White’s Not Right

The LondonTimes had an interesting article today that reminds us the Renaissance did not just re-discover antiquity, it sometimes overlaid its own ideas upon it. Take, for example, the idea that statuary should be white, unpainted.

“The ideal of unpainted sculpture took shape in Renaissance Rome, inspired by finds and early collections of Classical marble statues such as the Laocoön, discovered in 1506, said Dr Susanne Ebbinghaus of Harvard University, organiser of a recent conference on Gods in Colour. These were denuded of their painted surfaces by prolonged exposure to the elements, burial and often, most likely, a good scrub upon recovery” … [However] new research using strong raking light sources and beams of ultraviolet light has shown, however, that many Classical statues were gaudily painted in a plethora of colours.

Painted sculpture

When ancient sculptures began to be unearthed early in the 19th century, such as those from the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, excavated in 1811, significant traces of paint were visible. Reconstructions on paper of presumed original colour schemes engendered debate as to whether white marble was still desirable, and by midcentury John Gibson had created the Tinted Venus in emulation of Praxiteles. However, “we have still not come to terms with the painted marble sculpture of Ancient Greece and Rome,” Dr Ebbinghaus said.

There is, of course, room for the startling white purity of untouched marble, but generally speaking, I like warm bright colours, even in scultpure.

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