I’ll never forget the first time I saw my favorite work of art, the Laocoön Group, in person. Not the marble sculpture that graced the Cortile delle Statue at the Vatican (although, I was at the Vatican at the time) but one done in bronze, with the arms attached.
I didn’t even know such a thing existed.
But there it was, on a postcard behind a Vatican official’s desk, the Laocoön Group. I asked the Cardinal where the postcard came from and his answer, a foundry in Naples, started me on a fantastic journey of beauty, art, and opportunity.
It is well known in art and art history circles that there’s a strong tradition of manufacturing, collecting and using plaster casts of ancient marble statuary to create moulds. What I didn’t realize at the time was the the sheer number of moulds that existed and the impact of those moulds, often made when the original was being repaired, on the world of art.
Because, of course, where there’s a mould there can be a bronze cast. In the case of the Laocoön Group, when the mould is created from painting plaster on the original, the bronze casting is a posthumous first edition.
But I wasn’t thinking about that on my drive to Naples. I just wanted to see where this gorgeous bronze was created.
I found my way to the Chiurazzi foundry which was one of few foundries that, in the late 1800s, was granted access to the Vatican and multiple museums across Europe. The goal at the time was to preserve and repair antique and original statues, which occurred. But, there was another result: a mould was made of each of these pieces of art.
The same family, and foundry, was granted Vatican access again in 1972.
It was these molds, hundreds of them, filling a building the size of a WWII blimp hanger (it may have been a WWII blimp hanger!) that greeted me when Luigi Setaro walked me into the space.
I learned that the Setaro family preserved Fonderia Storica Chiurazzi in 2000 after Elio Chiurazzi went bankrupt, and with it the astonishing collections of moulds.
My intent, when I left Rome for Naples, was to buy a Laocoön. But when I saw the moulds I realized that I could share this art, these statues and sculptures, with America if only I could bring them across the ocean. So, over dinner, I told Luigi about that dream and he asked, “do you want to buy the foundry?”
It was a perfect moment, one where beauty and opportunity presented simultaneously.
By 2004 the deal was done and I owned the foundry and all 1650 moulds. Of course, there were laws in place that prevented me from removing things of such value from Italy. The moulds themselve could, in fact, be considered works of art. In fact, the Chiurazzi collection is considered to be one of the largest and most complete collections of original master moulds in the world.
For a time those moulds, and 14 people including artists and master craftsmen, were under my purview. But then I took my eyes off the original intent, to put myself in front of so much beauty, and decided to sell the foundry.
I kept a private collection of pieces that were cast from moulds of antiquities from the ruins at Pompeii. (So many that I sold some of those at the Living With Art auction at Christie’s last year.)
I’m happy that past-me, while short sighted in the sale of the foundry, did have the forethought, and did take the time, not just to keep a private collection but to duplicate several of the moulds.
Including, of course, the Laocoön Group.
That mould has now been used at my foundry in Oregon and, in casting the bronze, I’ve reconnected with the original intent. The opportunity to find art, and beauty, and give others the chance for the same.