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Ancient 'Colours of White'
published: Sunday | January 9, 2005

The Stele of Paramythion (right) and a copy re-creating its original appearance, from a Vatican Museum exhibit about how ancient sculpture was far more decorated and colourful than most believe; the ancients evidently preferred a vivid palette. - Contributed photo

Sarah Delaney, Contributor


THE VENUS of Milo or the Dying Gaul may come to mind when we think about ancient sculpture. Those famous pieces conform to the classical ideal of beauty, the ascendancy of form enhanced by the pure translucence of white marble. An ascetic aesthetic, practised by sober and tasteful Greek and Roman sculptors who flourished more than two millennia ago.

Apparently, though, that's not exactly how it was.

According to the curators of an exhibit at the Vatican Museum, that idea of perfect austere beauty is ours, not that of the ancients, who evidently preferred a vivid palette of electric yellows and blues, vibrant reds and bright greens to decorate sculptures, tombs and even the walls of ordinary buildings in Athens and Rome.


Called 'I Colori del Bianco' (The Colours of White), the exhibit demonstrates how art historians, archaeologists and scientists combined forces to re-create a hypothetical but highly probable colour scheme of works from the archaic to early Byzantine periods. It's a first attempt to restore to modern imagination the brilliance that faded away over the centuries.

Synthetic casts were made of several works and then painted according to careful analysis of the originals, contemporary texts and similar decorations preserved on ancient vases. Where possible, they are displayed in shocking juxtaposition with the original; in other cases, photographs or copies of the original are shown.

A sunshine-yellow reclining lion with a cobalt-blue mane and red whiskers guards the entrance to the show as a hint of what's to come. The garish colours of the beast, the cheerful patterning of a Trojan warrior and the symbolic painted scenes on a giant Emperor Augustus are enough to jolt the sensibilities of anyone used to considering pure white the predominant hue of ancient times.

In reality, what may appear to be a micro-revolution in the way we look at art is nothing new for scholars. They have been well aware since at least the late 1700s of the multicoloured variety in antiquities. Explanations accompanying the exhibits say the particular tastes of 18th century German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann were in large part responsible for what became a collective idea of the masterpiece of the distant past.


"Colour contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty," he is quoted as saying in 1764. "Colour should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not (colour) but the structure that constitutes its essence."

Even in the 1700s, there were examples of coloured statues and artefacts, and Winckelmann knew them, says Paolo Liverani, head of the classical antiquities department at the Vatican Museums. But because Winckelmann, considered to be the father of art history and archaeological study, was such an authoritative figure, his vision became the orthodox view and prevailed over the next two centuries.

In the late 1800s, a brief resurgence of interest in studying the use of colour by the ancients subsided, and was labelled "deceitful amusement" by one historian cited by Liverani.

The ensuing oversimplification of Winckelmann's ideas, Liverani says, is evident in the gigantic, snow-white muscleman sculptures typical of the era of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini before World War II, and still visible today in some Rome streets and squares. The show "gives an image that is radically different than what we're used to seeing," says Liverani, who helped curate it. "But it's our idea of 'classic' that needs to be updated, not the Greeks and Romans who need to be corrected. ... White is modern."

Research on the colours of ancient statuary began in earnest in Germany in the 1980s, especially by Vincenz Brinkmann of the Munich Glyptotek, or ancient sculpture museum, who used new technology to analyse it in several different ways. Ultraviolet rays revealed the faintest traces of colour, while raking light, or very bright close light, detected the slightest relief that could come from an original sketch or be the result of the varied effects of weathering on the different pigments.


Other techniques such as scanning electron microscopy, infrared spectroscopic analysis and polarising microscopy were used to determine the components of the pigments. Most were mineral-based, Liverani says: malachite from Greece for green, bright blues from azurite from the Sinai and Italy, and most yellows and ochers from a poisonous

arsenic-based mix. Red was from cinnabar, a mercury sulfide, mined in Spain. The only organic colour came from the madder root, which provided a delicate, translucent red. Binders were egg or milk-based.

"The colours served to emphasise the religious or political content of the message the work was to convey," says Liverani. 'Augustus of Prima Porta' shows a giant Emperor Augustus whose cuirass, or body armour, was painted with a white background to enhance red and blue scenes depicting an important diplomatic victory. The unnatural colours suggest that the statue was a symbol to be revered, much the way Christians revere a cross," Liverani says.

Green snakes that form a fringe on the cape of the coloured model of the goddess Athena were probably intended, in the original version, to provoke fear and awe, Liverani says. This model was only partly coloured because there weren't sufficient traces of colour found on the rest to make a reasonable hypothesis.

Establishing the colourful pattern on an archer allowed researchers to identify him as a Trojan, probably Paris, son of King Priam. This and other figures decorated the pediment of the Greek temple of Aphaia from the late 5th century B.C.

"We are only at the very beginning of the discoveries to be made with this sort of analysis," says Liverani, "and there is always more to discover."

The show, which contains more than 30 objects, was put together with the help of scholars and technicians from two antiquities museums: the NY Carlsberg Glyptotek of Copenhagen and the Munich Glyptotek, where the exhibit has already been shown. Both museums contributed pieces, along with the Vatican Museum.

The show can be seen without entering the main Vatican Museum, and admission is free. It will be on view until January 31.

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