No Accounting for Taste: The Painted Statues of Ancient Greece and Rome

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As a Western Society, we are products of the Renaissance's fascination and deification of Classical Antiquity.

Augustus of Prima marble
 Large sections of our cultural values and what 'good taste' and 'class' comprise of are directly influenced by the romantic view of Ancient Greece and Rome that the educated upper classes held. The way they imitated the ancient artists and scholars shapes what we today view as 'beautiful' art. With the exploration of Roman art, our Renaissance ancestors discovered and prized the beautiful white statues that they uncovered of goddesses and emperors. Noting the skill involved, they in turn developed their own ways of improving and refining sculpture, but stayed true to the fine materials and ascetic - choosing pristine white marble for their own creations. The effect is beautiful and versatile and these pieces - ancient and later - are prized in countless galleries and country houses across Europe and beyond. Because of our appreciation of this aesthetic, this is how we believe sculpture should be achieved in traditional form, and we celebrate the Ancient Greek and Roman's 'refined' taste.

However, it seems that the reality of Ancient taste contrast jarringly with what we nowadays view as 'classical' fact we've been conditioned to view the reality as really quite garish.

Introducing the painted statues of Ancient Greece and Rome:

Augustus of Prima painted replica

 Countless Ancient status have been unearthed over the years, but when one was found with what appeared to be ancient paint pigments still clinging to its surface archaeologists and scientists banded together to analyse what this meant for our view of ancient art. One of the pigments in question was 'Egyptian Blue' and, through using advanced ultraviolet techniques to deconstruct what colours remained on the statue, it was identified to be a mix of skin colour - having been added in small amounts to pinks, whites and yellows to create a 'realistic' tone.

Realistically painted version of Caligula (31-37AD)
Reconstruction by Matthew Brennan, Virtual World Heritage Laboratory.

The above sculpture of Caligula, for example, was already very rare, being one of only two complete statues of the infamous emperor. When the University of Virginia set about trying to discover more about how this statue was coloured, the historical significance was poignant. Through colour analysis they discovered that Caligula is likely to have had brown hair. The use of gilt patterns shows some of the opulence of the statues and goes some way to explaining, for example, how they must have affected the subjected populations in the cities that displayed them. These pagan or political images were not imposing but ultimately blank slabs of white, but were instead bold, loud and potentially even lifelike.

It is interesting to think about what kind of charge [these statues] must have had for Jews of the time,” commented Peter Schertz, a curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts: “Jewish prohibition against idolatrous images must have made the appearance of classical statues both very frightful and, for some, somewhat seductive.”

Through all the various studies of these ancient statues, Ultraviolet light has been especially useful in discerning patterns and in the occasions when colours were visible. However to track each colour sometimes the scientists had to analyse deeper down to the very chemical compounds that made each pigment.

 In  galleries and auction houses often valuable old paintings are analysed to determine authenticity, and one manner is to look for particular organic elements in the paint pigments. Hundreds or even thousands of years ago, particular plants and materials were used to create particular colours and their presence shows that the art in question is the genuine article. In the same way, those studying the statues could work backwards by identifying what organic elements were present in the pigments: get the right combination and you would be able to identify what colour was used in that area.

We might ask why bother with such expensive material as marble if one was only going to paint it and, really, it's difficult to be sure. Some academics have suggested that the paint may have been fine enough to have enhanced the natural luminescence of the marble. Others suggest that the quality of the material was focused more on allowing for greater quality of sculpture, and that painting the already expensive material was seen to enhance its beauty and value spiritually rather than detract form it, even if it did hide some of the marble's attractive plain elements.

Painted ancient statues are now. admittedly, quite old news: Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulricke Koch-Brinkmann, for example, have spent over 20 years studying and painstakingly recreating classical statues to bring together this revelation...yet it is always quite a shock to the modern observer to see such a rejection of the colourless marble art that we know and love. It certainly goes to prove that the ancient world was never dull.

Istanbul Museum recreation of the Alexander Sarcophagus

- BBC4 Treasures of Ancient Rome
- True Colours
- The Ugly Truth
- Weird Science uncovers ancient art's true colours
- Was this Roman Sculpture of Gaius Caligula Painted?
- Greek Statues and their Technicolour Dreamcoats
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