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Classics 270 students and professor The cast of Classics 270: (back row, from left) Boaz Zissu, Tom Ventresco, Erin Dintino, Marcia DeVoe, Rebecca Karberg, Joel Rygorsky, Stephen Miller; (front row) Elisabeth Cornu and Mont Allen, with plaster friends. (Photo courtesy of Stephen Miller)

Restoring a legacy: UC Berkeley graduate students bring long-neglected Classical casts back to life

Slide show  Flash slide show: Watch the plaster casts get resurrected

- Deep in the bowels of an aircraft-hangar-size warehouse in Emeryville stands a gleaming figure of a nude man. Although this Olympic victor lost his arm and hand in Greece a millennium ago, his pectorals remain as perfect as those of modern-day gymnasium gods.

Erin Dintino works on removing the prominent mold seam running across Agias's mighty chest. (Miller)
The Olympian is Agias of Pharsalos, and he was first immortalized in marble in Delphi around 336 B.C. That statue was copied in plaster at the turn of the 20th century. Agias's plaster twin then began a long and strange odyssey, taking him from France to Belgium to California, where he spent more than four decades lying with hundreds of other Classical casts under the bleachers of UC Berkeley's Edwards Field.

Long forgotten, Agias and companions are finally receiving the attention they deserve. Every Thursday, six graduate students in the spring 2003 Classics 270 seminar make their way to the boiler room of UC Berkeley's Marchant Building, the university's overflow storage facility on San Pablo Ave., to pick up cotton swabs and tiny chisels - and roll back time.

The seminar's creator, UC Berkeley classics professor Stephen Miller, hopes that by the end of the semester his class will have restored at least 20 of the university's plaster casts collection and be able to display them on campus. Only then will the casts fulfill the intention for which they were purchased more than a century earlier.

Collecting the classics

The story of the casts begins with Phoebe Apperson Hearst, UC Berkeley's early, generous benefactress. Shortly after establishing the campus's museum of anthropology that bears her name, she donated more than 300 copies of famous Classical statues to the university around 1902. Plaster cast collections were all the rage then, and Hearst hired a specialist named Emerson in Rome to assemble a sort of Greatest Hits of Ancient Greece. Hearst's goal, explains Miller, was to set up a museum where California citizens could experience other civilizations.

But Californians never had the chance to gaze at Agias's perfect pectorals, or at the statues of Aphrodite, Apollo, and Sophokles, nor the busts of Socrates, Pericles, Plato, and Cicero that kept him company. The new museum had too little space, so the statues were stored for decades in a ramshackle tin building. Then, sometime before 1943, they were moved to the crawl space under the bleachers of Edwards Field, where they were forgotten.

That is, until Miller learned of their existence around 1973, and investigated with the help of some students. "We crawled in with whisk brooms and flashlights," he recalls. "There was dust and cobwebs. Everything was stacked higgledy-piggledy and was obviously filthy and being damaged by rain water." Miller set off some alarm bells, and Professor Emeritus J.K. Anderson, then a curator of the Hearst Museum, arranged to have the casts moved to a university warehouse in Richmond. In the 1990s they were transferred again, to the Marchant Building in Emeryville, where they would be joined by another orphaned collection dating from 1915.

A gift of antiquity

In 1915, the City of San Francisco hosted the Pan Pacific Exposition, honoring the opening of the Panama Canal. Many countries participated, including Greece, which adorned its pavilion with some 160 casts of Classical statues, primarily from the Acropolis in Athens but also from Delphi, Olympia, and elsewhere. At the close of the world's fair, Greece gave the material to San Francisco. Rumor has it that San Francisco lent the statues to schools and educational institutions. Most were lost, damaged, or never returned.

The surviving 27 pieces sat forlornly for 20 years in a warehouse in South San Francisco, until in 2001 the city's museums department decided to find a new home for them. After an 18-month negotiation process, they were formally given to UC Berkeley's Classics Department. In February 2003, movers packed them up and delivered them to the boiler room of the Marchant Building.

For Miller, whose primary research focus is not conservation, but digging - he has been working for years on the archaeological excavation of the Panhellenic athletic and religious center of Nemea in Greece - saving the casts has transcended academic interest and become a time-consuming crusade.

"This collection has never received the attention from someone who knew what they were looking at," he says. "They're in better shape now, but the damage has already been done. Mrs. Hearst's intentions have not been honored. The collection was never available to the public or to the public as she wanted. If we can get 20 pieces on display and produce a booklet, that'll be a good start."

Painstaking work

Miller's class is well on their way to that goal. Each of the five students (plus one auditor) in the Classics 270 seminar must restore a freestanding sculpture, one portrait bust, and one relief. In each case, they must also write a catalog entry describing the character, who made the cast, and its significance. In addition, the students are writing a booklet that Miller hopes to find funding to publish that will detail the history of the collections and the techniques used to restore the casts.

"It's really exciting," says Erin Dintino, a first-year graduate student working as a classicist in the art history department. "This is the closest a student can get to publishing an actual work. Not only are we getting hands-on experience, but these casts are valuable as artifacts in and of themselves - as 20th century antiques."

By now Dintino is a little sorry that she instinctively grabbed the cast of Agias, one of the largest freestanding sculptures, for her first assignment. She is still working on it, while the other students have moved on to their second or even third pieces.

