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19th Century Plaster Cast of a Dancer from Herculaneum

Eighteenth century excavations of Herculaneum (near Pompeii in Ancient Rome) uncovered the Villa of the Papyrus, which was one of the most luxurious homes of the classical ancient world.  Covered by almost ninety feet of ash from Mt. Vesuvius in 79AD, the villa contained a library and a wealth of classical artwork that stunned the world when it was excavated 1700 years later.  Eventually, molds were made from many of the bronze sculptures from the villa, and full-size plaster casts of those sculptures were offered for sale.  


During a trip to Europe in the late 19th century, the founders of Cornell University purchased casts of some of those sculptures, and had them shipped back to New York State.  On arrival at the university, they joined a growing collection of plaster and terra cotta casts of iconic sculptures, which eventually included over 600 casts, mostly from classical antiquity.

Over the next century, as academia shifted its focus toward collecting "original" objects, and at the same time began to call into question classical western ideals of beauty, the casts fell out of favor, and were moved several times.  Eventually, most of the casts in the large collection ended up in an off-campus warehouse, where they have languished for decades in various states of disrepair.

Villa of the Papryrus dancer, broken into several pieces

More than half the base, and both feet, were missing, so the sculpture could not stand.

But the university began a new commitment to the cast collection in 2008, and since then, dozens have been restoreed for several projects and sites on the Cornell campus. 


Recently, three plaster casts from the Villa of the Papyrus (two dancers and a seated Hermes) were restored as a group, as they related to a university class and an exhibition.   This cast of a bronze dancer sculpture was missing more than half its base and both of the figure's feet.  Another cast of a different dancer, though requiring its own restoration,  still retained its entire original base, so that intact base was used as a model to create the missing sections of the first dancer's base.

The intact base was traced onto a board, which was used as the bottom of a new base mold.

To make the new base, a mold was made from the measurements of the intact base.  Then the fragmented sculpture was positioned upright into the base mold, braced into a vertical position, and new plaster was poured into the mold to fill in the missing parts of the base.  After the plaster cured, it was sealed to the surrounding original plaster from the bottom with adhesive.  

The prepared mold, ready to receive the sculpture and the new plaster

The sculpture was braced upright in the new base mold, and the plaster was poured.

After the plaster cured and the mold form was removed, the new base was revealed. The entire cast was then tipped, and the seams where the new plaster met the old plaster were sealed from underneath with adhesive, to give strength to the joins.

Even after the new base was created, the dancer was still missing both feet.  Another cast of the same original sculpture was identified and located, and the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at the University of Pennsylvania graciously allowed a visit to mold the feet of its cast of the same dancer.  The resulting foot molds were then brought back to New York State, where they were cast in plaster, and the new feet were added to Cornell's dancer.  

Cornell's dancer sculpture waits in New York State with the other casts from the Villa, while foot molds are made in Pennsylvania.

Silicone molds cure in place on the feet of the University of Pennsylvania's cast

The newly cast feet are in place on the painted base.

The new feet are painted to match the new base.

The top half of the cast had also previously broken into several pieces at the arms, hands, and drapery.  Those areas were repaired, and the missing material was added by consulting photographs of the original bronze sculpture.

At some time in its history at the university, the entire cast had been over-painted with a greenish-gold paint that was not original, and that was badly deteriorating.  In order to cover the disfigured paint, stabilize the surface, and make all the casts from the sculpture group match, this dancer was re-painted to match the other two.

The pieces are assembled, and work begins on sculpting sections of lost material, including large sections of drapery, and the index and middle fingers on the right hand.

The new material is smoothed and primed.

A newly colored surface helps blend the restorations.

After a brief museum exhibition, the Villa of the Papyrus casts were installed in the atrium of Klarman Hall at Cornell University, where they now reside permanently.  The cast of the dancer whose restoration was described here is the second figure from the left in this photo.

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