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December 22, 2004

'I Colori del Bianco' [The Colors of White] - Ancient sculpture as it was meant to be seen


Though in the late 1700s scholars were aware of the multicolored hues of Greek and Roman sculpture, color was considered a only a minor, insignificant aspect of these creations.

The 1980s saw the beginning of a revolution in the study of color in antiquities.

Vincenz Brinkmann of Germany's Munich Glyptotek led the way, with a series of groundbreaking examinations employing ultraviolet light, infrared spectroscopy, and polarizing and scanning electron microscopy.

He showed that the use of brilliant pigments to paint statues, walls and buildings was routine, though the results, when applied to works long since bleached white, were anything but.

Electric yellows, vibrant reds, bright greens and blues, these were the true colors of antiquity.

On display through January 31 of next year at the Vatican Museum is a show of 30 objects recreated and then painted to look as they did when they were originally made thousands of years ago.

The originals are placed, whenever possible, next to the colored recreations.

In other cases, photographs or copies of the original are shown.

Pictured at the top of this post is a statue of the goddess Athena from 500-490 B.C., partly colored based on an analysis of the original, standing nearby.

Below is a recreated sculpture of the Emperor Augustus, as it looked when it was made in 20 B.C.


These are among the objects in the Vatican show.

Here's Sarah Delaney's story from yesterday's Washington Post.

    Ancient Sculpture, Seen Through a Prism

    The Venus of Milo or the Dying Gaul may come to mind when we think about ancient sculpture.

    Those famous pieces conform to the classical ideal of beauty, the ascendancy of form enhanced by the pure translucence of white marble.

    An ascetic aesthetic, practiced by sober and tasteful Greek and Roman sculptors who flourished more than two millenniums ago.

    Apparently, though, that's not exactly how it was.

    According to the curators of an exhibit at the Vatican Museum, that idea of perfect austere beauty is ours, not that of the ancients, who evidently preferred a vivid palette of electric yellows and blues, vibrant reds and bright greens to decorate sculptures, tombs and even the walls of ordinary buildings in Athens and Rome.

    Called "I Colori del Bianco" ("The Colors of White"), the exhibit demonstrates how art historians, archaeologists and scientists combined forces to re-create a hypothetical but highly probable color scheme of works from the archaic to early Byzantine periods.

    It's a first attempt to restore to modern imagination the brilliance that faded away over the centuries.

    Synthetic casts were made of several works and then painted according to careful analysis of the originals, contemporary texts and similar decorations preserved on ancient vases.

    Where possible, they are displayed in shocking juxtaposition with the original; in other cases photographs or copies of the original are shown.

    A sunshine-yellow reclining lion with a cobalt-blue mane and red whiskers guards the entrance to the show as a hint of what's to come.

    The garish colors of the beast, the cheerful patterning of a Trojan warrior and the symbolic painted scenes on a giant Emperor Augustus are enough to jolt the sensibilities of anyone used to considering pure white the predominant hue of ancient times.

    In reality, what may appear to be a micro-revolution in the way we look at art is nothing new for scholars.

    They have been well aware since at least the late 1700s of the multicolored variety in antiquities.

    Explanations accompanying the exhibits say the particular tastes of 18th-century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann were in large part responsible for what became a collective idea of the masterpiece of the distant past.

    "Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty," he is quoted as saying in 1764.

    "Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but the structure that constitutes its essence."

    Even in the 1700s, there were examples of colored statues and artifacts, and Winckelmann knew them, says Paolo Liverani, head of the classical antiquities department at the Vatican Museums.

    But because Winckelmann, considered to be the father of art history and archaeological study, was such an authoritative figure, his vision became the orthodox view and prevailed over the next two centuries.

    In the late 1800s, a brief resurgence of interest in studying the use of color by the ancients subsided, and was labeled "deceitful amusement" by one historian cited by Liverani.

    The ensuing oversimplification of Winckelmann's ideas, Liverani says, is evident in the gigantic, snow-white muscleman sculptures typical of the era of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before World War II, and still visible today in some Rome streets and squares.

    The show "gives an image that is radically different than what we're used to seeing," says Liverani, who helped curate it.

    "But it's our idea of 'classic' that needs to be updated, not the Greeks and Romans who need to be corrected... White is modern."

    Research on the colors of ancient statuary began in earnest in Germany in the 1980s, especially by Vincenz Brinkmann of the Munich Glyptotek, or ancient sculpture museum, who used new technology to analyze it in several different ways.

    Ultraviolet rays revealed the faintest traces of color, while raking light, or very bright close light, detected the slightest relief that could come from an original sketch or be the result of the varied effects of weathering on the different pigments.

    Other techniques such as scanning electron microscopy, infrared spectroscopic analysis and polarizing microscopy were used to determine the components of the pigments.

    Most were mineral-based, Liverani says: malachite from Greece for green, bright blues from azurite from the Sinai and Italy, and most yellows and ochers from a poisonous arsenic-based mix.

    Red was from cinnabar, a mercury sulfide, mined in Spain.

    The only organic color came from the madder root, which provided a delicate, translucent red. Binders were egg- or milk-based.

    "The colors served to emphasize the religious or political content of the message the work was to convey," says Liverani.

    "Augustus of Prima Porta" shows a giant Emperor Augustus whose cuirass, or body armor, was painted with a white background to enhance red and blue scenes depicting an important diplomatic victory.

    The unnatural colors suggest that the statue was a symbol to be revered, much the way Christians revere a cross, Liverani says.

    Green snakes that form a fringe on the cape of the colored model of the goddess Athena were probably intended, in the original version, to provoke fear and awe, Liverani says.

    This model was only partly colored because there weren't sufficient traces of color found on the rest to make a reasonable hypothesis.

    Establishing the colorful pattern on an archer allowed researchers to identify him as a Trojan, probably Paris, son of King Priam.

    This and other figures decorated the pediment of the Greek temple of Aphaia from the late 5th century B.C.

    "We are only at the very beginning of the discoveries to be made with this sort of analysis," says Liverani, "and there is always more to discover."

    The show, which contains more than 30 objects, was put together with the help of scholars and technicians from two antiquities museums: the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek of Copenhagen and the Munich Glyptotek, where the exhibit has already been shown.

    Both museums contributed pieces, along with the Vatican Museum.

    The show can be seen without entering the main Vatican Museum, and admission is free.

    It will be on view until January 31.

December 22, 2004 at 12:01 PM | Permalink


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Is there a catalogue of this exhibition?

Posted by: Jennifer Hoffman | Mar 9, 2005 4:04:52 PM

I guess that means my Time/Life Museums of the World book about the Vatican's entry is out of date, huh?

Fascinating stuff.

Posted by: Linkmeister | Dec 22, 2004 2:29:04 PM

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