Throughout the exhibition, the colored replicas are juxtaposed with white plaster casts of marble pieces—fakes that look like what we think of as the real thing. For many people, the colors are jarring because their tones seem too gaudy or opaque. But some of the disorientation among viewers comes from seeing polychromy at all.
The challenge is for us to try and understand the ancient Greeks and Romans—not to tell them they got it wrong. Lately, this obscure academic debate about ancient sculpture has taken on an unexpected moral and political urgency. Last year, a University of Iowa classics professor, Sarah Bond, published two essays, one in the online arts journal Hyperallergic and one in Forbes , arguing that it was time we all accepted that ancient sculpture was not pure white—and neither were the people of the ancient world.
One false notion, she said, had reinforced the other. For classical scholars, it is a given that the Roman Empire—which, at its height, stretched from North Africa to Scotland—was ethnically diverse. These near-life-size portraits, which were painted on funerary objects, present their subjects with an array of skin tones, from olive green to deep brown, testifying to a complex intermingling of Greek, Roman, and local Egyptian populations. The Fayum portraits have been widely dispersed among museums. After the publication of her essays, she received a stream of hate messages online.
She is not the only classicist who has been targeted by the so-called alt-right. Some white supremacists have been drawn to classical studies out of a desire to affirm what they imagine to be an unblemished lineage of white Western culture extending back to ancient Greece. When they are told that their understanding of classical history is flawed, they often get testy. The casting decision elicited a backlash in right-wing publications. Moreover, several scholars explained online that, though ancient Greeks and Romans certainly noticed skin color, they did not practice systematic racism.
They owned slaves, but this population was drawn from a wide range of conquered peoples, including Gauls and Germans. Nor did the Greeks conceive of race the way we do.
And the people they called Ethiopians were thought of as very smart but cowardly. It comes out of the medical tradition. In the North, you have plenty of thick blood. But a man with pale skin was considered unmasculine: bronzed skin was associated with the heroes who fought on battlefields and competed as athletes, naked, in amphitheatres. Last year, high-school students participating in a summer program at the risd Museum, in Providence, were so fascinated to learn about polychromy in classical statuary that they made a coloring book allowing gallery visitors to create brightly hued versions of the objects on display.
The idealization of white marble is an aesthetic born of a mistake. Over the millennia, as sculptures and architecture were subjected to the elements, their paint wore off. Buried objects retained more color, but often pigments were hidden beneath accretions of dirt and calcite, and were brushed away in cleanings.
The beautiful statue first described lay on a table in the museum on the Acropolis in May, , and already some of its color had been shaken off; for as it lay it was surrounded by a little deposit of green, red and black powder which had fallen from it. In time, though, a fantasy took hold.
Scholars argued that Greek and Roman artists had left their buildings and sculptures bare as a pointed gesture—it both confirmed their superior rationality and distinguished their aesthetic from non-Western art. Acceptance of this view was made easier by the fact that ancient Egyptian sculptures looked very different: they tended to retain brilliant surface color, because the dry climate and the sand in which they were interred did not result in the same kind of erosion.
Starting in the Renaissance, artists made sculpture and architecture that exalted form over color, in homage to what they thought Greek and Roman art had looked like. But he found a way around that discomfiting observation, claiming that a statue of Artemis with red hair, red sandals, and a red quiver strap must have been not Greek but Etruscan—the product of an earlier civilization that was considered less sophisticated. He later concluded, however, that the Artemis probably was Greek.
It is now thought to be a Roman copy of a Greek original. The cult of unpainted sculpture continued to permeate Europe, buttressing the equation of whiteness with beauty. In this reconstruction, Paris wears the costume of the Scythians, a tribe in Central Asia. In the nineteenth century, a series of major excavations should have toppled the monochrome myth.
Victorian excavations of the Acropolis turned up some painted reliefs, sculptures, and marble gutters. The Augustus of Prima Porta and the Alexander Sarcophagus retained bold hues when they were discovered, as contemporaneous paintings of them confirm. Scholars who continued to discuss polychromy were often dismissed.
We benefit from a whole range of assumptions about cultural, ethnic, and racial superiority. We benefit in terms of the core identity of Western civilization, that sense of the West as more rational—the Greek miracle and all that. In the twentieth century, appreciation for ancient polychromy and decoration went further into eclipse—largely on aesthetic, rather than racial, grounds. Modernism lauded the abstraction of white forms and derided earthy verisimilitude in sculpture. After the Second World War, European architects sought a neutral common heritage by promoting the modest virtues of spare white spaces, such as the parliamentary building in Bonn.
