Ruth Leon recommends… The Modern Invention of Ancient White Marble

Ruth Leon recommends… The Modern Invention of Ancient White Marble

Ruth Leon recommends

norman lebrecht

September 14, 2022

The Modern Invention of Ancient White Marble

 On the day I first visited the Parthenon in Athens, someone, I’ve forgotten who, but someone who appeared to know his stuff, told me that the pristine whiteness of the marble had been only the starting point. He said that when it was built, every part of this amazing edifice was brightly painted and so were the sculptured figures that then filled every nook and alcove.  Ever since, I’ve been trying to imagine how the ancient structures and sculptures that we see today must have looked to contemporary Athenians. As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

Now, at the Met Museum in New York, there’s an exhibition of Polychromy called “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color”. Archaeologists Vinzenz and Ulrike Koch Brinkmann  have spent the last 40 years dedicated to the study of polychromy—or “many colours” in Greek—in ancient sculpture. Once a fringe area of study, their research combats the misconception of white purity in ancient Greece and Rome. They reflect on the marble bust of Caligula and other famous statues, and how the reconstruction of their former colours can help us better understand history.

Two hardworking scholars, Vinzenz and Ulrike Koch Brinkmann, have devoted their lives and scholarship to investigating the original colours of ancient statuary and reproducing them on plaster models of some well known friezes and sculptures, alongside their white marble exhibits.  It’s fascinating.

To modern eyes these colours look too bright, too garish, too amateurish but, say the Brinkmanns, what they have uncovered through years of painstaking work, is how they actually looked when they were new. There isn’t room here to reproduce more of these startling artefacts but I looked them up online at ‘Vinzenz and Ulrike Koch Brinkmann images ‘and they popped right up.

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  • lamed says:

    Even among strong advocates of polychromy, the Brinkmanns’ scholarship and aesthetic choices are far from widely accepted; it is unfortunate that a major museum like the Met would so wholeheartedly embrace a singular idiosyncratic approach and build an exhibition around it when the field is diverse and not settled.

    Of course, the Met gets far more ticket sales and media attention with an eye-popping exhibit than a nuanced academic one.

    (Let’s say for argument’s sake that ancient Greek artists were as garish as the Brinkmanns make them out to be, aesthetically, I still prefer what time has done to scrub those sculptures of their neon bright colors, and if I were an ancient Greek owner of a piece, I’d have personally washed the paint off myself. And if I were a modern billionaire owner, I sure as hell wouldn’t let the Brinkmanns repaint my pieces!)

  • MR says:

    I was crestfallen when they cleaned Two Polynesian Women by Paul Gauguin at the MET in NYC some time ago. Prior to the restoration, the canvas was magical. Afterwards it rang hollow. It seemed obvious for all their good intentions and assumed expertise, they irrevocably altered Gauguin’s delicately calibrated composition in terms of coloristic nuance. Something similar happened with the acoustics of Carnegie Hall when they gave it a facelift a while back – they inadvertently removed the soul.

  • msc says:

    However dubious the Brinkmann’s actual results, it is still good for people to be reminded of (or taught) what the actual reality was. In many ways ancient Greece was far more alien than most people realize.

  • james mcgraw says:

    nothing has disheartened me more that looking at these purported versions of ancient greek statues. they are beyond garish and cheesy. i am losing my faith in the ancient greek sculptors. these simply cannot be correct.

  • william osborne says:

    Our austere and colorless conception of the foundations of Western culture is an ahistorical, socio-cultural construct that has been used to justify a good deal of nonsense, especially various conceptions of noble superiority. I think of the line from the film Amadeus, “They’re so lofty they sound like they shit marble.”