Like all the seminar students, Dintino refers to her statue by name ("Aggie for short") and by gender. As she carefully touches up the back of "his" knees, she rattles off his pedigree. An Olympic victor, Agias was the ancestor of a wealthy and influential Thessalian named Daochos, who was a close political ally of Philip and Alexander of Macedon. During Daochos's tenure as head of the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi (336-332 B.C.), he commissioned a group of statues of his famous family members and himself. Almost 2,000 years later, the marble figure of Agias - by then missing its arms, kneecaps and ankles - was cast in a French museum, purchased by Hearst's emissary Emerson from the French, and shipped via Antwerp to California. Despite his entombment under the bleachers, Agias was not badly damaged, sustaining only bad stains around its feet and base and lighter discoloration elsewhere. Dintino tackled the dirt first with a "kind of magic eraser," and then when that didn't work, a succession of solvents from water to ammonia.

Once Agias was as white as he could be, she started on the "web" of seams left over from the molds used to make the cast. Typically these ridges were sanded down by the recipients right after the casts were delivered. To remove them a hundred years later is much more difficult: the resulting virgin white plaster has to be tinted with pigments to match the discolored parts exactly, and in some cases the plates had shifted and forced the seams off kilter. Using tiny chisels and razors about the size of eyeglass screwdrivers, the students must patiently chip away the seams.

"At this point I know every inch of his musculature," Dintino says, patting Agias's considerable calf. "I've gone over him with a Q-tip about a thousand times."

And as tedious as that sounds, it teaches more than just Zen-level patience. "The importance of putting students into a three-dimensional version of the original work cannot be overemphasized," says Miller. "Even a plaster cast provides the sense of scale that projecting a slide on a screen can't."

The Socratic method

While much smaller than Agias, a bust of Socrates presented challenges just as daunting. The bust was covered in black grime, the result of a gluelike paint bonding with dirt from human hands and atmospheric pollutants. "You couldn't get it off with a sledgehammer," says Mont Allen, a second-year graduate student in art history.

Although Allen might have been tempted to use a hammer, he's pretty fond of his piece. "He's so cute - I love his little pug nose."

Consultant Elisabeth Cornu, a conservator at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco who has been assisting the students five hours a week, tried every solvent in her repertoire. Still Socrates remained a dingy gray. They even tried bleaching him, but in the end had to settle for coating the remaining stains with a thin-as-water whitish pigment.

The Socrates bust, with its intricate beard and deep-set eyes, required several different molds to cast and thus had a pronounced "web" of seams that also had to be removed. Eventually, Tom Ventresco took over the delicate task of chipping away the web.

Ventresco, a program coordinator with UC Berkeley's Space Management and Capital Programs unit, met Miller eight years ago during the expansion of Dwinelle Hall, the Classics department home. The two men stayed in touch, and when San Francisco donated the Pan Pacific casts and Miller got the seminar approved, Ventresco found workspace for him in the Marchant Building - sealing off parts of the boiler room for security and relocating filing cabinets.

Along the way Ventresco became intrigued by the idea of the class. A sculptor in a previous career, he now assists the class as a volunteer, doing some of the delicate work and sharing his knowledge of how casts are made. The process of piece-molds has changed little from ancient times, he explains; only in the mid-19th century were flexible molds developed that could conform to undercuts and complex shapes.

He revels in the time he spends in the class. "It's rekindled my past interest in sculpture," he says. "Instead of just walking up to a statue for a few minutes in a museum, I have an opportunity to work closely with something for an extended period of time. I get to see the touches of the sculptor, like in the sharp lines on Agias's leg. In certain lights that line casts a shadow that perfectly renders the muscles."

Final resting place

With restoration of several of the casts finished (see the class Web site), Miller has begun the next phase of this arduous project: finding somewhere to display them.

Classics professor Stephen Miller has fought long and hard not just to get these plaster casts to the boiler room, but to see them emerge into the light one day. (Bonnie Powell photo)
"The question is, where do we have space on campus that's in keeping with the period and style?" he says. Apparently, quite a few places. Miller has identified 19 positions for roughly 29 pieces. The most prominent candidate venue is Doe Library. "The Neo-Classical entrance was built at the same time as the plaster casts were acquired," Miller says, pointing to a photo he's taken of the library's grand steps and columns. Inside the entrance are two empty alcoves that do seem tailor-made for full-size statues of a Caryatid and the playwright Sophocles.

Further inside Doe, Miller continues, there are columns scattered throughout that previously held casts, such as a bust of Marcus Aurelius that was broken during seismic upgrading. "We would put Cicero there," he points to a picture of the empty column. And in the Art History/Classics graduate seminar room in Doe Library, the bare tops of two long rows of bookcases look like perfect display shelves for the Parthenon frieze and a few busts.

Although the university's casts haven't been treated well until now, Miller hopes that under the care of future classes, UC Berkeley's collection may someday rival reverently displayed ones at Cornell, Emory, the University of Saskatchewan and UT at Austin.

"At least we still have ours," he says, citing research that Dintino has done showing that students at Union College took their plaster casts outside to play baseball with.

"It was the students against the Gods," he says. "Not surprisingly, the Gods lost."