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  • 'Museum With Those Goddesses':Bloom and the Dublin Plaster Casts
  • Fintan Cullen (bio)

During the second half of the nineteenth century, as Dublin established its own public art gallery and museum, the display of white plaster casts of well-known Greco-Roman statuary dominated the visitor's first encounter with the collections housed in these new temples of art. The National Gallery of Ireland, in Merrion Square, opened its doors in 1864 while a Museum of Science and Art, which eventually became the National Museum of Ireland, situated only a short distance away on Kildare Street, was accessible to visitors from 1890. Both of these state-funded institutions, in the early decades of their existence, displayed classical casts in their entrance halls or first rooms and such an introduction coloured the whole visiting experience.

As museum culture developed in the nineteenth century, many art institutions in Europe and North America displayed authentic classical statuary or casts in their entrance halls or rotundas so as to assuage contemporary fears that the art viewer would be bombarded with the new and/or the unknown. In 1828, the architect of Berlin's Altes Museum, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the Museum's first director, Gustav Friedrich Waagen, were of the opinion that such a display would 'first delight, then instruct.'1 By the end of the century, such a philosophy extended as far as the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This museum opened in 1876 and the classical greeted the visitor there well into the early years of the twentieth century.2 The story is no different in Ireland. This essay will chart the display of Greco-Roman casts in Ireland from their early nineteenth-century appearance in Cork to the National Gallery of Ireland's acquisition of casts in the eighteen sixties. It will end with a consideration of Leopold Bloom's fictitious visit in 1904 to the Kildare Street 'museum with those goddesses' (U 13.1215). The aim is to convey a sense of what was actually available as one wandered into a gallery or museum and as one participated in the newly accessible era of cultural consumption. [End Page 24]

Cast Culture

Over the winter of 1818 and 1819, under the patronage of the Prince Regent and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, an exhibition of 115 casts taken from antique statues, busts, and reliefs went on display in the converted Apollo Theatre on Patrick Street, Cork.3 Although temporary art exhibitions had being mounted in both Dublin and Cork since at least 1780, it could be said that this collection of casts warrants credit as one of the earliest permanent displays of art in Ireland. Many of the casts, made from renowned icons of antiquity owned by the Vatican such as the Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere stayed on display throughout the nineteenth century and some are still visible today in Cork's Crawford Art Gallery.

The casts were the gift of the Prince Regent, patron of the Cork Society for the Promotion of the Fine Arts through the good offices of Lord Ennismore (later, Lord Listowel), President of the Society and at the time Whig MP for County Cork. The Prince had originally been offered the casts by Pope Pius VII in recognition of Britain's help in restoring Napoleon's stolen loot taken from Rome some decades earlier. Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the most celebrated classical sculptor of the day, had been appointed by the Pope to supervise the casting and as an astute propagandist for his own work, the artist included some plasters after his own sculptures such as an allegorical portrait of Marie-Louise, Napoleon's empress, as Concord. Given the fame of the classical and contemporary pieces involved, the gift was indeed a major coup for the city. Within a decade of the gift, that rather over-enthusiastic art critic William Paulet Carey commented that the casts 'form an inestimable treasure for the advancement of his present Majesty's anxious desire, the cultivation of painting, sculpture, and architecture, in the Sister Island'.4

Many years later, the Dublin University Magazine echoed Carey's praise for the gift of the casts:

Whatever of dullness had...


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