The full colors of Greece and Rome

by Massimo Pigliucci

Perception is both informed by reality and shapes our understanding of it. And sometimes our perception is so badly off that it leads us to formulate a highly misleading view of certain aspects of reality. One such case was clearly on exhibit at Chroma, a show running through March 26, 2023 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Chroma displays seventeen color reconstructions of Greco-Roman sculptures, scattered throughout the permanent Greco-Roman wing of the museum. These reconstructions show us what ancient art actually looked like, as opposed to the way we have come to think of it through the centuries.

Instead of stern black and white marbles we see a dazzling array of colors that—as a friend of mine put it—even seem a little too post-modern. But they aren’t. They are our best representation of what these art pieces truly looked like a couple of millennia ago.

The exhibit is the brainchild of a husband and wife pair of archeologists, Vinzenz Brinkmann and Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, who have been working at this for over four decades. They used a number of cutting edge techniques, including multispectral photography and X-ray diffraction, to produce as historically and artistically accurate a rendition of the seventeen pieces as possible. … (continue at Substack)

5 Comments

  1. Not just a peripheral issue, but a most welcome and long overdue change of perspective.. Demystifying, demythologising, even – dare one say it? – decolonising, and I’m not thinking about anything so superficial as skin pigmentation

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    1. This caveat, however, from aclassicist friend: “Although having no in-depth knowledge I find it hard to believe that statues were as garish as this. The Amazon head recently found at Herculaneum has the pupils and eyelashes indicated in black and the remains of yellow for the hair. The korai from the Acropolis show signs of paint on the clothes. But why use fine marble for flesh on acrolithic statues if you were going to smother it in paint? I suspect if the flesh was painted it would be subtle to allow the translucence of the stone to shine through. Praxiteles had a painter, Nikias. Was he confined to marble works? Again bronzes, highly polished to suggest tanned flesh are sometimes inlaid with copper and silver, giving a lifelike appearance. Of course most Greek art was seen in the open in bright sunlight, so that may have to be factored in. I think the jury is out. Of course marble (including architectural elements~), was painted, but I suspect – and hope – it would not have looked like these reconstructions.”

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    2. Interesting comment, but there goes a telling word: “hope.” Why? Because the new reconstructions offend an aesthetic sense built on what, ironically, may be a highly distorted sense of what counts as “classic” art?

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    3. I take your point, and I would expect that much criticism of these reconstructions will indeed be as you say, but having attended my friend’s U3A lectures I would say that in his case it’s more a matter of nuance than of clinging to stultifying tradition

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