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Correcting a Colorblind View of the Treasures of Antiquity

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

The statues of ancient Greece and Rome are masterpieces.

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?

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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.

It also touched the modernist opponents of historic styles. The stripped-down Getty Center in Los Angeles -- head office for the organizers of the Malibu color show -- is faced in gleaming travertine. Richard Meier, its designer, once declared that "white is the most wonderful color of all, because within it one can find every color of the rainbow."

Tell that to Praxiteles.

* * *

Color Values

"Oh Praxiteles, which are your greatest marbles?" a fan once asked that famous sculptor, who pioneered the art of female nudes in Athens around 350 B.C. The artist -- or so the story went in ancient times -- answered that he preferred those works whose stone had been colored over by Nicias, a leader in the art of realistic panel painting. So much for the ancients' taste for sculpture's white perfection.

"For the Greeks it was all about mimesis," says Getty curator Kenneth Lapatin, using the Greek word for realistic imitation. Beauty depended on it.

"If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect/The way you would wipe color off a statue," says Helen of Troy, in lines written by Euripides in 412 B.C. For Greeks of that era, not only were sculptures assumed to be painted, but also if you stripped their paint you stripped their good looks, too.

Nineteenth-century experts took a new look at such texts, and at newly unearthed colored objects and murals, and rethought their image of ancient art. Some artists followed suit: They sculpted neoclassical nudes, then tinted them in living color, or painted scenes of what a bright-hued antiquity might have looked like.

And then, for most of the 20th century, nothing.

Most artists, more interested in modern life than dead antiquity, simply lost interest in the issue. Those who stuck with classical figures often came to cater to a Fascist taste for white triumphalism.

In academia, not much new evidence emerged to keep the topic hot. Some of the earlier evidence actually faded away: Colors that had once been seen on newly excavated objects were bleached by exposure and overzealous cleaning. On top of that, classicists came to prefer issues of social history to questions of aesthetics and taste -- which meant that what an artwork had originally looked like came to matter less and less.

That was how things stood in 1981 when Brinkmann was a graduate student working on toolmarks in Greek marbles. He realized that the special lighting used to spot where a chisel had once passed could also reveal where ancient colors had been. Even where the paint itself had absolutely vanished, it had left behind patterns of "weathering relief" -- areas of marble that the elements had etched more or less deeply, depending on the kind of pigments that had once protected them.

If you looked closely enough, with scientific equipment and rigor, many sculptures started to look like a coloring book just waiting to be painted in. Lab analysis of the microscopic grains of pigment that had survived here or there on many sculptures, along with close examination of the faded tints that had survived intact on another few, supplied the colors of the paint. Coupling that research with other information about statues' vanished hues -- classical vases and murals that depict sculptures being painted; new readings of ancient texts and the color notes of early archaeologists -- led experts to achieve a larger picture of the coloring of ancient art.

Painted reconstructions of that art, commissioned by Brinkmann and others, are meant to start to bring that image home to all the rest of us.

There are signs it's working.

The Boston show called "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity," which closed a few months ago, had visitors "lining up on the stairs" to get in, according to curator Susanne Ebbinghaus -- not a situation they're particularly used to at Harvard's Arthur M. Sackler Museum of classical and Asian art.

All of us "need help visualizing colored antiquity," Ebbinghaus says, as well as help in fighting the cliches of an all-white classical world. The Sackler show provided that. Its reconstructions depend almost as much on conjecture as on science, she admits. But they still get us closer to the ancient masterpieces than gleaming marble ever could.

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