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The Guardian

The ancients: now available in colour
November 19th, 2004

For hundreds of years, Caligula's handsome, marble face has stared out at a fascinated world. Now situated at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum in Copenhagen, the celebrated first-century bust of this cruel young Roman emperor is made repellent, yet intriguing, not so much by his petulantly downturned mouth as by the blank, staring eyes chiselled from marble by an unknown sculptor.

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.

It has long been known that classical statues were painted. Indeed, their creators sometimes chose different kinds of stone for different parts of their statues according to the way they reacted to paint and wax, using types that could be highly polished for the fleshy parts and coarser varieties that would absorb paint for the drapery. Some art history books have included coloured photographs to give an idea of how the statues of the Greeks and Romans would have looked to contemporaries. But I Colori del Bianco (The Colours of White) is the first show to confront us with three-dimensional copies created with the help of meticulous scientific investigation.

"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."

Ever since they became the object of scholarly interest, classical statues have been trapped in an aesthetic cage erected by the German scholar and father of modern archaeology, Johann Joachim Winckelmann. It was he who laid down the rule that white is right. "Colour," Winckelmann declared, "ought to have a minor part in the consideration of beauty." 
Whenever statues carved by the ancients came to light, they were left unadorned. Telltale streaks and smudges clearly showed the marble had once been painted. But no one wanted to risk damaging the 2000-year-old originals. And, in any case, who was to say how exactly they had been painted?

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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