12 July 2009

Classically white

When we use the adjective 'classical', we mean to suggest certain qualities possessed by the classical Greek and Roman worlds: restraint, symmetry, clarity and seriousness of purpose, harmoniousness of proportion, a lack of excessive ornament. Whatever image we conjure up to accompany the idea, whether it's a building or a piece of sculpture, one thing is certain: it will be white.

I had read before that those ancient buildings and statues were originally not white at all, but brightly coloured. It's hard to keep that it in mind while contemplating the corridors of marble white sculpture in the Vatican Museum, though. The whiteness of them seems to accord with very deep cultural prejudices and is hard to shake.

The New Scientist reports that a team at the British Museum has found the first evidence of coloured paints used on the Parthenon, built in the 5th century BC. Researcher Giovanni Verri has developed an imaging technique sensitive to Egyptian Blue, a pigment known to have been used in ancient times. Shining red light onto marble, the pigment absorbs the red spectrum and emits infrared light. Through an infrared camera, any area that was once blue will glow.

Traces of the pigment have been found on statuary and on the building itself.

Ian Jenkins, a senior curator at the British Museum, says the temple would have looked "jewelled" and "busy". Judging by similar Greek sculptures, the pigments used were probably blue and red beside contrasting white stone, and liberal use of gold leaf.

Seeing evidence of this kind of painting for myself at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples was an aesthetic shock. The realism of ancient art was something I just wasn't prepared for, keeping in mind that the statues were so often painted as well as sculpted with astonishing fidelity to life.

The annoyingly conscientious guards stopped me from taking pictures, but this one, of Scipio Africanus the Elder, is floating about the internet. It has painting on the eyes still intact, but is plain otherwise. My memory is that others still had bits of flaking paint attached to them.

The figures I saw came from the Villa of the Papyri, the house of a wealthy and cultured lover of philosophy and the arts who lived at Herculaneum, the less famous neighbouring town of Pompeii. Unfortunately the town and the villa met the same fate as their sister city in 79 AD.

Still, had they not been subsumed in rock and ash on that terrible day, these breathtaking sculptures would not now be in a museum upsetting the smug preconceptions of twenty first century folk like me.

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