Greeks and Romans wore different types of garments and were pretty skillful in their dyeing. 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.
The white-clean minimalist conception of the ancient Greek and Roman art 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 Greek and Roman creative work and that view prevailed for centuries over the scientific world.
How could ancient people, who made such an effort in coloring their clothing, have surrounded themselves with pale and colorless architecture and pieces of art?
The German scientists Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann had similar questions in their minds, when in 1980’s started to research the colors of the ancient Greek sculptures. Using various scientific methods, they managed to prove that the statues that adorned the antique buildings were, in fact, everything but just clean white art presentation!
The first discoveries were made through an old mean for analyzing art objects: a raking light - a kind of a spot lamp that if positioned very closely to the surface of a marble, 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 could be also discovered through the use of 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 color aesthetics of the ancient Greeks and Romans:
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
Rains, winds and heavy weather for more than 2000 years have done their work and have worn out the brightness of the ancient marbles. Nevertheless, a close examination of the classical literature tradition gives 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 colors on statues. They also express the ancient idea that bare, uncolored 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 coloring a statue and someone blamed us, saying that we did not apply the most beautiful pigments to the most beautiful parts…”
Apparently Romans followed the Greek 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 colors; 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.
One statue of an Amazon warrior, dating from 1st century AD, reveals very evident traces of paint. It was found in Herculaneum, an unfortunate city in Italy that shared the ill destiny of Pompeii – it was buried under the ash of the Mount Vesuvius volcano that erupted in 79 AD.
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 AD 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 colors.
Their skills of using paints and shades have even given a name to one particular color, often seen on Pompeii’s walls. It is called Pompeian redand 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 colored Greek and Roman statues were an exclusive phenomenon. They were part of a larger mise-en-scène, as intense and colorful as themselves. The public buildings that formed the ancient city’s appearance were equally painted.
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 colors: blue, red, and white (occasionally also black and yellow). They did not cover the whole building in colors, but only the decorative elements.
Nevertheless, you can picture the varicolored view that they formed altogether with the bright statues and all people around dressed in different colors.
But how ancient artists, capable of such refine artwork, could go to
such extremes in using colors?
For ancient Greeks and Romans, the colors were not just decorative means for embellishment, but also conveyors of meaning. According to the modern taste a white, colorless statue would probably blend better with the environment, but ancient people would rather have tried to avoid that.
For them, colors 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, enhancing the best way their transcendent nature.
The nobles also used colors 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, colors are not more than an aesthetic expression. Still, even now they can imply meanings.
Looking at the colored head of Emperor Caligula, my eye detects little, tiny facial features that otherwise would have sunk under the white surface. I believe I get more vivid image of the creepy part of Caligula's character expressively word-pictured by different ancient authors.