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Double Take: The Cork theatre that once housed a one-of-a-kind sculpture collection

The Canova casts have a complicated history.

Image: Crawford Art Gallery/Instagram

AT THE INTERSECTION of St Patrick’s Street and Opera Lane (formerly Faulkner’s Lane) in Cork city is the site of the former Apollo Society Theatre.

Founded in the early nineteenth century, the theatre was of course host to plays and performances. But as well as that, it once housed a collection of some of the greatest works of sculpture from ancient Greece and Rome – or reproductions of them, at least.

So how did these reproduced jewels of the ancient world end up in a Cork theatre? Well, they were never supposed to.  

Around 1810, Pope Pius VII was “anxious to express his gratitude to the English people” for the return of a number of masterpieces that had been stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte, according to Cork Heritage.

To do this, he commissioned sculptor Antonia Canova to create over 100 casts of some of the finest works in the Vatican’s collection of sculpture, including works old and new. (Casts are reproductions of the original artwork and are made by pouring plaster into a mold.)

For Pope Pius VII’s gift, Canova made casts of his own sculptures, as well of those by other artists. 

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What a line-up! Come and play this weekend as we celebrate #MuseumWeek with a jam-packed schedule of free activities! • SATURDAY 18 MAY It's National Drawing Day AND International Museum Day and we're marking the occasions with fabulous, free events! It's all an illusion... 12.30-1.30pm & 3-4pm Be inspired by Andrew Kearney's amazing exhibition, Mechanism, in this drawing workshop that focuses on the power of shifting perspectives. Copy-Cats! 10.30am-12 midday & 1.30-3.00pm Artist Regina Carbayo will share drawing tips and tricks for capturing the character of our fascinating cast and sculpture collection, hosted in our brightly renewed Sculpture Gallery! • SUNDAY 19 MAY 2-3pm: Take a walk through our wonderful exhibitions on a Guided Tour of the gallery with Michael Waldron! 2-3.30pm: Be creative and find calm in the heart of the gallery at our free Art Workshop, guided by Julie Forrester! • Free entry | No booking required | All welcome! • Photo credit: Jed Niezgoda / Veni Vidi Photo • #playmw #crawfordartgallery #corkcity #cork #purecork #ireland #recastingcanova #canovacasts #irelandsancienteast #museumweek

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Two years later, the casts were sent from Rome to London’s Custom House as a gift to the Prince Regent, according to the Crawford Art Gallery. After being relocated once more, the sculptures were offered to the Royal Academy, where the gift was declined due to lack of space. It was by chance that a porter overheard that they “could be had for the asking” and informed Lord Listowel of Cavanmore, Co Cork, who was then president of the Cork Society for Promoting the Fine Arts.

The Prince agreed that the casts could be donated to the city of Cork, and they were shipped to Ireland in October 1818. They were installed in the Society of Fine Arts (the former Apollo Society Theatre on the city’s main street, St Patrick’s Street) which sparked the founding of the Cork School of Art.

gm The St Patrick's St and Opera Lane (formerly Faulkner's Lane) intersection. Source: Google Maps

Cork artist Daniel Maclise, one of the first students to enrol in the school, wrote in an account of the event:  “A former theatre once supported by the Apollo Society of Amateur Actors was fixed upon as the most suitable place for the reception of the valuable collection of casts. It was situated in a principal street, Patrick Street, and the stage was screened off by a well-painted scene of the interior of a Greek temple.”

The account continues: “The pit was boarded over, the gallery was partitioned off. The boxes remained only as they were, and the statues were arranged around the Parterre with much taste on moveable pedestals under the Superintendence of a London gentleman who was sent over for the purpose, and whose name happened appropriately enough to be Corkaigne.”

However, shorty afterwards the Society of Fine Arts “suffered financial difficulty,” according to Cork Heritage, and it was agreed that it would amalgamate with the Royal Cork Institution. The Institution then attained the casts and moved them to their premises on Jameson Row. 

In 1832, the collection was moved to the Crawford Art Gallery, the former Custom House of Cork, at Emmet Place. As plaster is a fragile material, the casts have dwindled in number since 1818.

It remains there today, with twelve of the historic Canova casts on display in the Recasting Canova exhibition. Find out more details about the exhibition here. 

More Double Take: The site of the Harold’s Cross house where Robert Emmet hid before his execution

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