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Correcting a Colorblind View of the Treasures of Antiquity

Reborn in living color: Caligula goes from pale to pink-cheeked in a reconstruction that smashes monochromatic perceptions of ancient sculpture.
Reborn in living color: Caligula goes from pale to pink-cheeked in a reconstruction that smashes monochromatic perceptions of ancient sculpture. (Washington Post Photo Illustration With Images From Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek (Left) And Stiftung Archaeologie)

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

The statues of ancient Greece and Rome are masterpieces.

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Here's an idea for making them better: We should equip every gallery of ancient art with paints, in red and green and even gold, then set museum-goers loose on all their sculptures. How else are we going to convince ourselves that those pure-white marbles of Venus and Caesar, or those dark-green bronzes of athletes and Apollo, look better when their surfaces are tarted up?

For nearly two centuries, some scholars have been arguing that white-on-white and green-on-green were not the true tints of antiquity. The Parthenon in Athens and the Forum in Rome might have been almost gaudy. But such ideas have never trickled down, or even sideways: In Hollywood today, but also in many experts' talk, the ancient world comes off as monochrome. In Ridley Scott's "Gladiator," when Russell Crowe strides down the streets of ancient Rome, circa A.D. 180, he's backed up by the proper complement of bronzes and marbles. All of them are green or white.

A flood of recent exhibitions has set out to put their color back. Over the past five years, audiences in Amsterdam, Athens, Basel, Boston, Copenhagen, Istanbul, Munich and Rome have been treated to a bright new image of Greek and Roman art. Now, with an exhibition called "The Color of Life" at the Getty Villa in Malibu, it's Californians' turn.

One of the greatest statues of Augustus, first emperor of Rome, has come down to us in marble. His carved armor and rippling robe meld into the symphony of cream on cream we all expect. At the Getty, a reconstruction of the piece, retouched with colors based on tints that still cling here and there to the original, has the great Augustus togaed in a cherry red that matches his lips. His tunic's touched with blue. What he's lost in elegance he's regained in verve.

A carved portrait of Caligula, the mad Roman emperor who died in the year 41, looks blank-eyed and remote in the marble that's survived. His reconstruction, computer-carved into another block of marble and then painted, now has nice pink cheeks, red lips and brown eyes and hair. The insane leader who declared himself a god now comes across as the Roman next door.

More than anyone else, German scholar Vinzenz Brinkmann has led the way in putting color back into our view of ancient statues. After 25 years of scientific study, he says he finds it "very hard to imagine" that they could have ever started life as monochromes. Lifelike sculptures were the pride and joy of Greek and Roman art, so why would artists have missed out on using paint to liven them up further?

* * *

Fade to White

We haven't always thought of classical antiquity as dull and dingy. In the later Middle Ages, artists naturally depicted the rich culture of ancient Rome as full of gold and lavish ornament. Aesthetic fancy filled in for a lack of evidence of what ancient artists had actually made.

It was the evidence that screwed things up, once it came along. In the years to either side of 1500, more and more ancient sculpture began to be recovered. Centuries of burial or neglect had bleached the marbles, and greened the bronzes, beyond their makers' recognition. But it was those altered colors that became the model for how the ancient world had looked, and for what all new sculpture ought to look like.

By 1764, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, often named as the founder of art history, could look at the classical marbles that had come down to him and definitively pronounce that "the whiter a body is, the more beautiful it is as well."

That view went on to dominate. It led Lincoln in his Memorial to come out white on white.


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