The Caproni Casts, Larnaca, Cyprus

The Caproni Casts were recently acquired by the Cornaro Institute in Larnaca, Cyprus, after I came across them at the end of last year, almost by accident, on a ‘For Sale’ page placed on the internet by the Jerusalem Studio School in Israel. The casts had been donated to the Israeli institution by an anonymous American benefactor some years ago, but sadly they were now being disposed of prior to the Studio School closing down.

Most of the smaller casts owned by the school had by this time already been bought by local art lovers, including a bust of Zeus Otricoli, parts of the Parthenon friezes and a lovely relief by Donatello of the Madonna. But the two life size plaster casts of the Venus de Milo and the Poseidon of Artemision were clearly proving harder to shift, suggesting few homes have space for a seven foot high goddess and an even larger god with his arms asunder.

The casts were made just over a century ago by the celebrated Tuscan craftsman Pietro Caproni. Caproni was born in Barga, Italy in 1862, but travelled with his brother Emilio to America some time in the late 1870s where they settled in Boston, Massachusetts. There they founded the company PP Caproni and Brother to produce plaster reproductions of historic and modern sculptures.

There is some reason to suspect that Pietro and Emilio Caproni came from a family of plaster sculpture makers. According to census returns, in 1841 two other brothers bearing the Caproni name, Savazi and Antonio Caproni, were recorded as being plaster sculpture makers at 79 Gray’s Inn Lane in London. Notably their place of birth is also believed to have been Barga, as is another later immigrant to London, a Louis Caproni who appears to have taken over the London business by the time of the 1851 census. Louis’s son, Joseph Caproni, also born in Barga, seems to have continued the family business in Fulham, south west London, until around 1900.

Although these London Capronis seem to have mainly worked as technicians for contemporary fine artists, they were also on occasion at least merchants and probably makers of plaster reproductions. For example, in 1843 Antonio Caproni is recorded as having been prosecuted for obscenity under the Vagrancy Act of 1838 for trying to sell a plaster reproduction of a female classical nude statue. In 1860 he and Louis were also advertising ‘Casts taken from Gelatina’ for sale.

Unlike their American cousins (possibly literally) the British Capronis do not seem to have managed to reach the top tier of plaster cast makers in Britain, despite at least one known attempt to do so. In 1853 a competition held by the nascent Victoria and Albert Museum, then called the South Kensington Museum, to appoint a plaster cast maker included an entry from one of the London Capronis. However the appointment went to Domenico Brucciani, another Italian immigrant from Tuscany who was based in Covent Garden. Ironically, upon his death in 1880 Brucciani’s business was bought by Joseph Caproni who then traded as D. Brucciani & Co.

However, the plaster cast sculptures acquired for the Cornaro Institute have very definite American origins. Made by the Capronis in Boston, their early history is unknown, but they arrived at the Cornaro Institute in January 2014 via the now defunct Jerusalem Studio School in Israel where they had been used actively as teaching aids. The Jerusalem Studio School, founded by the painter Israel Hershberg in 1997, was established as a modern reinterpretation of the nineteenth-century academies of art in Europe and North America, in which drawing from classical sculptures, or casts taken from them, was considered an essential part of art education. But until the 1960s, when plaster casts were actively destroyed by radical students in art schools across Europe, and especially in the UK and Ireland, plaster casts were also considered an essential tool in the training of artists, craftworkers and designers who were not following a strict academic model of art training.

Plaster reproductions of historic sculptures were also bought by private individuals, museums and commercial organisations. At its height, at the turn of the nineteenth century, PP Caproni and Brother reputedly had 15,000 different sculptures available in their sales catalogue, and their work was very much in demand. The company was frequently recommended for the high quality of its reproductions, alongside the rival American firm of Hennecke, based in Milwaukee, and foreign producers including the German Archaeological Institute in Berlin and Brucciani in London, the latter by then owned by Joseph Caproni.

