Cork Models of the Ruins of Rome

Roland Mayer

Returning from a holiday with souvenirs of our travels is nothing new. The 18th-century British Grand Tourist went to Rome ostensibly to study the antiquities. Flat art – paintings of views by Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691–1765), engravings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–78), drawings or watercolours by Charles-Louis Clérisseau (1721–1820) – all provided him with conveniently portable mementos of his visit. But ingenious Italian artisans also devised a three-dimensional and yet still portable souvenir, namely architectural models of ruins. These proved highly desirable not only to the wealthier tourist and collector, but also to the professional architect. Indeed, so popular was the medium that it was taken up in Germany and England as well.

The models represented Rome’s surviving ancient buildings either in their ruined state or in conjectural reconstructions of the original. The gentleman collector would most probably put the models on display in his library, where other antiquities, such as busts and cineraria (stone caskets containing ashes of the cremated), were exhibited. The German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) recorded in his Italian Journey that on his arrival in Rome in November of 1786 at the age of 37 the dreams of his youth, formed by “paintings, drawings, etchings, woodcuts, plaster casts and cork models,” he now saw in reality.

The media in which the models were made varied: cork, pumice, wood, bronze, plaster, marble, and alabaster, all served. Broken marble was especially easy to find amid Rome’s rubble, and it was worked by carvers in miniature – scalpellini – to represent columns, arches, and temples. But the earliest three-dimensional models were made from cork, an attractive medium, because its warm colour and pock-marked surface convincingly reproduce the look of the ruins themselves. Cork is not as fragile as marble or plaster, and its lightness made it easy to transport. It is also largely resistant to decay or insect damage.

Some of Augusto Rosa’s 18th-century cork models, displayed behind a cast of the Belvedere Torso from the Vatican Museums, 1st cent. BC/AD (Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Germany).

One of the earliest practitioners of this skill in modelling, known as phelloplasty (phellos being the Ancient Greek word for cork), was Augusto Rosa (1738–84), whose Arch of Constantine can be seen in the Hessisches Landesmuseum in Darmstadt, Germany, where a number of his other models are attractively displayed.

Cork model of the Arch of Constantine, Augusto Rosa, 1770s?, the original being dedicated in Rome in AD 315, three years after the Battle of Milvian Bridge which it commemorates (Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Germany).

The prince of cork modellers is reckoned to be Antonio Chichi (1743–1816), thanks in part to the possibility that he was a member of Piranesi’s workshop. Examples of Chichi’s models, originally 36 in number, are to be found in German collections: Darmstadt has 26 and Kassel 33. The Herzoglichen Museum in Gotha, Germany, has twelve models, including this reconstruction of the Temple of Portunus, once known as Fortuna Virilis.

Cork model of the Temple of Portunus, Antonio Chichi, 1786, the original being built in the Forum Boarium in the 2nd cent. AD, replacing a temple of the 3rd or 4th cent. BC (Herzoglichen Museum Gotha, Germany).

Chichi here secured a more authentically antique look by releasing the structure from the later convent in which one flank was embedded (the temple was finally freed from its confinement in the Fascist period). In other cases he removed modern accretions; for example the 17th-century ‘ass’s ears’ bell towers do not appear on his models of the Pantheon, the finest of which has recently been beautifully conserved for the Ghent University Museum collection.

Italian artisans, however, did not monopolize the modelling of ruins in cork. The Schloss Johannisburg museum in Aschaffenburg has 54 models, most of them the work of the German Carl Joseph May (1747–1822). May was by trade a Hofkonditor or court pastry-cook, and so he was adept at making architectural models in sugar, pièces montées, a skill useful in his new line of business, which began in about 1790. May’s models were competent, as can be seen in one of his versions of the Arch of the Argentarii (the right-hand pier is May’s own restoration, since it is actually embedded in the wall of the adjacent church of S. Giorgio al Velabro), now in the Los Angeles County Museum.

Cork model of the Arch of the Argentarii (money-changers), Carl May, 1792–5, the original being erected in Rome in AD 204 (Los Angeles County Musem of Art, CA, USA).

One of the chief advantages of May’s work was that it was a good deal cheaper than Chichi’s, whose models he copied, as he never visited Rome. Carl’s son Georg (1790–1853) continued in his father’s footsteps, with the advantage of an extended visit to Rome in 1827, thanks to the patronage of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Georg’s models displayed the ruins as they were to be seen in their excavated or newly conserved state. This 1835 model of the Arch of Titus in Aschaffenburg, for instance, represents its recent reconstruction by Giuseppe Valadier (1762–1839).

Cork model of the Arch of Titus, Georg May, 1835, the original being dedicated on Rome’s Via Sacra in AD 81 (Johannisburg Palace, Aschaffenburg, Germany).

The young John Soane (1753–1837) spent 27 months in Rome in the years 1778–80, an experience which coloured his entire career, culturally and emotionally. The museum he established in his London town house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields conserves the impressive collection of cork models he put together over the years. In 1804, Soane acquired his first model, of the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, made by Giovanni Altieri (fl. 1766–1802), for £16 (= £1650 in today’s money).

He also purchased a model, perhaps made by Richard Dubourg (1738–1826) in England, of the Temple of Portunus (Fortuna Virilis), as reconstructed by Piranesi:

Cork model of the Temple of Portunus, Richard Dubourg, late 18th century? (Soane Museum, London; photograph by the author).

By 1828 he had a sufficient number of items to justify provision of a dedicated Model Room, recently restored, in the attic of his house. That an architect of Soane’s standing collected models in cork demonstrates their value to a professional, who had articled pupils to train.

