David and Helsinki

February 27, 2020

The plaster head of Michelangelo’s David has long been familiar to me. When I was studying art history at the University of Helsinki, David’s head was displayed on its own on a wall shelf in the study hall, above the other plaster casts in a place of honour. To me, the head was more expressive than all the others. The fact that during my trip to Italy in 1959 I had admired the original statue in full scale, at Galleria dell ’Accademia in Florence added to our ‘acquaintance’. I practiced my drawing skills in the university drawing room, and I remember there were other parts of David to use as models, yet I seemed somehow attracted to the head.

The Art History Study Room with David’s head above. Photo Timo Huvilinna, Helsinki University Museum.

The University of Helsinki sculpture collection

In the 19th century, as many as 130 copies of ancient and Renaissance sculptures were purchased by the University of Helsinki. The purpose was for students to get an idea of world art, as traveling to see original works was rare. Most recently, the larger statues in the collection have been displayed on the ‘old side’ of the university, designed by architect C.L. Engel, in the lobby of the Empire-style building. The smaller casts are in the Art History study rooms.

The lobby of Carl Ludvig Engel's Empire-style university building (built 1832). Photo by Timo Huvilinna, Helsinki University Museum

Finland was part of the Kingdom of Sweden when the university was founded in 1640 in Turku. The university was named as the Royal Academy of Turku, and the acquisition of the art collection began in the early 18th century. It included, among other things, plaster replicas of ancient art. After the Swedish-Russian War of 1808–9 Finland became an autonomous Grand Duchy of the Russian Empire, and the university was renamed the Imperial Academy of Turku. The university remained in Turku until 1827, when the city centre was almost destroyed by fire, and the Academy’s art collections were lost. The university was ordered to move to Helsinki for temporary facilities until 1832, while C.L. Engel’s University building was being built. After its completion, the university was renamed The Imperial Alexander University of Finland, in recognition of the support of Alexander I (1777–1825), Emperor of Russia, and gradually the sculpture collection gained momentum. After Finland became independent in 1917, the name of the university was changed once again, this time to University of Helsinki.

Laocoön group and Princess of Urbino by Andrea dell’Aquila (Portrait of a Young Woman) from the University Collections. Photos Timo Huvilinna, Helsinki University Museum.

Beginning of the collection

In 1834 Nils Abraham Gyldén was appointed assistant professor of Classical Philology at the Imperial Alexander University; at once he travelled abroad to study linguistics. Gyldén became fascinated by ancient art he saw in museum collections in Berlin, Munich, Dresden and in Vienna. After studying the writings of neoclassical theorists, he began to study archaeology in Berlin under the guidance of Professor Eduard Gerhard. In Berlin, Gyldén saw plaster copies of ancient sculptures, and Gerhard gave him their price list. On his return to Finland, Gyldén attempted to get the university to acquire copies of sculptures, but he had no luck securing funds.

Gyldén’s idea with the plaster replicas was to establish a new art museum in Finland. He wrote about his views and lectured to his students, who supported his ideas and took them forward. In 1840s the students organised a fundraising programme and purchased a collection of plaster replicas selected and imported to Finland by Gyldén: these included the Laocoön group, the Apollo Belvedere, and Artemis from Versailles. There was also enough money to purchase smaller replicas, including three busts depicting the children of Niobe and seven reliefs featuring Silenus, Mars, Juno and Mercury. The students donated the works to the university.

In the summer of 1845 the casts arrived in Helsinki and, in the autumn, the first art exhibition of Finland was held in the university drawing room. Besides the casts of the sculptures, other works previously acquired by the university were also on display: a miniature copy of Belvedere Apollo and other reproductions of ancient and contemporary sculpture. Paintings were represented by works from a Belgian art dealer. The exhibition received a lot of attention in the press.

Systematic collecting

Carl Gustaf Estlander was Professor of Aesthetics and Literature. In 1869 he sent a memorandum to the University Consistory (ruling body) on the need for plaster replicas. Estlander argued that such collections had been established in several German universities and most recently in Uppsala, Sweden. He stated that ‘there was no foundation in the teaching of his subject when the students had no personal conception of world art.’ The Consistory granted the funds, and the first purchases were made from the Louvre. In Paris, Adolf von Becker, the university’s drawing teacher, assisted with the selection and oversaw the transport of the works. In addition, nine plaster replicas were purchased from Berlin and one from Rome. Walter Runeberg, a Finnish sculptor working in Rome, assisted with the acquisition, before all 49 plaster replicas arrived in Helsinki in the autumn of 1872. Sculptor Carl Eneas Sjöstrand installed and refurbished them for display – and the collection was opened to the public in May 1873.

Exhibition of the sculpture collection in the University Arppeanum Building 1890–1910. Photo by Gustav Sandberg, Svenska Litteratursällskapet.

In 1873, the collection was given a new exhibition space in the building known as the ‘Arppeanum’. The building also accommodated the Mineral Cabinet, the Historical-Ethnographic Museum, the predecessor of the National Museum of Finland, and the drawing and music halls. In 1880, the collection was moved temporarily to the university’s main building, but returned to the Arppeanum in 1887. According to the Arppeanum’s building history, the plaster copies obtained from the Louvre are particularly valuable, and the castings purchased in Rome and Berlin are known to have been taken directly from the original works.

