“Color Blind,” by Margaret Talbot. The New Yorker, 10/29/2018.
We are all familiar with the white marble Greek and Roman statues with the blank eyes of Little-Orphan-Annie. But they were originally painted, as was the entire statue, often garishly so. This is not a new discovery, but is only now coming to light. For years, conservators were scrubbing off remaining flecks of the original pigment, thinking only the pure white marble was “artistic.” When the paint was restored to its original vibrancy, many thought it was too cartoonish and preferred the unadorned white marble. Painted bronze figures (that can be seen as traditional unadorned reproductions at the entrance of the University of Penn Museum of Art and Archaeology) had a disarming fleshiness: “copper lips and nipples, luxuriant black beards, wiry swirls of dark pubic hair.” (There is nothing fleshy, nothing sexy, about the Penn Museum’s statues. If anything, they are startlingly scary because of their eyes depicted with gemstones that contrasts strongly with the dark bronze face. Perhaps when the bronze was first cast, when it was still bright and shiny, the contrast was not as startling.)
The flecks of discovered pigment were tiny, most smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Special equipment was needed to discover and salvage them. When unearthing a new discovery, conservation must begin immediately. As the soil dries and flakes off, it pulls the paint fragments with it, leaving a denuded object that seemed original.
One said a colored restoration of a statue of Emperor Augustus “looked like a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi.” But another said, “The challenge is for us to try and understand the ancient Greeks and Romans—not to tell them they got it wrong.”
In 1897, Nashville erected in one of its parks a replica of the Parthenon with a huge statue of Athena inside. In the 2000s, the statue was painted in its original colors. Many did not like the result, feeling it was kitschy. Her golden robes had a blinding shimmer, her eyes were a doll-like blue, and her lips a vibrant red. Not the Athena many had imagined.
The ancients had no special love of white skin. In the Odyssey, the goddess Athena restores Odysseus to godlike beauty: “He became black-skinned again and the hairs became blue around his chin.” Not quite the Kirk Douglas you pictured, I’ll bet. (“Ulysses” was the Roman name for the Greek “Odysseus.”)
The Philadelphia Art Museum, much to their credit, years ago filled their outdoor frieze with statues-in-the-round, and painted as they would have appeared in their time. The photo above was taken from the patio, facing NE (so, the statues face SW).
The puzzle is not that Greek and Roman statues were originally painted, but that we came to believe they were not.
Vocabulary note: Those horizontal creases encircling a well-fed woman’s neck are called “Venus rings.”