The Cast Courts are dominated by a plaster cast of the original marble column, 'Trajan's Column', made in the 19th century, around 1864. The massive cast is a tremendous feat of both engineering and casting. Displayed in the Architectural Courts from the time of their opening in 1873, it provided the opportunity for students (and others not able to travel to Rome) to see this iconic monument of the classical world. The cast of the column is made up of sections of plaster reliefs that are attached to an inner chimney built of brick. Each section was individually numbered so that the column could easily be assembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Trajan's column was erected to commemorate the successful campaigns of the Emperor against the Dacians of the Danube frontier in AD 101-2 and 105-6. It stood at the focal point of the Emperor's Forum in Rome and takes the form of a hollow shaft built of Parian marble, 3.83 meters in diameter a the base and rising to a height of 38 meters including the square plinth upon which it stands and the capital that surmounts it. The continuous frieze of low relief depicting the history of Trajan's campaigns winds up and round the column for a total length of over 200 meters, and shows 2500 figures. In antiquity, placed as it was between the two libraries of the Forum, the reliefs could be studied at close quarters up to a certain height, and the whole sculpted surface was picked out in colour and enriched with metal accessories. Originally the column was topped by a colossal bronze statue of Trajan; this was replaced at the end of the 16th century by the present bronze of Saint Peter, made by Bastiano Torrigiano.
The cast of Trajan's Column taken from the original 1st century AD monument, represents sculpture from the earliest period in the Cast Courts. The cast of the column was obtained for the Museum in 1864 at a cost of £2,498 11s 2d (which translates approximately to £107,164 in today's money). Pieces of relief were cast in sections from metal moulds held in the Louvre which had been cast under the direction of Napoleon III. The commissioning of casts of the base appears to have been an after-thought in 1872.
The gallery is not high enough to accommodate the column in one piece even without the surmounting figure of St Peter. In the original catalogue of 1874 the display of the column in two sections was seen as a distinct bonus, providing as it does the opportunity to see much of the detail of the reliefs not clearly visible on the original.
Commenting on the opening of the Architectural Courts in 1873, The Art Journal remarked on the cast 'the march of the warriors of Rome will come to a sudden conclusion at the glass-ceiling, but will recommence on the floor of the court'. The cast was made in sections of plaster reliefs each individually numbered to make up a giant jigsaw and these were attached to a brick built inner chimney. The sections of relief are approximately 1.2m high, 0.6m wide, and about 2.5cm thick.
As now, the cast of Trajan's column was a substantial and important feature of these courts on their opening in 1873, and was one of the first objects to be built into the gallery at the time of construction. Although the reception to the column was generally good when the gallery opened, the Art Journal thought it 'crowded out of sight those (casts) of more sensible proportions'. Its construction, however, extended the frontiers of Museum display practice and afforded the opportunity for students of art and those not wealthy enough to participate in the Grand Tour, to see this important monument of the Roman world. Like many outdoor architectural monuments, the original column has suffered from the ravages of pollution, but our cast, taken in the mid nineteenth century, retains many areas of detail which have disappeared from the original.