleries will indicate some noticeable differences. Mysteriously, she has grown a left foot.
How exactly did this happen? Our curators cannot be sure. Venus was a popular subject for plaster cast makers (formatore) and many reproductions of this particular sculpture can be found across the globe.
Prominent London cast producer Domenico Brucciani, discussed in our earlier post on Mysterious Makers’ Marks, manufactured copies of Venus. She features in his sale catalogues, as seen below. Can you spot her? She is labelled with the number 2377.
The Venus from Brucciani’s catalogue, however, does not have a left foot. While we do not know if our cast was made by Brucciani, it is possible that our Venus of Melos was cast without a left foot and that, later on, somebody modelled her a new foot and stuck it on to the cast. Perhaps a student in the Cork School of Art – which was once based in our building at Emmet Place – was responsible for the new addition!
It is perhaps more likely that our Venus of Melos was not made from the same kind of mould as that in Brucciani’s workshop. A different cast maker may have fashioned a new mould for the sculpture which included a left foot, as is the case with the one in the collection of the Royal Academy of Arts, London.
Although the truth in the tale may be difficult to uncover, we do know for certain that our Venus' left big toe has been repaired a number of times in its history – most recently by sculpture conservator Eoghan Daltun in 2019. Venus, or Aphrodite's millennia-old mystique continues!
From Aphrodite to Apollo
Venus’s foot is not the only unsolved mystery surrounding our cast collection. Further secrets surround sketches of the casts made by William Willes (c.1775-1851), the first headmaster of the School of Design in Cork back in 1850. Willes is an intriguing character: Cork-born and educated in Edinburgh, he was a doctor by trade. In his youth, he received some training in painting from notable Cork artist Nathaniel Grogan (1740-1807) but didn’t fully focus on artistic pursuits until his thirties. He went on to study art at the Royal Academy in London and exhibited paintings of Irish landscapes during his time there.
During his career, Willes produced a sketch of the Apollo Belvedere and a study of a male torso that looks to be inspired by the cast of The Fighting Gladiator. Mysteriously, Willes’ drawing of the Apollo Belvedere lacks the fig leaf that was applied to our cast after it arrived in Cork in 1818. The fig leaves were not removed from the casts until 2019. You can read all about this process and the famous face who lent a hand in our previous post, Mary Beard Reveals All.
Is Apollo’s missing fig leaf an example of artistic licence taken by Willes when drawing the cast? Or, as our cast of Apollo Belvedere does not have a right arm, maybe Willes studied a different, leaf-less Apollo?
Unresolved questions like this are just one of the joys associated with working on a historic collection of sculptures – there are always more mysteries to uncover!
Virtual fun in the Sculpture Galleries doesn’t stop here! Each post in this series will be accompanied by an activity especially tailored for a younger audience. This time, we challenge you to a virtual jigsaw puzzle!
Next in the series: Casting a Light (22 August 2020)
Abbey Ellis is a PhD researcher at the University of Leicester and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford on an AHRC CDP placement at Crawford Art Gallery. Her research focuses on archaeological plaster casts, sculptural materials and making, and authenticity.