Introduction – the Database
Cornell University once owned a collection of plaster casts of sculptures, gemstones and inscriptions from different cultures and periods such as the ancient Near East, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece and Rome (the majority), the European Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the 19th century. In addition, architectural models and details of architectural sculpture from the above-mentioned periods formed part of the collection together with more abstract drawing models for art students. This collection must have comprised about 2000 pieces (ca. 1000 being reproductions of gemstones), only a part of which has survived, often in very bad condition and distributed all over campus.
The present database has several goals: curatorial, didactic, documentary and scholarly. First, it will give an idea of what has been preserved and is a step towards reuniting the remaining holdings, at least on a virtual basis. Moreover, the database can serve as the starting point for further possible restoration of the casts, since it allows for assembling the fragments of destroyed sculptures that sometimes are stored in different locations. Once complete, the database will help students and faculty alike to familiarize themselves with major monuments and artworks of the past.
The casts were used as “stand-ins” for their originals. In the meantime, we have come to understand this type of medium as dated or historical in itself. The database therefore tries to capture the various layers of the objects, including their production in the late 19th and 20th century or their current display.
The single objects have been photographed, measured, briefly described and, if possible, identified. This process is ongoing; so far, ca. 800 pieces, including fragments, have been catalogued. The total number of the surviving plaster casts is still unknown.
The single entries show the casts in their current condition, i.e. often broken and in need of restoration. If two different pieces share the same identification number, they are part of the same sculpture. Several fragments have only been recognized as adhering to the same figure during the process of cataloguing. In this case, they have different identification numbers, but the description usually indicates the numbers of the other belonging pieces.
Specific emphasis is on the various layers of the sculptures. Several casts are 19th or early 20th century reproductions of ancient Roman originals (mostly dating from the 1st century BCE to the 2nd century CE), which are themselves supposed to copy older Greek (bronze?) sculptures (primarily from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE) that have not survived.