200-year-old casts commissioned by a Pope, given to a Prince and gifted to the City of Cork have gone on public display following a revamp of their permanent home at the Crawford Art Gallery.

The Canova casts laid the foundation for the city's famous School of Art.

The Italian sculptor Antonio Canova was commissioned by Pope Pius VII to oversee the creation of the casts as a gift for the Prince Regent, later King George IV, in thanks for Britain returning masterpieces looted by Napoleon Bonaparte.

But the Prince Regent did not want them and he was persuaded by William Hare, the then-Viscount Ennismore and Listowel to gift them to the people of Cork.

Over 219 plaster casts of classical figures, torsos, busts, reliefs and fragments were gifted to the people of Cork in 1819, but only around a dozen survive today.

Among them is a cast of Apollo Belvedere - made in 1816, one of the most celebrated figures of the ancient world. 

Busts of Jupiter and Socrates are also included in the collection, as are full-sized casts of Napoleon Bonaparte's mother; the Goddess Concordia (the Goddess of harmony); and the Belvedere Torso, a paster cast after the Roman copy in Musei Vaticani.

Assistant Curator at the Crawford Art Gallery, Dr Michael Waldron said: "Being made of plaster they are fragile, they weren't always stored in the best of conditions or loved as much as they are today."

One story tells of a headmaster during the 1850s who was dismissed for destroying a portion of the cast collection "in a drunken fit".

Conservation treatment, funded by the Heritage Council, was undertaken by Eoghan Daltun over the past two years and the sculpture galleries re-open to the public this weekend after six weeks of refurbishment.

The Crawford Art Gallery Director Mary McCarthy says the gallery is seeing an unprecedented period of growth with over 230,000 visitors last year.

She said the casts are much loved in Cork and nationally and she is very confident that people will come back to see "the old friends".

A decision to renew the sculpture galleries was taken ahead of a major €22 million capital investment programme which is due to begin at the Gallery shortly. 

The Mother of Napoleon the Great (c 1816) plaster cast after the 1807 original by Antonia Canova
Crawford Art Gallery's Jean O'Donovan dusting Jupiter, the Roman god of the sky and thunder.
The Goddess Concordia (1816) - Plaster cast after the 1809 original by Antonio Canova