Greek and Roman Marble Statues Were Once Brightly Colored

There's no one more purely intellectual than the ancient Greeks and Romans. From Plato's "Republic" to Homer's "Odyssey" to the perfectly formed, perfectly white marble statues of the ancient world, the whole culture embodies a purity of mind rarely achieved since. Except, of course, for the fact that Plato was famous for getting down and dirty as a wrestler, "Odyssey" is kind of a mind-trip into phantasmagorical weirdness, and all those pure white statues? They were actually more colorful than a Jimi Hendrix album cover.

Faded Pigments

There's a line in the ancient Greek playwright Euripides' drama about Helen of Troy that reveals a lot about ancient sculpture:

If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect

The way you would wipe color off a statue.

There it is, set in — well, not stone, per se. In fact, that's the whole problem. After several millennia without upkeep, the paint that once enlivened the Elgin marbles has completely flaked away. Now, there's only bright white stone left.

We don't have to take the ancient Greeks' word for it that their statues were brightly colored, either. Close inspection of these ancient relics reveals trace amounts of pigmentation, sometimes protected in the crevices of their nostrils and sometimes faintly remaining on more exposed sections. Eventually, European artists came to assume those classical works had always been pure white. When the Renaissance rolled around, sculptors wanting to emulate that style didn't know any better than to create their own works in that alabaster style.

(Big) White Lie

It wasn't quite as simple as a misunderstanding, however. Interested parties attempting to restore the statues in those days were known to have actively removed pigments from the statues they found. Who can say if they realized that they were perpetuating a false legend or if they believed they were "fixing" a statue that had somehow ended up painted at one point? But as the centuries rolled on, a growing body of evidence began to make it pretty clear that classical statues were meant to be viewed in Technicolor. Enter Johann Joachim Winckelmann.

In the mid-1700s, Winckelmann published "Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums," a foundational text in art history that was wildly popular among the kind of people that like that sort of thing. As valuable as it was, it perpetuated the myth that ancient statues were pure white. This wasn't just an aesthetic preference to Winckelmann — it was a matter of ideology. "The whiter the body, the more beautiful it is," wrote Winckelmann. As you might guess, he wasn't just talking about the color of the stone. He regularly denigrated non-European races and applied that principle to the art he discussed as well.

He was so dedicated to this ideology that he was known to misattribute works in order to maintain the fiction. When a statue of Artemis found at Pompeii clearly had both red hair and red sandals, Winckelmann declared that it must have actually been made by Etruscans instead. Some scholars believe that Winckelmann was starting to come around on his beliefs and may have embraced the idea that the ancients had colored their statues. We'll never know — he died from a stab wound at age 50, but not before entrenching an extremely false belief that would last for centuries.

Coloring in the Past

Despite the fact that most scholars have accepted that ancient statues were brightly colored — something they did well over a century ago, in fact — the stereotype of uncolored statues has survived to this day. That's where Vinzenz Brinkmann comes in. Using chemical and ultraviolet analysis, this modern archaeologist has recreated the ancient works in their original colors. The result? Practically psychedelic. If Brinkmann is correct, then ancient artists were obsessed with incredibly vivid hues, as bold and bright as any modern cartoon.

You can see his interpretations in his traveling exhibit "Gods in Color," assuming it's headed to a museum near you. It's worthwhile to keep your eyes on the schedule since it might be your only chance to see Zeus with a suntan.

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You don't have to wait for "Gods in Color" to come to your town. It's also a hardcover book. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas November 7, 2018

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