Were ancient statues painted?
The short answer is ‘yes’. Much of the pure, gleaming white marble sculpture that we now admire was certainly coloured in some way. The question is how was it coloured: a delicate wash, or bright, glaring hues?
When I was in the States, I went to an exhibition in the Sackler Galleries at Harvard, which offered some examples of how Greek and Roman statues might have appeared with all their original paint. (You may have seen this show already – as a version of the same exhibition has appeared in Munich, Rome, Istanbul, and will soon go to the Getty.)
Or, to put it another way: if you are not entirely convinced by the gaudy blues and yellows, are you simply guilty of a romantic view of ancient sculpture that wants it all white?
How do we want our ancient sculpture to look?
The eminence grise behind the Harvard exhibition is a German archaeologist-cum-scientist, Vinzenz Brinkmann. He has brilliantly shown how some of the earliest Greek sculpture might look in its original colours, reconstructing the first appearance on plaster casts.
It’s a shock, but sometimes a convincing one. In fact, some of this stuff still carries the traces of the paint that Brinkmann has restored. So, for example, he is especially good at giving you a new -- multi-coloured -- look at the sculptures of the temple of Aphaia on the island of Aegina. You can see one of these at the top of this post (these are now in Munich, a German consortium having outbid the British rivals in the early nineteenth century and taken them back to their Glyptothek).
My problems come with wondering how far we should imagine all Greek and Roman sculptures painted in this way. Or whether in the Roman world, at least, we should really be thinking of a more delicate colouring, not a garish smearing. (On the left you see Brinkmann's unsettling version of the Augustus of Prima Porta.)
It has become unfashionable to argue against the Brinkmann line. And there is a tendency to dismiss any sceptic as a neo-Romantic, fixated on a version of pure white ancient art, foisted on the modern world by J. J. Winckelmann. But I am not wholly convinced.
For a start, although there are some references in ancient literature to coloured sculpture, they are not many – and they are far out-numbered by those Greek and Roman writers who sing of the translucent, unadorned white marble of their favourite statues.
Secondly, while early Greek statues fairly often come out of the ground still with their traces of colour, for the later stuff we rely on the evidence of the microscope and the UV camera. Why does this not still retain visible trace of colour, if coloured it once was? And why on earth did Romans polish their marble statues (as we know they did), if they were going to cover them up with thick coats of paint?
The jury’s still out I think. The question is not whether ancient statues were painted (in bits, of course they were) – but whether they were done in this in-your-face way. I may be an old romantic, but I am still a bit suspicious.