Historical monochrome photos of ancient sites have always fascinated me. I could admire for hours the serenity of the white stones, their bright and creamy look in the greyish background of the old pictures.
Then a thought strikes me: I know! All those columns, statues and buildings of the ancient Greco-Roman world were actually far more colorful than we presume. Did you know that?
The white, clean, minimalistic concept of the art of the Antiquity has been formed in the 18th century by Johann Winckelmann, a German scientist, considered the first European art historian. His pioneering book "The History of Art in Antiquity" established the idea of the pure, monochrome characteristics of the Greco-Roman creative work and that view prevailed for centuries over the scientific world.
Today, in the 21st century, this is still a predominant conception, although there are enough indications for the opposite. I guess our perceptions have their strong roots in the legacy of the past; even the Renaissance art canons and aesthetic views were built on the ancient artworks’ basis.
It is true though that in the paintings from the 15th century and after, Antiquity was presented in more colors, especially in some clothes details. Scientific research has shown that Greeks and Romans wore different types of garments and were pretty skillful in their dyeing.
Raphael, School of Athens, 1505
Depending on the way of producing the dye, the color (and not just the material) of a dress could suggest a social status in the ancient world. Different shades of purple and red were reserved for the nobles as their manufacturing was an expensive process (from sea snail’s secretion!) The lower classes could afford something plainer, like ochre or brown. Anyway, all had their colors around.
So, how could ancient people, who made such an effort in coloring their clothing, have surrounded themselves with the colorless environment of pale statues?
The German scientists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann had probably asked similar questions when in 1980’s started to research the colors of the ancient Greek sculptures. They used various scientific methods and managed to prove that, in fact, the statues that adorned the antique buildings were everything but just clean white pieces of art!
The first discoveries were made through an old mean for analyzing art objects – a raking light. This is a kind of a spot lamp that is positioned very closely, almost parallel to the surface of a marble, so the angle of the light could reveal the paths of the used chisel. On paintings, the raking light displays the brushstrokes, on statues, shows the tint layers. As different paints (depending on their substance) wear off at different rates, this method can demonstrate the presence of pigments on the stone; some parts of the stone have left more elevated, some have lowered .
The scientists could determine the exact nature of those pigments with further techniques such as UV light (often used for checking original artworks). Ultraviolet detects organic compounds – an old paint source – and make them fluoresce, proving their ancient nature by contrast with the modern paints that contain little natural elements.
The original material of those parts could be discovered with more sophisticated research, like using infrared and X-ray spectroscopy. The waves and the way they are absorbed show the precise nature of the material: the infrared detects organic compounds and X-ray reveals heavier elements, like minerals and rocks. With the knowledge of what plant or mineral what color gives (azurite – blue, malachite – green etc.) the scientists could recreate the real colors of the statues.
Using all those research methods, Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann made a striking reveal about the civilizations of the Antiquity and their color aesthetics: They have not carved the pure, white statues we are so used to see in the museums! Instead, they have created colorful, bright images, very close to the real life.
Trojan Archer from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, Marble original: Greek, c. 490 BC,
"Peplos" Kore, Marble original: Greek, c. 530 BC,Courtesy of Wiki Commons &Bgbel
Stunning, isn’t it? After that unexpected discovery, we might need to reconsider our concepts (all based on the misleading ideas on Antiquity’s art mentioned above) about what a good taste in art and sculpture is.
What took us as long as it did to realize the truth and SEE the colours in all those statues?
Rains, winds and heavy weather for more than 2000 years have done their work and have worn out the brightness of the ancient marbles. But a close examination of the classical literature tradition could expose an abundant evidence of the colouring practices among Greeks and Romans. In the Euripides’ tragedy "Helen" (5th century BC), Helen of Troy, tormented with remorse said: “If only I could be wiped out like a statue, assuming an uglier form rather than a beautiful one”. The words of the tragic character confirm the old custom of using colours on statues. They also express the ancient idea that bare, uncoloured sculptures were, in fact, considered unpleasant and unsightly.
