Whitewash

By GREG COOK  |  December 9, 2007

But the unpainted Renaissance sculptures, arising out of ignorance of classical polychromy, seem to be where Westerners began equating bare carved stone with ancient ideals of strength, sobriety, nobility, simplicity, purity — ideas that became bound up with Western notions of race and ethnicity, of whiteness. These ideas continue to pop up in contemporary culture, most obviously in portrayals of Romans in Hollywood epics. Roman characters have often been played by Brits with Shakespearian airs, suggesting analogies between the Roman Empire and the British colonial empire, with its Anglo dominance of Indians and Africans. By reconstructing the color of these ancient sculptures, archaeologists are also restoring some of the ethnicity that was bleached out of the originals.

“Gods in Color,” organized by Munich’s Stiftung Archaologie (Archaeology Foundation) and the Staatliche Antikensammlungen (National Antiques Collections) and Glyptothek, presents a fragment of a 6th-century-BC Greek marble Kouros (male youth) borrowed from the MFA. Red-brown paint is plainly visible on the curly hair falling down the fellow’s back. Brinkmann and his collaborators use raking light, ultraviolet light, and microscopic analysis to reveal traces of paint not apparent to the naked eye, as well as raised areas that paint protected from erosion. Ancient texts and scientific analysis identify ancient paints: mostly a mix of mineral pigments with organic binders such as egg or wax. Often only the lowest layers of paint survive. And some colors (red, blue) seem to last better than others. So the re-creations are a mix of evidence, guesswork, and approximation. “These partial reconstructions are pretty certain, but they give us a misimpression, because they only show us what has survived, not all that would have been there,” says Harvard curator Susanne Ebbinghaus, who organized the Sackler presentation with her Harvard colleague, curator Amy Brauer.

Check out an original marble head carved at Greece’s Cycladic islands in about 2550 BC that still bears faint red dots painted across its cheeks and forehead — perhaps depicting body paint or tattoos. Based on paint traces and close study of weathering patterns, a plaster copy of a similar sculpture, with strikingly simplified anatomy, is painted with blue eyes, red lips, and dots across the cheeks. The distinctively wavy blue hair, which zigzags down her back, bears a family resemblance to Greeks of today.

Careful analysis of paint traces has changed scholars’ understanding of the meaning of some ancient sculptures. The Peplos Kore, from about 530 BC from the Athenian Acropolis (presented here in two painted copies), was once thought to depict a young woman in a heavy wool robe, or peplos, but paint remains suggest that she may have actually been wearing a fancy gown and represented the goddess Artemis.

True Colors
The loss of paint means not just a loss of color, but a loss of decoration. Ancient carvers left details for painters to fill in: the scales of armor, animal designs down the front of a dress, straps of sandals. Raking light revealed that gods and heroes depicted across a 6th-century-BC frieze on the Treasury of the Siphnians at Delphi (presented here in a painted copy) were identified by painted-on names. And a blue background helped make the action clear from a distance.

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  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Science and Technology, classical, Athena,  More more >
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