What’s the point of keeping it real?
The more a work is reproduced, the greater the aura of the original
HAS technology brought us to the point when a copy is as good as the real thing? The question has been posed by critics in response to the achievements of the Madridbased firm Factum Arte, which specialises in cutting-edge photographic and 3D printing techniques to make replicas of works of art. Athena can testify that they are astonishingly good.
At Waddesdon last year, as described in COUNTRY LIFE (August 17), the firm copied the Louis XIV Savonnerie carpet in the Red Drawing Room to allow visitors temporarily to walk across the room, but it looked so realistic that people needed persuasion to tread on it. This week, the National Gallery unveils its ‘Sebastiano and Michelangelo’ exhibition (Visual Arts, March 8), which includes a full-scale replica of the murals in the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio in Rome. At Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, copies have been made of paintings sold from the house in the 19th century.
Athena recalls the 1990s restoration of the Queen’s House at Greenwich, when photographic copies were installed of Orazio Gentileschi’s 1630s ceiling paintings in the Great Hall, which had been removed in the 18th century: they looked flat and plastic and have long since been removed. By contrast, Factum Arte’s reproduction of Veronese’s vast Wedding at Cana, recently installed on the end wall of the refectory of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, is so accurate that it replicates the seams made as a result of Napoleon’s troops cutting up the original to take it to the Louvre, where it remains. Now, the room makes visual sense again, although it still seems disappointing that the Louvre can’t lend the original back, as it is thought too fragile to move.
Does this mean that the original works are in some sense devalued? Athena doesn’t think so. Even if the resources of virtual reality were added to the technology of Factum Arte, a copy of the Borgherini Chapel in London can never replicate the experience of visiting the original, yet, famously, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin argued in 1936, in his essay The Work of Art in
the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, that modern techniques of reproduction, notably photography, stripped works of art of their ‘aura’ of genius and eternal mystery. In fact, the reverse has proved the truth—the more a work is reproduced, the greater the aura of the original, as the millions who visit the
Mona Lisa can testify. Factum Arte’s reproductions stand in a long tradition of copying works of art— in bronze and marble as well as paint. Few people now can do this convincingly, although the recent appearance on the market of some uncannily good fakes of works by Frans Hals, Parmigianino and even Gentileschi have revised views about the disappearance of such traditional skills. As Factum Arte points out, it relies on oldfashioned craftsmanship itself, in, for example, carving and gilding. A copy may look as good as the real thing, but, illogically perhaps, knowing it’s a copy immediately awakens a desire to see the original.