Antiquity: Now in Color

Cole Crawford, Junior, Writing and History, McKinney, TX


Whenever we, in the modern era, imagine the awe-inspiring buildings and statues of ancient Antiquity, what do we picture? It would probably be sleek white marble with its stoic sheen, the visage of philosophy and empire. Yet in this modern era, with our courthouses and government buildings imitating the white marble of Greece and Rome, we are wrong in our assumption about ancient architecture and art. The white we see was but a canvas the ancients used to display artisan beauty in full color. 

If this is the case, why does only white marble remain on statues like Augustus of Prima Porta and buildings like the Parthenon? Well, as is the case for most art and architecture from this time period, exposure to the elements has over time worn away at what we call “polychrome,” or the painting of buildings and statues. We know this because of trace remnants of the paints and pigments the ancient Greeks and Romans used to decorate their marble, which is in some cases visible to the naked eye as slight coloration differences on the stonework; in other cases, it’s only noticeable when  examined under ultraviolet light. For instance, Greek temples like the Parthenon were painted in bright blues, oranges, greens, and reds in a myriad of patterns, including interweaving lines and floral patterns. Ancient statues like those of Augustus were also painted in bright colors to indicate his hair and skin color, as well as the color of the details on his armor and his robes. This was all done as a means of artistic expression and to make their art more lifelike, as the ancients strove for in the details of the carvings as well.

Time and exposure to the elements is only part of the reason we have forgotten the original pigments of these ancient works. Another reason is the significant human role in our brainwashing. During the Italian Renaissance, a rekindled interest in the ancient world was sparked by the mathematical, philosophical, and artistic movements in the Middle East. This led artists like Michelangelo and Donatello to look at the works of their ancestors for inspiration and insight into the lost arts. As these statues and buildings have become worn by this point and the paint long gone, the Italian masters replicated what they saw: bare, white marble. Just as artists from the last few centuries have looked back to the Renaissance as the peak of art, so too did the artists of the Renaissance when they looked back at ancient Greece and Rome. 

The reality about these ancient works and their true colors came to us from several sources. For one, some of the buildings and statues still bore hints of their original colors, planting the seeds of the truth. Also, documented evidence from this era occasionally described the original pigments. However, the biggest clue archeologists found were in the ruins of Pompeii. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, the town of Pompeii was buried in volcanic ash, which hid the ruins of the settlement for over a thousand years and nearly perfectly preserved the art present in Pompeii when the volcano blew. Among these art pieces were tile mosaics and fresco paintings that depicted ancient Roman architecture, including all of their colors—the true way they were meant to be seen. Some of the statues from the ancient town kept their colors under all of the ash as well. 

These discoveries led archeologists and art historians in the nineteenth century and beyond to discover more of these lost pigments. By using ultraviolet lights, the original patterns and colors of the ancient classics have been discovered and reconstructed by restorationists on copied versions of the originals so as not to tarnish the antiquities. This has allowed us to see the reds and purples of Augustus’ robes, the intricate heterochromatic patterns on the pillars and entablatures of ancient temples, and the exquisite designs of ancient clothing and adornments. I encourage anyone who is reading this, whether or not they are interested in the ancient world or art at all, to look up the polychrome versions of these statues and buildings so that they may see them in their intended glory. It is bizarre to see these iconic white structures blooming with color, but after looking at these works long enough, it all starts to make sense. The ancient Greeks and Romans were very emotional people, so it’s only natural that such emotion would be manifested in their art in more than just their expressions or facades, but in their vibrancy as well. 



-Vox’s video on Roman and Greek Statues: 

Greek Art, by Robert Manuel Cook

An Introduction to Greek Art, by Susan Woodford