Standing beneath Trajan’s column following the frieze as it winds it way upwards, round and round, telling the story of the a eponymous emperor’s bloody wars in Dacia, I marvel at how close up to it I can get. The column’s too tall, though, so the top half is sitting quietly next to the bottom waiting to be viewed. Turning around, looking past Anglo-Saxon crosses and the 12th-century Brunswick lion is the frontage to Santiago di Compostela’s 11th-century cathedral, the archways filled by doors from Pisa, Verona and Hildesheim, all telling stories to the faithful. Across the hallway is Michelangelo’s David gazing into the middle distance with a golden mosaic from Palermo cathedral behind him. I don’t quite know where to start or where to look. I’m in a room full of wonders where nothing is real.
These are the Cast Courts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, opened in 1873 to inspire British artists and designers, and to educate the public as to what kind of art they should like. Housed in two large rooms either side of a mosaic-floored corridor, these are displays on a truly massive scale.
Looking around at this jumble of sculpture and architecture, crossing time and space, I can sense something of the Victorian mindset that put it together. It wants, and thinks it deserves, to gather the world’s foremost art in one place and to collect as much as possible, thus enriching the minds of the populace. The result sees the statue of David and Trajan’s column surrounded with Christian art, pieces of churches, medieval grave slabs, inscribed crosses and pulpits. It might sound like I’m being negative but it’s not meant to be, the sheer madness of it all is one of its joys. Now, I’m no art historian, I don’t know if there’s a reason to have copies of more than a dozen grave slabs all lined up but, well, why not?
I didn’t have much time, I was in London for a meeting and had an hour before my train home. I’d popped in because these rooms are some of my favourites in any museum, even if I’m only looking at replicas. It feels like the fact they’re replicas is reflected in the labelling of the objects, their text tells you little more than what you’re seeing and where it’s from, rather than give much in the way of interpretation. It was fine, though, I’d just had a long meeting and was happy to let the whole place just wash over my senses and enjoy it for what it is.
Alongside the world famous pieces like David, Trajan’s Column or Santiago di Compostela, there are numerous incredible replicas. The mix of Christian, Islamic and Jewish elements in Toledo’s Santa Maria la Blanca, and the sinuous wood-carved beasts and plants from the 11th-century church at Urnes, Norway stand out as particular favourites, both being places I’d love to visit.
Here and there the trickery behind the whole escapade is visible, the museum recently opening up Trajan’s Column so you can walk inside to see the ruse, the plaster casts attached to a brick chimney; elsewhere a Belgian monument has been constructed around a tree trunk.
None of it may be real, but it still fires the imagination and it’s a joy to visit. And once you’re done there’s the whole Victoria and Albert Museum around it. The building alone is worth the visit, inside and out.