Collecting copies of Renaissance sculptures in the 1880s

Estlander acquired the first copies of Renaissance sculptures from Florence in 1883. At the end of the decade, Johan Jakob Tikkanen, who was an assistant professor of aesthetics and art history, continued Estlander’s work by making purchases in Berlin and Florence – acquiring the head of Michelangelo’s David in 1888 from the Francini plaster foundry in Florence. The head differs from other similar casts, as it is hollow at the back. Apart from David, most of the plaster copies purchased from Florence comes from the Lelli plaster foundry.

The Art History Study Room with David's Head Above. Students have been surrounded by sculptures. Photos Timo Huvilinna, Helsinki University Museum.
David’s head shown from different angles. The height of the cast is 113 cm, width 80 cm, and depth 70 cm. Photos, Päivi Rainio, Helsinki University Museum.

The collection includes reproductions of 75 ancient, 52 Renaissance, 3 early Christian and 2 Asian sculptures. The Asian sculptures and three of the Renaissance plaster heads were donated by sculptor Walter Runeberg in 1890. The last purchase was made in 1912, when the only Finnish work in the collection, a copy of a Stone Age moose scull found at Huittinen, was acquired. This was followed by a donation of a 1984 votive relief from the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen, as well as the head of an archaic sculpture and Athene Lemnia gypsum copies in 2001.

Many of the plaster casts from the renaissance period at the Helsinki University collection are similar to those at the V&A, as they were made in the same workshops. A few examples include: Bust of a child, by Desiderio da Settignano, Portrait of a Young Woman by  Andrea dell’Aquila, Pietro Mellini by Benedetto da Maiano, Rinaldo della Luna by Mino da Fiesole, David by Donatello, David with the Head of Goliath by Verrocchio, Lorenzo de Medici by Michelangelo, Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto by Jacopo della Quercia and Bust of  Woman by Francesco Laurna, which was displayed at the V&A pavillion ‘A World of Fragile Parts’ at the 2016 Venice Biennale, with its original 19th century mould from Gipsformerei in Berlin.

The drawing room’s collection also includes parts by Michelangelo David; they are newer purchases. Photos Päivi Rainio, Helsinki University Museum.
The art room. Photos by Timo Huvilinna.

Locating the collections

The collection was on display at the Arppeanum until 1937, when it was moved to the university’s new extension designed by architect Johan Sigfrid Sirén. It remained undamaged in the new wing throughout the bombing of the Finnish-Soviet Continuation War in February 1944. Sadly, the bombing hit the nineteenth-century Empire style university building badly, as the lobby and the ballroom were damaged, and some of the art there was destroyed. After the building was restored, the sculptures were once again transferred and arranged on a display according to the different subjects of art history. The larger sculptures were installed in the vestibule and the smaller sculptures in the department of art history. According to Päivi Rainio, the amanuensis of the University Museum, ‘the sculptures have been displayed in many locations. It is surprising how even the large sculptures have been transferred to different locations considering the difficulty in moving them and the subsequent risk of injury, which also explain their damage.’

The drawing room dates to 1678, the time of the Royal Academy of Turku. In 1956, the drawing room was permanently located in Helsinki, in the University Porthania building designed by architect Aarne Erv. Photos by teacher, visual artist Vappu Rossi, Helsinki University Museum.

The university’s five-year building renovation was commenced in the summer of 2019 from the old part of the building, that is, the Empire side. The large sculptures in the vestibule have been taken to the National Board of Antiquities for storage and conservation. The rest of the sculptures have been transferred to the new premises of the history of art department at the university’s Topelia House.


I’d like to express my sincerest thanks to Ms Päivi Rainio, Assistant Curator at Helsinki University Museum, and Johanna Puisto for translating the text.

Further reading

Matti Klinge, 1962: Teoreettisen kuvataideharrastuksen alkuvaiheista Suomessa. Historiallinen aikakauskirja, Helsinki 1962 (The early stages of the study of theoretical art in Finland. Historical timeline. Helsinki 1962)

Riitta Nikula, 1974: Helsingin yliopiston veistokuvakokoelman historiaa ja taustaa. Helsingin yliopiston taidehistorian laitoksen julkaisuja I, Helsinki 1974 (History and Background of the University of Helsinki Sculpture Collection. Publications of the Department of Art History, University of Helsinki, Helsinki 1974)

Pöykkö Kaarina, 1978: Helsingin piirustuslaitoksen historiaa kolmelta vuosisadalta. Helsingin yliopiston piirustuslaitos 300 vuotta. Juhlanäyttely yliopiston päärakennuksessa, 1978 (History of the Helsinki Drawing Department over three centuries. University of Helsinki, Department of Drawing, 300 years. Exhibition in the main building of the University, 5 May – 14 April 1978)

About the author

February 27, 2020

I am an art historian and non-fiction writer specialising in Finnish Design. I have contributed to several books on jewellery, modern Finnish design, plastic and denim.

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