The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 30, 2007

Colourful Antiquity

Our view of monochrome sculptures of the Romans and Greeks has been biased by Victorian neoclassicists who praised the austerity and purity of the white marble and deprecated the discovery in 1815 that the statues were vividly painted. The study of chromatic restoration languished as a result of this consensus view, and active research into the matter of original colouration only took off in the 1980s. The most assiduous of the investigators are the husband-and-wife team of Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who now present their results at an exhibition in the Sackler Museum, Harvard.

Renaissance artists were inspired by the classical world, and they associated beauty with the austere perfection of Greek and Roman statuary. But had Michaelangelo studied classical sculptures closely, he would have known that his statues of David or the Pieta would have been considered unfinished by his illustrious predecessors, who would have missed in his work the bright colours and pigments that illumined the art of the ancient world. We can see the immense difference between reality and biased perception in the following images. Consider, if you will, the statue on the left - the original Peplos Kore from the Acropolis in Athens. There are traces of paint on its lips, hair and eyes, but most of the pigmentation has faded, and it is difficult, with the naked eye, to tell what its coloration used to be in 530 BC, when it was finished.

The image on the right is the restored statue. What a spectacular contrast! But how do we know that it is not mere fancy, a result of the imagination of the researchers? This recent article points out that the Brinkmanns display photographs of how UV light revealed each of these details on the weathered and faded original. Indeed, their restoration techniques are a a veritable arsenal of modern technology. They used raking light to reveal incised details as well as subtle patterns caused by the uneven weathering of different paints on the stone surface; ultraviolet (UV) light to bring out slight surface differences; and techniques such as X-ray fluorescence and infrared spectroscopy to analyze the types of pigments employed.

Similar classical statues in full colour can be seen at the Museum of Classical Archaeology at Cambridge University.


Post a Comment