The Myth of Whiteness in Classical SculptureGreek and Roman statues were often painted, but assumptions about race and aesthetics have suppressed this truth. Now scholars are making a color correction.
By Margaret TalbotOctober 22, 2018
Mark Abbe was ambushed by color in 2000, while working on an archeological dig in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey. At the time, he was a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and, like most people, he thought of Greek and Roman statues as objects of pure white marble. The gods, heroes, and nymphs displayed in museums look that way, as do neoclassical monuments and statuary, from the Jefferson Memorial to the Caesar perched outside his palace in Las Vegas.
Aphrodisias was home to a thriving cadre of high-end artists until the seventh century A.D., when an earthquake caused it to fall into ruin. In 1961, archeologists began systematically excavating the city, storing thousands of sculptural fragments in depots. When Abbe arrived there, several decades later, he started poking around the depots and was astonished to find that many statues had flecks of color: red pigment on lips, black pigment on coils of hair, mirrorlike gilding on limbs. For centuries, archeologists and museum curators had been scrubbing away these traces of color before presenting statues and architectural reliefs to the public. “Imagine you’ve got an intact lower body of a nude male statue lying there on the depot floor, covered in dust,” Abbe said. “You look at it up close, and you realize the whole thing is covered in bits of gold leaf. Oh, my God! The visual appearance of these things was just totally different from what I’d seen in the standard textbooks—which had only black-and-white plates, in any case.” For Abbe, who is now a professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia, the idea that the ancients disdained bright color “is the most common misconception about Western aesthetics in the history of Western art.” It is, he said, “a lie we all hold dear.”
In the early nineteen-eighties, Vinzenz Brinkmann had a similar epiphany while pursuing a master’s degree in classics and archeology from Ludwig Maximilian University, in Munich. As part of an effort to determine what kinds of tool marks could be found on Greek marble sculpture, he devised a special lamp that shines obliquely on an object, highlighting its surface relief. When he began scrutinizing sculptures with the lamp, he told me, he “quite immediately understood” that, while there was little sign of tool marks on the statues, there was significant evidence of polychromy—all-over color. He, too, was taken aback by the knowledge that a fundamental aspect of Greek statuary “had been so excluded” from study. He said, “It started as an obsession for me that has never ended.”
Brinkmann soon realized that his discovery hardly required a special lamp: if you were looking at an ancient Greek or Roman sculpture up close, some of the pigment “was easy to see, even with the naked eye.” Westerners had been engaged in an act of collective blindness. “It turns out that vision is heavily subjective,” he told me. “You need to transform your eye into an objective tool in order to overcome this powerful imprint”—a tendency to equate whiteness with beauty, taste, and classical ideals, and to see color as alien, sensual, and garish.
One afternoon this summer, Marco Leona, who runs the scientific-research department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gave me a tour of the Greek and Roman galleries. He pointed out a Greek vase, from the third century B.C., that depicts an artist painting a statue. Leona said, of polychromy, “It’s like the best-kept secret that’s not even a secret.” Jan Stubbe Østergaard, a former curator at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum, in Copenhagen, and the founder of an international research network on polychromy, told me, “Saying you’ve seen these sculptures when you’ve seen only the white marble is comparable to somebody coming from the beach and saying they’ve seen a whale because there was a skeleton on the beach.”
In the nineteen-nineties, Brinkmann and his wife, Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who is an art historian and an archeologist, began re-creating Greek and Roman sculptures in plaster, painted with an approximation of their original colors. Palettes were determined by identifying specks of remaining pigment, and by studying “shadows”—minute surface variations that betray the type of paint applied to the stone. The result of this effort was a touring exhibition called “Gods in Color.” Versions of the show, which was launched in 2003, have been seen by three million museumgoers in twenty-eight cities, including Istanbul and Athens.
The replicas often deliver a shock. A Trojan archer, from approximately 500 B.C., wears tight pants with a harlequin pattern that is as boldly colored as Missoni leggings. A lion that once stood guard over a tomb in Corinth, in the sixth century B.C., has an azurite mane and an ochre body, calling to mind Mayan or Aztec artifacts. There are also reconstructions of naked figures in bronze, which have a disarming fleshiness: copper lips and nipples, luxuriant black beards, wiry swirls of dark pubic hair. (Classical bronze figures were often blinged out with gemstones for the eyes and with contrasting metals that highlighted anatomical details or dripping wounds.) Throughout the exhibition, the colored replicas are juxtaposed with white plaster casts of marble pieces—fakes that look like what we think of as the real thing.
For many people, the colors are jarring because their tones seem too gaudy or opaque. In 2008, Fabio Barry, an art historian who is now at Stanford, complained that a boldly colored re-creation of a statue of the Emperor Augustus at the Vatican Museum looked “like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi.” Barry told me, in an e-mail, that he still found the colors unduly lurid: “The various scholars reconstructing the polychromy of statuary always seemed to resort to the most saturated hue of the color they had detected, and I suspected that they even took a sort of iconoclastic pride in this—that the traditional idea of all-whiteness was so cherished that they were going to really make their point that it was colorful.”
But some of the disorientation among viewers comes from seeing polychromy at all. Østergaard, who put on two exhibitions at the Glyptotek which featured painted reconstructions, said that, to many visitors, the objects “look tasteless.” He went on, “But it’s too late for that! The challenge is for us to try and understand the ancient Greeks and Romans—not to tell them they got it wrong.”
Lately, this obscure academic debate about ancient sculpture has taken on an unexpected moral and political urgency. Last year, a University of Iowa classics professor, Sarah Bond, published two essays, one in the online arts journal Hyperallergic and one in Forbes, arguing that it was time we all accepted that ancient sculpture was not pure white—and neither were the people of the ancient world. One false notion, she said, had reinforced the other. For classical scholars, it is a given that the Roman Empire—which, at its height, stretched from North Africa to Scotland—was ethnically diverse. In the Forbes essay, Bond notes, “Although Romans generally differentiated people on their cultural and ethnic background rather than the color of their skin, ancient sources do occasionally mention skin tone and artists tried to convey the color of their flesh.” Depictions of darker skin can be seen on ancient vases, in small terra-cotta figures, and in the Fayum portraits, a remarkable trove of naturalistic paintings from the imperial Roman province of Egypt, which are among the few paintings on wood that survive from that period. These near-life-size portraits, which were painted on funerary objects, present their subjects with an array of skin tones, from olive green to deep brown, testifying to a complex intermingling of Greek, Roman, and local Egyptian populations. (The Fayum portraits have been widely dispersed among museums.)
Bond told me that she’d been moved to write her essays when a racist group, Identity Evropa, started putting up posters on college campuses, including Iowa’s, that presented classical white marble statues as emblems of white nationalism. After the publication of her essays, she received a stream of hate messages online. She is not the only classicist who has been targeted by the so-called alt-right. Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to ancient Greece. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy.
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