Listen to part of a lecture in an art history class.
I'm sure you've all been to a museum where you've seen beautiful white marble statues sculpted by the Greeks and Romans... or at least that you've seen photos of such statues, right?
We have come to expect these classical Greek and Roman statues to be monochrome-just one color...white skin, white hair, white eyes, white everything-the natural color of the marble they're carved from.
Now, the ideal of plain, white sculpture goes back to fifteenth-century Europe, when Renaissance artists rediscovered ancient Greek and Roman culture.
They were inspired by sculptures that appeared monochrome, so they created white marble statues.
The impact of these Renaissance statues, such as Michelangelo's David, gave rise to new standards for sculpture, standards that emphasized form rather than color.
But what if many of those ancient statues were originally polychrome-colored from head to toe?
Early in the nineteenth century, archaeologists found traces of paint on ancient sculptures.
And since then, classical art historians have begun to realize that Greek and Roman marble sculptures were originally colored.
Even if an ancient marble statue doesn't have any visible traces of paint, that does not mean it was originally monochrome.
In many cases, the pigment would have simply deteriorated—ancient artists used mineral-based paints with organic binding media that would've disintegrated on its own over time.
In other cases, the pigment may have been weathered away while exposed to the elements... or someone may have rigorously cleaned the statues and unknowingly removed the last traces of pigment.
So...the fact is we do have evidence of polychrome sculptures from Greece and Rome from the seventh century B.C.E. all the way through at least the third or fourth century C.E.
It's now generally accepted that most—maybe even all—marble sculptures from that time period received some kind of surface treatment like the application of pigments, colored stones, or metals that would've modified their color.
So do we interpret a statue differently if we know it had originally been polychrome?
I feel strongly when it comes to this.
A marble sculpture that had been colored has another layer of meaning that was meant to affect the viewer.
As art historians, we must try to interpret the intentions of the artists—what were the artists trying to achieve?
Certain features of the sculpture were highlighted through color, were made to stand out....
In other words, they caused the viewer to focus on certain features.
And certain colors represented certain things to the ancient artists and cultures: a color might symbolize heroism, divinity, or youth.
One example to consider is the statue of Roman Emperor Augustus.
This particular statue of Augustus that I'm referring to was discovered just outside of Rome in 1863, and was in terrific condition.
It's about two meters tall-just larger than life-size.
It was made from an expensive, high-quality type of marble, and was obviously carved by an expert.
Now... it still had visible traces of color on the hair, eyes, and its clothing and armor.
The paints have been very carefully studied, and it turns out that the colors weren't just from any pigments—they were from expensive pigments.
The use of these pigments showed the importance of Augustus and that he should be honored.
And let's consider the extensive traces of a red pigment that were found on the statue's cloak.
The cloak's a special garment that was traditionally worn by an emperor on the battlefield, and in real life was a red color which, to the Romans, signified the emperor's authority—military and political authority.
OK...I won't point out any further details about the colors on the Augustus statue, because you can already begin to see that there was cultural importance associated with the colors—symbolism which should help us understand the statue better.
There are many, many more sculptures that have traces of pigments left on them, and we have the technology these days to be able to carry out effective studies of these pigments.
There's a lot of work to be done. But it needs to be done fast.
Like I said before, these pigments deteriorate rapidly.
So we really need to do the research before the traces are gone, so that we can increase our understanding of ancient polychrome sculptures and the cultures which created them.