This year we celebrate nineteen centuries since the inauguration of Trajan’s Column, the world’s most famous ancient bas relief. Admire the original in Rome and see the plaster casts up close – in Bucharest, London, or Saint-Germain
It was the autumn of 106 A.D., and Rome was celebrating. Upon his victorious return from Dacia, Trajan made a gift of 650 denari to each taxpayer, granted a one-year tax exemption and ordered 123 days of games. A few months later, he ordered architect Apollodorus of Damascus to build the greatest imperial forum. Six years later, in 112, a crowd of people from all over the Empire came in this forum to see the column inaugurated. In ancient times, the scenes depicted on it could be admired up close from the tall terraces of the surrounding structures: two neighboring libraries – the Greek and the Latin one – and the Basilica Ulpia. The scenes that unfold on the marble spindle, like a giant scroll rolled up in 23 full turns, are probably the illustrations of the lost book – De Bello Dacico – in which emperor Marcus Ulpius Traianus recounted his two wars against the Dacians. (101-102 and 105-106 A.D.). The sculpted strip measures 625 feet in length and between 35 and 49 inches in width – widening towards the top. The craftsmen, most likely from Syria, placed about 2,500 figurines in 124 vividly-colored scenes. Some of the weapons held by the warriors were painted, others – particularly spears and javelins – were made of copper wire. The top was crowned by a colossal bronze statue of Trajan – replaced in 1598 with one of Saint Peter, by order of Pope Sixtus V. In time, the colors faded, many details became eroded and the metal bits were lost, but the monumental Columna, about 125 feet tall, remains intact after almost 2,000 years and can be seen in Trajan’s Forum in Rome. Those who want to pore over its scenes more closely, though, can choose any of the five museums hosting plaster casts from the 19th and 20th centuries – far more “legible” than the original, worn down by the pollution that has beset Italy’s capital over the last decades.
1. In 1861, master craftsmen Alessandro and Leopoldo Malpieri made three plaster casts of the Column in Rome, upon the order of Napoleon III (who wanted to erect a copy of the structure in one of Paris’ squares). One cast was taken to Paris to be remolded in galvanized copper at the Oudry mill. The French copy was exposed in the Louvre in the summer of 1864. Meanwhile, the idea of building a Column in Paris was abandoned, and in 1870 the parts were moved into storage at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Saint-Germain. Nowadays, in the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale de Saint-Germain-en-Laye (near Paris), you can see a galvanized copper copy of the base section of the Column, exposed in the dry moat of the Saint-Germain-en-Laye château.
2. The other copy, donated by Napoleon III to Pope Pius IX, was first placed in the Lateran Museum. Another Roman pope, Pius XII, gave it to the Museo della Civiltà Romana in 1951. Today, the 125 cast pieces can be seen in Room LI.
3. The Louvre keeps the Column’s base and about a third of the frieze in its collection of plaster casts at Petites Écuries de Versailles.
4 In London, Victoria and Albert Museum’s Cast Courts are dominated by the cast of the column – made around 1864 – cut in two. The height of the gallery did not allow for the monument to be exposed in one piece.
5. After half a century of indecision, the Romanian government ordered a full-scale copy of the column from the Vatican in 1939. Master craftsman Francesco Mercatalli and his team cast it in reinforced white concrete mixed with marble powder. The Lapidarium, a modern building of over 18,000 square feet, was specially built to house it, in the patio of the National Museum of Romanian History.