It’s easy to imagine the ancients in monochrome. Their classic architecture and statuary give us pure white marbles to project upon.
But what of the people themselves? The stories of ancient Rome are far too colorful to reconcile with the silent, stoic figures we see in museums.
Archaeologists have long contended that the statues were painted – particles of pigment have been fond on many statues – but no one really knows how they were painted.
Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli has teamed up with archaeologists, conservators, and polychrome (painted sculpture) specialists to re-paint five of these Roman busts – to show us an idea of what they might have looked like almost two thousand years ago:
The ancients with their makeup on? At first it’s a garish shock – we’re so used to seeing these images of faded ancients. And projecting our ideals of the ancient world’s purity onto them. Indeed, one of the guards at MOMA PS 1, where the busts are on display until March 8,2015, pronounced them “hideous”. And it’s not just contemporary art critics who aren’t sure if we like our Romans in full color: the same guard told me a visiting archaeologist told him that British aristocracy traveling through Rome on their Grand Tours preferred their marble souvenirs without pigment remnants – leading to who-knows-how-many scrubbed down statues!
Seeing these sculptures in full color makes them more real – whether we like it or not. Close up, the painted statues are more garish and theatrical than we’re used to. And the makeup artists in the room wonder: “Did they really paint the eyebrows like this?”
We won’t really know – there isn’t enough surviving evidence. And it’s worth putting the Western art world’s chromophobia aside to enjoy the busts for what they are: a dream of the past – in color.