Norman Hammond Archaeology Correspondent
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Antiquity had more than a monochrome palette
We are so used to the white purity of ancient marble sculptures that we imagine the Greeks and Romans felt the same: certainly the artists and patrons of the Renaissance and later centuries believed that white was right. 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.
“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.”
Michelangelo famously rated sculpture much higher than painting, and Vasari ignored polychrome decoration except on wood carvings, and the impact of statues such as Michelangelo’s David established white marble sculpture as the noblest of the arts, something that continued from the Renaissance into the neoClassical period of the 18th and 19th centuries and the establishment of an art-historical canon by Johann Joachim Winckelmann.