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Augustus of Prima Porta

Sunday, May 4, 2008 12:00 AM

· The Augustus of Prima Porta, a marble sculpture of the Roman Empire's first emperor, was discovered in 1863 and is now in the Vatican Museums.

"Can you imagine the family-values, back-to-basics, republican emperor Augustus . . . represented by something that looks like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi?" says Fabio Barry, an art historian at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who's not overly fond of the Prima Porta sculpture's colored reconstruction. Barry, who is an expert on the history of marble and worked for a time in Washington, insists that the Romans cherished the whiteness of fine marble as an important symbol of light and purity. He doesn't deny that the precious Parian marble of the Prima Porta statue would have had some tints on top of it -- the colors noted when the piece was first unearthed were confirmed when it was cleaned in 1999 -- but he cannot buy their wildly unsubtle reconstruction. "I'm vehemently against any notion that people in the past were stupid or didn't have taste." Vinzenz Brinkmann, leader of the recent work on color in antiquity, doesn't disagree. He has a house on the Greek island of Paros, and often visits its ancient quarries. Their Parian marble, he raves, is "whiter than sugar and more beautiful than snow." And he says he's almost sorry there's such clear evidence that the Greeks and Romans often covered it in paint.

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