“Belief Births Culture”
The Greek and Roman sculptures, celebrated for their marble-white simplicity and design were not actually colorless, as we’ve come to think.
In fact, in antiquity, the Greek and Roman sculptures filling museums around the world were actually quite colorful. Painted with deep blue and red pigments, soft pinks and bright yellows, flesh tones, and bronze; they were a celebration of color.
So what happened?
Ruins from the ancient world confirm the presence of pigment residue on the marble stone, but time, weathering, and the cleaning of the sculptures removed most, if not all, of the remaining pigments. It would seem that those who dug up these works of art decided to overlook the evidence and write their own narrative.
When it came to art, the Renaissance Period (14th-17th centuries) focused on the form of the body. When the good folks of the Renaissance discovered many ancient Roman sculptures they didn’t see the color residue, because they didn’t want to. They liked, instead, how the white marble accentuated and showcased the form in the sculptures so well, without the distraction of color or clothes. Inspired by this, they replicated and “upgraded” the Roman and Greek sculptures by carving their own in simple, pure white marble that accentuated the details of the human form and movement. Michelangelo’s David is one example.
Following the Renaissance Period, the Neoclassical Era (1760-1850s) excavations of Pompeii brought more evidence that ancient sculptures were actually colorful. The protective ash that cloaked and preserved the sculptures and the decorative aspects of Pompeii made this fact undeniable. But again, historians and artists turned a blind eye; they liked the idea of white marble and felt it was a better fit and representation of the ideologies of the day. The resurgence of classical thought turned a focus on ideas like the purity of the mind, control, strength, order, and structure. Highly decorative and loudly colorful sculptures hardly fit the bill.
During the Neoclassical Era, artists took what they liked from the ancient style, but preferring plain white marble as their medium to showcase the form, like the Renaissance artists, they challenged the movement and the minute details of their realistic sculptures.
Today, marble-white forms are a symbol of status, power, and beauty. Retail offerings like Restoration Hardware have built their entire brand on an aesthetic they attribute to the ancient, but which actually came about much later.
That the classical world was marble white is a false notion. Yet people have flocked to it for centuries. What would it mean if we believed and accepted that antiquity was actually colorful? How has our false understanding of classical antiquity affected us? Much of the American government was, in part, predicated on the ancient aesthetics and ideologies as the founding fathers understood it, not as it was.
Imagine that! What we have collectively believed about something as simple as the color of ancient statues has birthed an entire culture. When we believe something, it affects the way we live, what we do, what we say, how we say it, and how we look at our surroundings. But what if what we’re believing is a lie?
We better make sure our beliefs are aligned with the truth, or we could be centuries down the road, spinning our wheels for nothing.
It’s funny to think that the Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers might walk into Restoration Hardware and balk at the blandness, or that Julius Caesar walk down the streets of Washington D.C. where our government buildings stand, and determine us to be a cold, dull nation for not having our architecture painted and decorated.
What we believe about our past, about who we are, about what others have told us matters! We believe the sculptures were marble white because that’s what the generations before us believed. What are you believing today just because someone told you it was true?