The great German poet, Goethe, who was a passionate admirer of Greek art, wrote “nothing gripped my whole being so much as the Laocoön group … I was in ecstasies over it”1. He penned this on viewing a plaster cast of the original in Mannheim in Germany. The fact that copies of the Elgin Marbles were being made and sold in continental Europe solicited joy for Goethe, noting that, “the Continent will soon be swamped with these magnificent forms [plaster casts of the Elgin Marbles], like cheap cotton goods. I am going to order the horse’s head at once so that it will be impossible to do without the heroes that go with it.”2 Replicas of different quality, size and materials disseminated around the world our knowledge of the art of classical antiquity in the modern era. In 2015 Fondazione Prada held two unusual and provocative exhibitions: Serial Classic in Milan and Portable Classic in Venice co-curated by Dr Salvatore Settis and Dr Anna Anguissola. While Serial Classic focused on the idea of the Greek original and the serial production of Roman copies, Portable Classic explored the ideas involved with miniature copies, where sometimes details from the damaged originals were ‘restored’ and scale was a free variable. Although anchored in the art of classical antiquity, the two exhibitions posed very contemporary questions concerning copies and authenticity and the social function of art in both antiquity and modern times. Each examining the use of replicas and copies of Greek art in the Roman empire and beyond which questioning the implications of copying in art.
From classical antiquity, literary sources preserve a catalogue of some of the great names from Ancient Greek art, including Zeuxis, Apelles, Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Myron and Lysippus. However, their standing as people in society was low. Regarded as manual labourers, people who worked with their hands were thought of like blacksmiths, and while they could produce wondrous suits of armour to save you in battle, theirs was a skill not considered worthy of a freeborn man. Lucian, the great rhetorician writing in the 2nd century AD, observed: “You may turn out to be a Phidias or a Polyclitus, to be sure, and create a number of wonderful works, but even so, though your art will be generally commended, no sensible observer will be found to wish himself like you; whatever your real qualities, you will always be ranked as a common craftsman who makes his living with his hands”.3 lutarch was of a similar opinion: “We delight in the work, we despise the workman, as, for instance, in the case of perfumes and dyes; we take a delight in them, but dyers and perfumers we regard as illiberal and vulgar folk.”4