Historical Academies and the Future Heritage
The cases of Milan and Carrara between the critical study of materials and audience development
Chiara Nenci
Professor of Museology and Contemporary Heritage
Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara and Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, Milan
Chiara Nenci (IT) is a scholar of the historical events of the Brera Academy in the Napoleonic period. She publishes on these topics with dedication to the 19th century Italian art and particular attention to the sculptors’ atélier and the art system in Milan. As a Professor of Museology and Cultural Heritage of the Contemporary Age in the Carrara and Milan academies she participates in the debate on new museums and the enhancement of archives and cultural heritage in relation to their context. Since 2002 she has been responsible for the historical collection of paintings of the Brera Academy.
Reading time: 14 minutes.

My paper will focus on two specific case studies concerning the historic heritage of two Italian academies, but let me briefly resume what is already well known about the rise and fall of these institutions.

In 1740 there were about 25 academies, understood as public art schools, in the whole of Europe, but within 50 years that number had risen to about 100. At that time there were 14 in Italy, quite a lot if we compare this with the European total. It is well known that the Enlightenment and Neoclassical climate faithfully promoted the spread of Beauty and Knowledge as instruments of social and cultural change. A snapshot of the academies in Italy at this time shows a very varied picture precisely because the state had not yet been unified.

There are basically three moments when the greatest changes to the Italian academies took place: the Napoleonic period involving the academies of Venice, Milan, Bologna, Carrara, Rome and Naples) which saw the major artists and intellectuals involved in a vast and European-wide theoretical and didactic restructuring. The second is the period of the Restoration, which, after Napoleon’s downfall, sought a dialogue between the academies and the museums. Finally, the period after the Unification of Italy, when all safeguarding and museum competence was removed from the academies to reduce them to mere scholastic institutions: it was at this point that a State law, in 1882, separated the Art collections from the historical academies to create national museums (Pinacoteca di Brera, Gallerie dell’ Accademia di Venezia, etc). From the 1960s, 11 new academies were added to the historical ones, and this was because it was the time that knowledge and the right to know was spread in Italy, and this happened even though it was clear that the avant-garde ideas from the start of the 20th century had planted the seeds of the academies misfortune.

From the end of the 19th century in Italy the role of the academies’ heritage started to decline. As we have seen this was basically due to two factors: the transfer of ownership of works (pictures, sculptures, original drawings by the great masters) to the national museums, and the new artistic movements criticism of the traditional academic methods based on copying. We can say that the INVISIBILITY of those objects started at that moment.

In an important conference promoted by the Accademia di Belle Arti di Napoli few years ago (F. Dalla Chiesa in Cassese 2015) the theme of invisibility was analysed, seeing it starting from different causes:

  • NON-KNOWLEDGE (by the scientific community or those working within the academy or the political community)
  • NON-AVAILABILITY (for poor conservation conditions)
  • NON–COMMUNICATION (lack of adequate promotion policies even when the artwork is exhibited)
  • NON-PARTICIPATION (although the artwork is conserved and displayed the aspect of public engagement is not considered and visitors don’t feel involved enough, e.g. can’t identify with the object, and thus feels no urge to visit the collection)

Given these premises, the objects I’m going to talk about are, in a certain way, even more difficult to safeguard and communicate: these being the plaster casts of ancient sculptures and the ancient original plaster models, which had a recognised importance in the historical academies but nowadays are seen in completely different ways.

My intention today is to discuss with you what type of INVISIBILITY or VISIBILITY we have today in two very important collections of plaster casts. But we will make these considerations at the end.

The collections are those of the Accademia di Brera and those in the Accademia di Carrara, twins for their Napoleonic expansion. I started to work in Milan after my PhD thanks to a pilot project to catalogue Brera’s didactical heritage, financed by the National Research Council. Whilst I have been working i Carrara for four years and during this time I have had been able to reflect on the diversity of tools, of the working methods and the results of public conscience and public use we have achieved: for example although it is hugely valuable for Brera to have a very rich and well organised historical archive, the conservation of the highly valuable collection of casts does not have the same meaning as it does for Carrara, where the sculptural tradition is much more strongly felt, even today.

