This figure holds a tall bronze cross in its right hand and surmounts a marble doorway in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. The doorway was the culmination of a scheme undertaken by Benedetto da Maiano in 1472 to divide the Sala Grande on the second floor into an anteroom (the Saletta known since the 1480s as the Sala de' Gigli) and an audience chamber (Sala dell' Udienza). Benedetto designed the doorway in collaboration with his brother, Giuliano (1432-90) but was solely responsible for the figurative parts of the door surround, which comprise: St John the Baptist, flanked by four putti supporting flaming candelabra, above the entablature in the Saletta, with a corresponding figure of Justice above the entablature in the Sala dell'Udienza. The intarsia of the doors was executed by Giuliano da Maiano and Francesco di Giovanni (Il Francione) (1428-95) and represent Petrach and Dante in the Saletta, with vases of flowers on the other side.
This a plaster cast from one of the two magnificent Cast Courts at the V&A. Since they were first opened in 1873, these galleries have displayed reproductions of some of the most significant monuments of medieval and Renaissance Europe.
In these galleries one can view plaster casts of sculptures from Renaissance Italy, notably some of the masterpieces produced by Donatello, Luca della Robbia and Michelangelo. The sculptures are faithful copies of the originals. They were made in the 19th century, when the vogue for replicated works of art was at its height. Museum visitors at that time generally had little opportunity to travel abroad, and illustrated art books were costly. These superb casts could afford people a rare glimpse of the original sculptures, even if they could not visit Florence or Rome. Artists and designers then and now could likewise sketch and learn from them.
The painted surfaces of these reproductions often mirror the original stone or bronze, and the casts seem convincingly monumental. But they are made of plaster, a relatively fragile material.
Cast Courts, Room 46b, The Weston Cast Court , case FS, shelf N
Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London