The vast quantity of reproductions available seems to have amazed at least one visitor to the Capronis’ showrooms, which still stands on Washington Street in Boston. In 1907 the writer Antony de Wolfe, sometimes referred to as Mark Antony de Wolfe-Howe, wrote in the Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society of his attempt to obtain a bust of the Boston statesman and historian George Bancroft for the Society’s members’ rooms. After a long search de Wolfe tells of finding a bust of Bancroft by Richard Greenough in Harvard University Library. Realising the impossibility of securing the original he sets about trying to have a copy made, with the University Librarian recommending Caproni for the job. But before seeking official permission from the university authorities, de Wolfe describes taking a photograph of the bust to the Capronis’ showrooms to make sure they could do the job. ‘The salesman looked at it,’ de Wolfe says, ‘led me into a rear room of the admirable establishment which employs him, pointed at a bust and asked, “Is not that the thing you are looking for?”’ De Wolfe seems a little crest fallen in his account that the Bancroft bust could be ‘purchasable by any comer at a reasonable rate,’ but claims to have still enjoyed the ‘pleasure of the chase’.

As well as learned societies, smaller museums, which were not in a position to employ their own plaster cast makers, bought large numbers of casts from the Capronis and others. This included the Wilcox Classical Museum in Kansas which bought at least five full size classical sculptures in 1885, including an Apollo Belvedere, a Nike of Samothraki and various sections of the Parthenon frieze from the Capronis.

It was not just art schools that were encouraged to purchase plaster casts for their students. Schools for children were frequent purchasers of Caproni casts. Writing in 1934, Latin teacher Helen Nugent of Northpoint High School, Long Island in New York State, described using Caproni casts in her school to create what she called a ‘Latin Museum’. Caproni supplied Nugent with copies of a relief of the nine muses, a Pompeian vase, and busts of Cicero, Virgil and Julius Caesar. As Nugent made clear in her article, the purpose of this was to make the teaching of Latin more interesting by allowing the pupils to interact with actual objects. This use of plaster casts was also recommended by the celebrated American archeologist David M. Robinson, who taught at Johns Hopkins University. In 1916 Robinson suggested that after reading Virgil students should be shown a cast of the Laocoon. Perhaps with this pedagogical use of plaster casts in mind some makers of the casts offered modifications to the sculptures they sold. In its catalogue Hennecke assured purchasers that ‘Nude Figures, Antinous, Faun, Hercules, etc., will be sent with an adjustable leaf.’

However, one of the biggest corporate clients of the Capronis in the early twentieth century was not a school, museum or learned society, but the Michael Angelo Studios. The Michael Angelo Studios were a Chicago design company run by John Eberson which specialised in converting nineteenth-century theatres and music halls into cinemas. As part of this plaster copies of classical sculptures, made by the Capronis, were often used to induce a sense of grandeur. The appearance of opulence this induced in early cinemagoers, prefiguring the golden age of Art Deco cinemas in the 1930s, was not entirely delusory. Large plaster casts were expensive, with a full size Venus de Milo, such as the one now owned by the Cornaro Institute, retailing at $60 in 1911. In crude terms this is equivalent to almost two months wages for an average American school teacher at the time, which partly explains the inclusion in the 1914 Caproni catalogue of numerous case studies demonstrating how schools could raise money to buy Caproni casts.

Regardless of this history, one of the most notable features of the arrival of the Caproni casts in Cyprus is the response they invariably generate. Almost without exception there is a moment of silent followed by exclamations as to how beautiful they are. Most gratifying of all was something I suspect cynics will not believe is true. That was the sight of art students at the Cornaro Institute setting up their easels by the casts and drawing, all without organisation or prompting by the teaching staff.

Main image: Detail, Venus de Milo, Caproni casts, Cornaro Institute, Larnaca, Cyprus, (photo: © Dr. Michael Paraskos.

Aurora Corio