“The Clay is the Life, the Plaster is the Death, and the Marble is the Resurrection”. This thought, which Nathaniel Hawthorne refers to Bertel Thorvaldsen in his celebrated book The Marble Faun (1860) (M. Nocca in Cassese 2015) finds its roots in the second half of the 19th century: because from the modus operandi of the Danish sculptor and from his own collection we have evidence of the opposite of this thought. But more than a century of this condemnation of plaster, as expressed by Hawthorne, and the long-time total lack of studies devoted to the social history of art, which, instead, documents the intense production and the circulation of the plaster casts, have played a decisive role and were a seriously aggravating factor in the decline of these artefacts.

In fact, both the plaster casts and preparatory models were highly appreciated in Enlightenment and Neoclassical culture because they, in true-to-scale examples, constituted the best way to study sculpture, more so than gazing on the original bronze or marble originals, due to the play of light and shadow on these finite and patinated materials, and for that metaphorical ‘flash’ that the beauty of the finished work aroused: as the sculptor and cast collector Etienne Maurice Falconet wrote at the end of the 18th century: “in Rome you admire but don’t reflect”, that is to say “in Rome you don’t learn” (Melucco Vaccaro 1987).

Furthermore, in the academies’ classrooms the plaster replica allowed the sculpture to be cut into separated parts and the efficient organisation of parts of different sculptures by typology allowed for the formal and expressive canon to be taught. One and unique, this canon could spread like a universal and unifying language through contemporary productions as a defence against past regionalisms of the style.


The silent invasion of these white presences in the European academies was clarified in an exemplary way more than thirty years ago in the volume by Francis Haskell and Nicholas Penny, Taste and the Antique (Haskell-Penny 1981), which remains a constant point of reference even today.

But what is novel about the IT cataloguing first designed at the Brera - and still unique today, as far as I know - consists in the way the plaster cast is placed at the centre of a system that connects the external macrosystem (who made them, where were they bought, which are the originals) with their application for study in the microcosm of academic learning (which school where they placed in, when did the students stop copying them).

In a very natural way, we decided to connect with the computer programme TWO CLASSES OF MATERIALS:

  • THE ARCHIVAL SOURCES: the inventory of the schools; lists of students; results of the competitions; lists of acquisitions
  • THE OBJECTS: study models (plaster casts, drawings, prints, books, ancient photographs and competition pieces (drawings, paintings, engravings, sculptures done by the students).

Unlike traditional cataloguing cards, the Brera project recreates the dynamics between the OBJECTS, registered through 3 classes of information: FORMAL DESCRIPTION from both existing and no longer existing objects, HISTORICAL PROFILE from its execution to its internal movements within the Schools in Brera, GENEALOGY both backwards i.e. from which original it was copied and forwards, into which drawing it is copied.

To the right: 15 are the plaster casts realized by Giuseppe Torrenti

Let me give you an example. These are the results of a request asking whether Brera has acquired the cast of the Gladiatore Borghese we get 7 items, including 2 no more existing objects. The plaster cast is connected with 3 drawings resulting from it, and with a print that was copied as well as the sculpture by the students, following the practice of what has been called “the reproductive continuum” (Baker 2009).

Having all the documents referring to the payments, we know more about the mould maker (formatore) who sent the copy of the Gladiatore from Rome. He was Pietro Camuccini, brother of the more famous neoclassical painter, Vincenzo. sent the copy of the Gladiatore from Rome. But, talking about the very intriguing theme of the plaster casts commerce, with the IT program we can also find all the information about the mould makers (formatori) who sold their copies to Brera. One of them, Giuseppe Torrenti, for example, realized 15 plaster casts for Brera.

In that period Torrenti went on his well-paid profession for the major neoclassical artists, among those Thorvaldsen (Jan Zahle has published on the Danish artist’s atelier and his plaster casts collection, focusing on those most important loci deputati in a map of Rome dated 1820) (Zahle 2012).