Drawing of John Soane’s Model Room, Charles James Richardson, 1835 (British Library, London).

Cork models were not cheap knick-knacks, since considerable time (three to four months) and care went into their production. The master craftsman who ensured an accurately scaled representation of the ancient structures kept no stock of the models, which were produced only as required. Chichi styled himself architect (as we see on the base of the model illustrated above), a claim substantiated by the quality of his work. It is no surprise, then, that they were usually acquired only by the wealthy. Hence their presence in the princely collections of Germany, the royal collection of King Gustavus III in Stockholm, and the imperial collection in the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

In London, Richard Dubourg (also Du Bourg) mounted a long popular ‘Classical Exhibition’ of cork models from 1775, which contained items that he himself and others had made over a period of twenty years. Dubourg’s models, unlike those mentioned above, were not souvenirs. They were a commercial venture, and so constructed on a larger scale with a view to public exhibition. One visitor to the exhibition on 11 March 1785 was John Soane, who, as mentioned above, may have purchased one of his models. Dubourg personally described the characteristics and functions of the original buildings: for instance, it had to be explained to the visitors that the Colosseum was not a theatre. Thus instruction was combined with entertainment, as numerous contemporary accolades attested. In 1785, a number of Dubourg’s exhibits were destroyed by fire; that the fire was started when an exhibition of the eruption of Vesuvius got out of hand was denied by the exhibitor. Dubourg set up a second enlarged exhibition in 1799. The exhibition room was illustrated in a handbill advertisement in the subsequent decade:

Dubourg’s museum, as engraved by himself, 1808/9 (London Metropolitan Archives).

A large model of the amphitheatre at Verona (not the Colosseum) was the centre-piece, with the Temple of the Sibyl (or Vesta) on its precipice at Tivoli behind it. Some of the models on stands at the left of the handbill are clearly of sepulchral monuments along the Appian Way, for instance the Tomb of Caecilia Metella. Since the British could not visit Italy during the Napoleonic period, the exhibition served a valuable function in providing a vicarious, inexpensive, and accelerated visit to the ancient ruins of France, Italy, and Rome. One such visitor was Mrs Charlotte Eaton, who recorded in her sparky volume Rome in the Nineteenth Century that, once she finally got to Rome in 1818, illness postponed the start of her sight-seeing; in her delirious state she could only visualize the Colosseum “as [she] had seen it in the cork model” in London (Letter VII).

Cork models of ruins, like plaster casts of ancient sculpture, were disregarded and neglected during much of the 20th century, and many of them were discarded (or, in museological cant, “deaccessioned”) from collections as so much useless lumber. Dubourg’s cork model of the Colosseum, now his only known extant work, is a sorry example of this depreciation. It was sold at auction on his retirement in 1819, and in due course given to the South Kensington (now the Victoria and Albert) Museum. It then found its way to the Science Museum in 1909, and in 1929 was shipped to Melbourne, where it was lodged but still neglected in Museums Victoria. It was very nearly deaccessioned even from that collection, until Richard Gillespie took an interest in it. His account of the model’s fate is fascinating.[1] It is welcome news that this important physical document of 18th-century learning and taste is once again appreciated.

Cork model of the Colosseum, Richard Dubourg, c. 1800, the original being built at Rome in AD 72–80 (Museums Victoria, Australia).

The renewed appreciation of the aesthetic charm and historical value of cork models has generated a revival of the craft, most notably by the German cork-modeler Dieter Cöllen. His skill is in demand for the conservation of historical collections, and he has also produced an imaginative reconstruction of the monumental Roman temple that stood in the Praetorium of Cologne, where it is on display beneath the Jüdisches Museum.

The world’s largest modern cork model: the Temple of the Capitoline Triad, Dieter Cöllen, 2014, the original being built in the Praetorium of Cologne (Colonia Agrippina) in the 1st cent. AD (Jüdisches Museum, Cologne, Germany).

Roland Mayer taught Classics in a number of the colleges of the University of London until his retirement in 2015. Though most of his scholarly writings centred on Latin literature, he is currently devoted to the cultural impact of the ruins of Rome.

Further Reading

A. Büttner, Korkmodelle von Antonio Chichi. Vollständiger Katalog der Korkmodelle (Hessisches Landesmusem Darmstadt / Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Kassel, 1974).

W. Helmberger & V. Kockel (eds.), Rom über die Alpen tragen: Fürsten sammeln antike Architektur: Die Aschaffenburger Korkmodelle (Arcos, Landshut/Ergolding, 1993).

V. Kockel, Phelloplastica: modelli in sughero dell’architettura antica nel XVIII secolo nella collezione di Gustavo III di Svezia (Istituto Svedese di Studi Classici a Roma, Stockholm, 1998).

P. Gercke, Antike Bauten: Korkmodelle von Antonio Chichi 1777–1782: Katalog (Staatliche Museen Kassel, 2001).

I. Tatarinova, “Architectural models at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Art,” Journal of the History of Collections 18 (2006) 27–39.

R. Gillespie, “Richard Du Bourg’s ‘Classical Exhibition’, 1775–1819,” Journal of the History of Collections 29 (2017) 251–69.

R. Gillespie, “The rise and fall of cork model collections in Britain,” Architectural History 60 (2017) 117–46.


1 “From ‘trash’ to treasure: Museum Victoria’s Colosseum model,” Iris: Journal of the Classical Association of Victoria 29 (2016) 22–31; illustrations on the museum’s website can be viewed here.