Over the centuries, many art restorers and dealers felt obliged to vigorously scrub Greek and Roman objects, so as to enhance their marmoreal gleam—and their collectibility. Mark Bradley, a classicist at the University of Nottingham, believes that in some cases restorers were merely trying to remove residue left by oil lamps that had lit galleries before the advent of electricity.
The sculptures, made from a creamy white marble, appeared to have negligible speckles and stains. But Abbe knew better. He had examined their surfaces with a powerful microscope and with infrared and UV light, and had discovered rich purples, blues, and pinks. In , Giovanni Verri, who now teaches conservation at the Courtauld Institute, in London, figured out how to confirm the presence of an ancient pigment known as Egyptian blue. It has a remarkable capacity for luminescence under infrared light, and Verri found that in digital photographs taken under such light it glistened like ice crystals.
Abbe had seen these sparkles on the two Roman busts.
A conservation scientist from the Indianapolis Museum of Art, Gregory Dale Smith, would undertake the extraction of the samples, the largest of which would be the size of the period at the end of this sentence. Smith, who arrived at the storage facility later that afternoon, told me that he had skipped coffee that day—he needed to have the steadiest of hands. Julie Van Voorhis, an art-history professor at Indiana who is researching the busts, had joined Abbe and me, along with Juliet Graver Istrabadi, the ancient-art curator from the Eskenazi Museum.
For a while, the four of us stood in a polite semicircle and gazed at the statues, as though we were guests at their party and they were about to give a toast. Ancient organic dyes—such as Tyrian purple, made from the glands of sea snails—are harder to identify, but scholars have had some success using surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, which measures molecular vibrations. Abbe, who is forty-five, tall, and slim, was wearing a dapper dark suit and a narrow floral tie. He has a springy energy that reminded me of an actor playing a brainy young inventor.
He told me that, when he first examines a sculpture for signs of polychromy, he looks at it for hours, aided by a device that involves a magnifying glass and an L. A terra-cotta statue of Eros, from the third century B. Traces of blue and purple pigment can be seen on the wings. Once your eyes are properly adjusted, you can go in and see details. Abbe and Van Voorhis are interested in finding out not just which colors the ancients favored but what techniques they used to apply paint: how sculptors polished stone surfaces in preparation for pigment, how they added highlights and shading to faces.
Learning more about these methods will help scholars create more nuanced facsimiles, and will also illuminate how painting and sculpting worked in tandem in the ancient world. Skeptics of polychromy question why Greek and Roman artists would have sculpted with such beautiful materials—Parian marble, which was commonly used, has a prized translucence—and then painted over the surface, or bedazzled it with gilt and jewels.
Figures that were deftly painted would have looked eerily lifelike, particularly in low and flickering light.
You go to a dinner party in Pompeii, and there are statues of nude homoerotic youths, in the old, noble Greek tradition. And then they move, the same way the sculptures seem to move in the reflections of pools and fountains. And then the slave boy comes from the other side and refills your cup. The hotel lobby was a dark, derelict room, narrow as a corridor, and seemingly without air.
We waited on a couch while the manager vanished upstairs to do something unknown to our room. Beside us on an overstuffed chair, absolutely motionless, was a platinum-blonde woman in her forties wearing a black silk dress and a strand of pearls. Her long legs were crossed; she supported her head on her fist.
At the dim far end of the room, their backs toward us, sat six bald old men in their shirtsleeves, around a loud television. Two of them seemed asleep. They were drunks. On the broad lobby desk, lighted and bubbling, was a ten-gallon aquarium containing one large fish; the fish tilted up and down in its water.
Against the long opposite wall sang a live canary in its cage. Now the alarm was set for 6. I lay awake remembering an article I had read downstairs in the lobby, in an engineering magazine. The article was about gold mining. The companies have to air-condition the mines; if the air conditioners break, the miners die.
When the miners return to the surface, their faces are deathly pale. Early the next morning we checked out. It was February 26, , a Monday morning. We would drive out of town, find a hilltop, watch the eclipse, and then drive back over the mountains and home to the coast.
How familiar things are here; how adept we are; how smoothly and professionally we check out! Gary put the car in gear and off we went, as off we have gone to a hundred other adventures.
It was dawn when we found a highway out of town and drove into the unfamiliar countryside. By the growing light we could see a band of cirrostratus clouds in the sky. Later the rising sun would clear these clouds before the eclipse began. We drove at random until we came to a range of unfenced hills. We pulled off the highway, bundled up, and climbed one of these hills.