If you ask me whether VISIBILITY have ever had the results of such a complex IT program, I can tell you that there are only some (important) specialist essays, but neither the restorations (there are many) nor the collections in the Nuovo Deposito dei Gessi (a space not open to the public - so, in practice, they’ve just been moved into storage) have shed light on the cultural relationships that these objects, if interrogated in the right way, could potentially release.

Left: Accademia di Brera and right: Brera, Nuovo Deposito Gessi Storici


To consider the situation of the plaster sculptures, as well, we will move on to Carrara.

Since its foundation in 1769 the mission of this academy has been clear (I quote from the Acts of Foundation): “to favour the study and the creation of sculptures and to provide a valid support to the working and commerce of marble”. But it was only in the Napoleonic age that the academy became prestigious and its didactic endowments increased, especially with the casts from Rome and Florence. The Carrara academy’s archive is not as rich as the Brera’s, and there are few inventories to reconstruct the didactic material, it has completely lost all the student drawings of the sculptures, and even the collection of prints is held indiscriminately in the historical section of the library, making it impossible to reconstruct the completeness of the teaching through the connections between prints, sculptures and drawings of the students.

Left: Carrara,Palazzo del Principe. Right: Carrara, Museo CARMI

Despite these shortcomings, in 1992 the Academy published a catalogue of the Gipsoteca (Carrara 1992), where, as well as the ancient casts, another two sections appear: the casts of the modern sculptors, among which are two by Thorvaldsen (Hebe, Mercury) and the twelve casts of Canova’s works, who for example in exchange for exemption from duty payments for the marble from the quarry, donated the great statue of Napoleone as Marte Pacificatore. Finally, the third section, comprehends the works by the students who won the competitions up to the mid twentieth century.

That publication led to a constant work of recovery and restoration of the casts, whose promotion has often been based on the fusion with contemporary art: a natural and understandable operation for an academy which – as I said at the start – bases its own name on this continuity of the ‘primacy of sculpture’ that is to say: the once and current artists united by their journey to the city of magnificent marble (Carrara 2015).

The very recent opening of the new civic museum called CARMI (CAR is for Carrara, and MI is for Michelangelo), has led to the exhibition, outside the academy, of 26 plaster sculptures. These were created by the 19th century pensionnaires: students who were paid by the Academy of Carrara to study in Rome. The exhibition has the captivating title of “Student masters on the way to Rome. Treasures from the Gipsoteca of the Academy of Fine Arts” and is really scenographic.

In the future the public will also be the audience of the restoration work of other historical casts by watching some videos, and whose final stages will be carried out before their eyes. I must be honest: I’m not sure that this way of exhibiting work, as if in a Glyptothek, is able to get across the idea of the didactic apprenticeship in a 19th century academy, because the relationship between the student’s sculpture and the didactic models is missing (what did they see and study in Rome in those years?) as is also the judgement received by the students when they sent their work to Carrara. But, naturally, the didactic communication is always in progress and can be expanded.


This case brings me back to the question of INVISIBILITY and starts my final considerations. My aim is to highlight that when the academic artworks are exhibited outside their original historical spaces, basically they become like any other art museum’s and take on the common way of presenting themselves, but with many risks, the first of which is due to the nature of the works exhibited, which are not always the most exceptional examples. Instead, as with many scientific university museums, I don’t think it would be a mistake for the academies to also create “museums of themselves” and highlight those relationships between the different objects, as we have seen reconstructed in the Brera computer project. This suggestion shouldn’t be seen as a lesser choice: if museums of the “history of academic culture” were created (or we could call them, maybe, museums of the history of Neoclassicism) I don’t see this definition weighing negatively, and they could express their richness: they would make visible the academic roots and that ecumenical spread through the 19th century visual culture.

In this way, in my opinion the virtuous transition from INVISIBILITY to VISIBILITY would take place: VISIBILITY not only of the objects but also of the immaterial aspects which are expressed in that culture.