The tinting of statues is expressively shown in Plato’s "Republic" (5th century BC). While giving an example of what an ideal state would be, Plato mentioned: “It is as if we were colouring a statue and someone blamed us, saying that we did not apply the most beautiful pigments to the most beautiful parts…”
Romans followed that tradition, as the Roman writer Vitruvius (1st century BC) informed us in his work "On Architecture". He advised that a Pontic wax should be used for preserving colours; it would prevent them from fading out caused by strong sun or moon light. This technique, the author said precisely, was applied both to walls and sculptures.
A statue of an Amazon warrior, dating from 1st century BC, reveals very evident traces of paint. It was found in Herculaneum, an unfortunate city in Italy that shared the ill destiny of the famous Pompeii – it was buried under the ash of the Mount Vesuvius volcano that erupted in 79 BC. Archaeologists at the University of Southampton and the Herculaneum Conservation Project had the chance to conduct an extensive study of the statue. Since it was covered under the volcanic mass, the sculpture retained its original painted surface that is quite visible today. A red-brownish hair in a special hairdo adorns the face of an Amazon while soft green-brown eyes look sadly under delicate copper-color eyebrows.
Vivifying sculptures with colors was not restricted only to the marbles. Bronze statues were also decorated with paints, inlaid with copper, gilt or silver folio. It is really impressive how ancient artists used various methods to emphasizing parts of their works. For instance, sculptures’ eyes were made of different materials to give more impressive effect. Just like that pair below!
Head of a Youth, Bronze original: Roman, early 1st century AD,
5th century BC, Metmuseum, Purchase: Mr. and Mrs. Lewis B. Cullman Gift and Norbert Schimmel Bequest, 1991, Accession Number: 1991.11.3a, b
The regrettable eruption of the Mount Vesuvius volcano in 1st century BC has proved beneficial for the science of the Antiquity. Under layers of dust and cinder, ancient Roman houses have preserved, 2000 years later, their original look for us. The archaeological excavations put into light the extraordinary painted walls of Pompeii’s and Herculaneum’s residences and once again confirmed that ancient people loved to be surrounded by colours. Their skills of using paints and shades have even given a name to one particular colour, often seen on Pompeii’s walls. It is called "Pompeian red"and represents a red dye tinted with orange that gives a bit orange-brownish nuance of the red.
Pompeii, Villa of the Mysteries
It would be wrong to think that the coloured Greek and Roman statues were an exclusive phenomenon. In fact, they were part of a larger mise-en-scène, as intense and colourful as themselves. The public buildings that formed the ancient city’s appearance were equally painted.
Anyone who has spent even a day in Greece has inevitably made a picture of themselves on some gleaming white background of old ruins. The truth is that image is far from the one that in reality was in the Antiquity. The clean, pale look of the remains is a product of adverse weather that has left its mark causing progressive deterioration of the constructions. A considerable number of buildings have lost their integrity and what can we expect for an organically sourced paint?
Art history students are taught that ancient builders whitewashed the marble constructions and painted them using three basic colours: blue, red, and white (occasionally also black and yellow). They did not cover the whole building in colours, but only the decorative elements. Nevertheless, you can picture the versicoloured view that they formed altogether with the bright statues and all people around dressed in different colours.
Now, you probably ask yourself: How ancient artists, capable of such refine artwork, could go to such extremes in using colours?
After hundreds of years of erroneous ideas, our perceptions of what constitutes a good taste have been built and cultivated with (and into) different notions. For ancient Greeks and Romans, the colours were not just decorative means for embellishment, but also conveyors of meaning. According to the modern taste a white, colourless statue would probably blend better with the environment, but that is exactly what ancient people tried to avoid. For them, a colour expressed value and status.
As superiors, their gods received the best people could afford – golden, bright paints. They were considered the most appropriate for deities and enhanced the best way their transcendent nature.
The nobles also used colours as a system of codes representing their status. As some tints were difficult for producing (thus, very expensive), the owner of a garment in a specific shade could use it for declaring, silently but firmly, his position in the society.
Today, where dyes and paints have become regular commodities, colours are not more than an aesthetic expression. Still, even now they can imply meanings. When I look at the coloured head of Emperor Caligula, I discern little, tiny facial features that otherwise would have sunk under the white surface. I think I could easier get the sinister image of Caligula built by the ancient authors.