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Ancient sculptures reveal their true colors

The Greek and Roman Galleries at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art are a wonder of white marble, an astonishing acre of it – world-famous, flooded with light, statues clean and gleaming. So, what’s wrong with this picture?

“They would have all been painted,” said Marco Leona, the Met’s chief scientist.

Painted, not white? “So, this experience of light and whiteness isn’t what the Romans and the Greeks would have experienced?” asked correspondent Martha Teichner.

“No. In many ways, it’s an accident of time and nature, in many ways it’s an accident of interpretation,” Leona said.

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A marble statue of a woman from Greece, dating from the 4th century B.C., at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Did you know that?  Actually, the author of a 2018 article in The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot, knew.

We were fascinated by her story, and set out to see for ourselves.

At the Met, Leona showed Teichner a marble capital and finial in the form of a sphinx, from the classical period of Greek culture: “”This comes from about 500 B.C.,” he said. “You see the pattern on the chest. You see the hair. You will see feathers in the wings that are outlined in a dark red, maybe bluish pigment.”

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Traces of color on this Greek sculpture from c. 500 B.C. 

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The evidence is right there … if you just look hard enough. The specks, Leona said, are “still the original color, which gives a sense of what she would have looked like.”

The Met even has a vase showing an artist painting a sculpture. “This is Exhibit A. It’s our photograph of the time,” he said.

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An artist painting a statue, as depicted on this ancient Greek vase. 

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Now, look at Michelangelo’s Pieta, or his David: white marble masterpieces of the Renaissance, inspired by Greek and Roman sculpture. Why, by the 1500s, had white replaced color?

Leona said, “The statue topples, is covered by rubble, you have soil accumulation. When the statues were then found [during] the Renaissance, they would come out from the ground looking pretty dirty.”

Teichner asked, “Did people actively scrub them to get the paint off once they started cleaning them?”

“Most certainly so.”

“If sculptors like Michelangelo were inspired by the Greeks, by the Romans, why didn’t they, too, paint their sculptures?”

“Because they never saw the paint on that sculpture,” Leona replied.

They saw form, not color. Those scrubbed sculptures they mistakenly took for white inspired their belief that white equals beauty, purity – a culturally-loaded concept that underpins Western art to this day.

“It’s at the core of how we think about sculpture and its aesthetics,” said University of Georgia art history professor Mark Abbe. “It’s at the core of how we think about the body. It’s even at the core, I think to some degree, of how we think of ourselves.”

Teichner asked, “Do you think that the notion of Western art, what we understand Western art to be, will change as more people are aware that its cornerstone wasn’t as they thought it was?”

“Yes, I can’t imagine it not changing,” Abbe replied.

He uses technology to see what was missed – or conveniently overlooked – since the Renaissance. “It’s a binocular microscope to look at really up close on the surface,” he said. “Where you and I might look at this and just see a white marble sculpture, you can actually make out traces of pigment.”

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An extreme closeup reveals pigments that were once applied to a sculpture.

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He showed Teichner traces of the original paint on marble busts of the Roman emperor Septimius, and his wife Julia (or Yulia in Latin), owned by Indiana University. Looking at the cleaned-up marble, you’d never know they didn’t have pale, white faces. He was from Libya, she Syria. How would the busts have looked nearly 2,000 years ago? 

There’s a clue: This painting. “A rare example of a wooden panel that was painted with a depiction of the whole imperial family,” Abbe said.

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A royal family portrait: This painted wooden panel depicts the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, his wife, Julia, and their two sons (one of whom was erased).    

Wikipedia/José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro


Their complexions reflected the ethnic and racial diversity of the Roman Empire, which stretched all the way from Britain to Asia Minor.

At the Met, using an electron microscope, Marco Leona can take the tiniest speck of paint from a statue and analyze it. There are also vials containing actual artists’ pigments excavated from an archaeological site, dating from the 2nd century B.C.

So now: be prepared for a shock: Here’s what Greek and Roman statues really looked like – their true colors, or as close as anyone’s gotten until now, using all the science and technology out there.

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Ultraviolet light examination of a statue of an archer excavated from the Temple of Aphaia, along with evidence from vase paintings and surviving fragments of Scythian textiles, led to this color reconstruction. 

Gods in Color


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A reproduction of a marble statue, the Archaistic Artemis, that was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius; pigments had been preserved in the volcanic ash.   

Gods in Color


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Reproductions of two 5th century B.C. bronze statues of warriors, found by a diver off the Italian coast in 1972. Colored bronze alloys were used, capturing the different skin tones of the two combatants. 

Gods in Color


For more than 30 years, German scholars Vinzenz Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, have been creating and painting plaster replicas of classical marble statues.

“We used authentic, historic painting materials: earth pigments, mineral, tempera and linseed oil,” said Brinkmann.

An exhibition of the Brinkmanns’ work, called “Gods in Color,” is traveling the world, and is now in Frankfurt, Germany.

“It was time to reject a major misunderstanding by proving that European antiquity was not white, but colorful and diverse,” Brinkmann said.

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Painting a replica of the “Small Herculaneum Woman,” dating from the 2nd century B.C. and uncovered in 1894. Based on traces found on the sculpture and studies using infrared photography, the reconstruction incorporated Egyptian blue, various shades of ochre earth tones, lead white and lead yellow, and gilding.   

Gods in Color


Teichner asked the Met’s Leona, “Do art historians owe museum-goers an apology?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied. “There’s no fakery. There’s no whitewashing.”

“No? Really?”

“Absolutely.”

If these statues look strange to us now, Leona says, just imagine how these white sculptures would have looked to the ancient Greeks: “A completely white statue, to a Greek observer, would have looked like some shoddy effort, or simply something that had not been finished.”

The whitewashing may have been accidental, but it nearly washed away the truth.

      
For more info:

     
Story produced by Jay Kernis. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

     
See also: 


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