It is clear that the goal is not a museum for specialists, but the challenge must be the audience development, in the sense that the public’s capacity to understand these materials needs to be supported and accompanied. To do this there is still a huge need for winning designs. But teaching in the academies, where courses on Heritage Development and New Technologies for Cultural Heritage have been active for some time means having this privilege: to be able to apply teaching theory to the historical materials in our possession. In this sense the academies could act, even today, as an axis between the museum and the territory, making their artworks converse with contemporaneity: with online platforms, virtual exhibitions, passionate storytelling, and why not ad storydoing starting with the objects?

On the occasion of the celebrations to be held at Carrara in 2019 for the anniversary of its foundation, the teachers of Restoration, History of Art, New Technologies, of Direction, Scenography have organised a series of events with a common theme, to promote the students’ skills and involve the local communities not only with the opening up of its own spaces but with a “widespread event” in the city. For this occasion, the restoration of the 13 sculptures of the Niobe and her Children group will be finished.

This group is very important because Carrara is possibly the only Italian academy to own so many casts of the original group held in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery. The idea will start from the strongly lyrical tale by Ovid in Metamorphosis, but the project will especially emphasise the dialogue between myth and nature, which culminates symbolically in the death of Niobe transformed into marble.

The students will create a documentary of the restoration, a teaching laboratory on the myth, an open air performance which will move from Carrara to the quarries and conclude with a reworking from the Death of Niobe, for which Alberto Savinio wrote the music and his brother Giorgio de Chirico painted the scenes and costumes (1924).

But the academies can go beyond their territories, because, by their nature, they have always been transnational. That’s why I’ll finish stressing two points from the Call for Creative Europe 2014-2020, which seem very close to the spirit with which today we deal with this heritage:

The first concerns the “support for the spread of material and immaterial heritage and making use of open data”, whilst the second underlines that “cultural, artistic, or creative production should be applied to the educative functions and heritage management”.1

Finally, in order to stimulate a debate, I’m asking you if this policy of cultural promotion can bring about an economic push towards the artists’, professionals’ and creative people’s endeavours, as Creative Europe incentivizes, in synergy with our theoretical and historical competence.

Chiara Nenci (IT) is a scholar of the historical events of the Brera Academy in the Napoleonic period. She publishes on these topics with dedication to the 19th century Italian art and particular attention to the sculptors’ atélier and the art system in Milan. As a Professor of Museology and Cultural Heritage of the Contemporary Age in the Carrara and Milan academies she participates in the debate on new museums and the enhancement of archives and cultural heritage in relation to their context. Since 2002 she has been responsible for the historical collection of paintings of the Brera Academy.


M. Nocca. 2015. ‘Nella creta la vita, nel marmo la Resurrezione: e nel gesso? la morte’, in Patrimoni da svelare per le arti del futuro, a cura di G. Cassese, Napoli, pp. 194-200.

F. dalla Chiesa. 2015. ‘Le Accademie di Belle Arti in un nuovo modello di sviluppo’, in Patrimoni da svelare per le arti del futuro, a cura di G. Cassese, Napoli, pp. 85-89.

A. Melucco Vaccaro. 1987. “Originale o copia: tema erudito o di attualità?” In Bollettino d’arte, 41, serie IV, pp. 126-128.

F. Haskell, Nicholas Penny. 1981. Taste and the Antique: the Lure of Classical Sculpture, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1981.

M. Baker. 2010. ‘The Reproductive Continuum: plaster casts, paper mosaics and photographs as complementary modes of reproduction in the nineteenth-century museum’, in Plaster Casts. Making, Collecting and Displaying from Classical Antiquity to the Present (edited by R. Frederiksen and E. Marchand), Berlin/New York, pp. 404-415.

J. Zahle. 2012. Thorvaldsens afstøbninger efter antikken og renæssancen : en komplet samling, København.

La Gipsoteca dell’Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara, a cura di S. Russo, testi di S. Russo e R. Carozzi, Carrara 1992.

L’Accademia di Belle Arti di Carrara e il suo patrimonio, catalogo della mostra a cura di L. Meloni, Milano 2015.