Trajan's Column

The magnificent plaster cast of Trajan's Column is one of the stars of the V&A collection, and has towered over the cast collection in two halves since the opening of the Courts in 1873. A monumental feat of moulding, electrotyping, casting and engineering, the column perfectly demonstrates the complexity and skill of copying in the 19th century.

View of Trajan's Column, Cast Courts, Room 46a, The West Court. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Plaster cast of Trajan's column (details), Monsieur Oudry, about 1864, Paris, France. Museum no. REPRO.1864-128. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A Roman triumph

The original marble Trajan's Column stands at the centre of the Roman Forum in Rome, and was built to commemorate Emperor Trajan's two successful campaigns against the Dacians in AD 101 – 2 and 105 – 6. The column is thought to have been designed and constructed under the supervision of the architect Apollodorus of Damascus, and illustrates the two campaigns in the designs. The spiralling low relief frieze winds round the column from the bottom to the top for over 200 metres, and illustrates 155 scenes and more than 2500 individual figures and animals.

Etching of Trajan's Column, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Italy. Museum no. CAI. 933. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Moulding the column

In 1861 Emperor Napoleon III requested that moulds be taken from the Roman original, so that a copy could be erected in Paris. These moulds were sent to the workshop of the pioneering, Parisian founder, Leopold Oudry so that he could use them to make copper electrotypes. To create the electrotype, the moulds were suspended in a copper sulphate solution, and copper was then deposited on the mould by an electrical charge. Trajan's Column was the largest commission to have used this process. These electrotype copies were once displayed at the Louvre, but now survive in parts at the Château of St Germain en Laye, outside Paris.

Rejected tender of the base of Trajan’s Column, G. Berger, 1872. V&A Archive, MA/2/T6. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1864 the electrotypes were used as patterns to make the V&A's plaster casts and bought for £2,498 11s 2d. The V&A's Trajan's Column is therefore a copy of a copy, with old and new methods of copying complementing each other. The commissioning of casts of the base of the plinth seems to have been an afterthought, and these were eventually completed by a M. Maitre in 1872 at a cost of 5,000 francs.

Stereoscopic photographs of the North Court by J. Davis Burton, 1868, England. Museum no. 60742. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Finding a home

When the casts were first acquired by the South Kensington Museum (later known as the Victoria and Albert Museum) in the 1860s, they could not be accommodated on high columns and were instead displayed in sections mounted on smaller structures. In 1873 the Cast Courts were completed and were built to a height of 25 metres, specifically to accommodate the Column in two parts. The Art Journal commented that, "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".

Two brick cores were built by George Smith and Co. to support the plaster reliefs at such a height and were estimated to cost £233. A photograph by one of the Museum's earliest photographers, Isobel Agnes Cowper, shows the column being assembled piece by piece, like a giant jigsaw, around the brick core.

Installation of Trajan's Column, photograph by Isobel Agnes Cowper, about 1873. V&A Archive, MA/32/29, Guardbook negative 9876. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The construction of the column was finally completed in 1874, a year after the Courts opened. An anonymous late 19th-century watercolour of the western Cast Court depicts the original decorative scheme, and clearly shows the scale of the cast in comparison with the other copies around it. The watercolour also depicts the column topped by the bronze figure of St Peter which surmounts the marble column in Rome, but this was not reproduced for the Museum's cast.

The Western Architectural Court, watercolour, about 1873, England. Museum no. D.564-1905. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The display of Trajan's Column at the Museum has enabled visitors to study and admire this important monument of the classical world. During the 19th century it provided a practical alternative to visiting the original monument in Rome, and today the original has suffered greatly from pollution, so the cast now retains much more of the original detail.

The cast's reproduction of the classical text used for the inscription on the base was of particular interest for many. By 1900, increasing literacy boosted the circulation of newspapers and journals and the graphic arts were being given higher visibility as posters, and shop signs changed the urban landscape. Copies of historic lettering encouraged designers to develop new typefaces integrating lettering and ornament for the expanding printing industry. The letterforms used on Trajan's Column have been widely copied, re-used, and celebrated, and the convenience of the cast in South Kensington aided this fame. Brucciani and Co, a London-based plaster casting firm, sold copies of the lettering for £7 a panel, and many schools of art used these as teaching aids. Since then the 'Trajan' lettering has been widely re-used and has inspired many modern typefaces.

Plaster cast of the Trajan typeface, Eric Gill, 1919, England. Museum no. REPRO.6036. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In the early 20th century the effectiveness and importance of reproductions began to be doubted, and many art schools began to rely less heavily on academic teaching using casts. A report in 1928 given to the V&A's Advisory Council proposed that the Museum dispose of the cast collection in its entirety, suggesting that it was actually 'injurious to students'. Displaying Trajan's Column in two sections, for example, would give 'an utterly wrong idea of the effect of the column as it is'. The advice was thankfully disregarded, and today the column stands tall at the centre of the Cast Courts, and continues to inspire and enthral.

Projection mapping on Trajan's Column by Dreamrec & Rochite, 2013. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Background image: Plaster cast of Trajan's column (detail), Monsieur Oudry, about 1864, Paris, France. Museum no. REPRO.1864-128. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London