The ancients: now available in colour
November 19th, 2004
It comes as a shock to be confronted with an exact replica with unthreatening
hazel eyes. Add garish pink skin and glossy brown hair, and the new painted
version of Caligula's bust looks as if it might once have been used to model
hats in thewindow of a men's outfitters. Yet, according to the curators of a new
exhibition at the Vatican museums, this is a lot closer to what the sculptor
intended we see than the white marble to which we are accustomed.
"This exhibition reminds me of Wim Wenders' film Wings of Desire, where
the angels saw in black and white but the human beings saw in colour," says the show's curator, Paolo Liverani. "We are in an
'angelic' situation with respect to classical statues; we are used to seeing them
and appreciating them in immaculate white. Now we're trying to 'humanise' ourselves a bit and rediscover them in their original colours."
However, modern techniques have enabled investigators to determine from
minute, usually ingrained, traces the precise types and colours of the paints used.
The Vatican museums' researchers have carried out a rigorous examination
of one of the most famous classical figures, the so-called Prima Porta Augustus, which revealed the statue was once like the replica on display
in the exhibition. It had a scarlet toga, a red and blue tunic and a breastplate decorated with coloured figures. Other copies in the show
were created with the help of research at the Glyptothek in Munich and
the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.
"I think it's a valiant attempt to discover what went on," says Susan
Walker, keeper of antiquities at the Ashmolean museum in Oxford. "The
question is whether the people who have researched the exhibition have got the recipes right, both with respect to what kind of paint was used
and how the paint adhered to the sculptures."
The organisers of the show make no claim to infallibility. Francesco Buranelli, the director of the Vatican museums, says: "The show is an
experiment. It aims to pose a question, not impose anything on anyone."
So far, though, it has won enthusiastic, if somewhat bewildered, reviews in Rome. Il Messagero found the exhibition "disorientating, shocking,
but often splendid". Corriere della Sera's critic felt that "suddenly,
a world we had been used to regarding as austere and reflective has been
turned on its head to become as jolly as a circus".
And that was without anyone mentioning the Venus de Milo's nostrils. Walker said they were almost certainly painted too - to reflect the
prevailing fashion in ancient Greece. "It was done to intensify the effect of shadow," she said. "They were just touched up. In red."
The Colours of White is at the Vatican museums, Rome, until January 31.
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