Last night I came across an article,The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture, by Margaret Talbot, at The New Yorker about classical sculpture. This article hit me like a jolt and totally blew apart everything else I had ever thought that I knew about ancient Greek and Roman sculptures:
“Mark Abbe was ambushed by color in 2000, while working on an archeological dig in the ancient Greek city of Aphrodisias, in present-day Turkey. At the time, he was a graduate student at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, and, like most people, he thought of Greek and Roman statues as objects of pure white marble. The gods, heroes, and nymphs displayed in museums look that way, as do neoclassical monuments and statuary, from the Jefferson Memorial to the Caesar perched outside his palace in Las Vegas.
Aphrodisias was home to a thriving cadre of high-end artists until the seventh century A.D., when an earthquake caused it to fall into ruin. In 1961, archeologists began systematically excavating the city, storing thousands of sculptural fragments in depots. When Abbe arrived there, several decades later, he started poking around the depots and was astonished to find that many statues had flecks of color: red pigment on lips, black pigment on coils of hair, mirrorlike gilding on limbs. For centuries, archeologists and museum curators had been scrubbing away these traces of color before presenting statues and architectural reliefs to the public.”
There’s a link in this New Yorker article to a touring exhibition, Gods of Color, with lots of photos of statues painted to what is believed to be the original paint colors.
Color me totally amazed at learning this and still reeling at trying to readjust my thinking that the aesthetic value we place on the beauty of classical white marble statues was not how the ancients displayed these statues.