Why Ancient Marble Statues Aren’t Meant to Be Seen As “White” (Video)
In the world of classical art, a recent discussion emerged that thrust classicist Sarah Bond into unexpected controversy. Her focus? Ancient statues and the concept of "polychromy." Unlike the serene white figures we often encounter in museums and media, technology now reveals a different truth. These pristine white statues were once a vibrant canvas of colors. Bond's argument extends to skin tones, demonstrating that ancient Rome and Greece were home to diverse societies. These civilizations portrayed a broad spectrum of skin colors in their artwork, reflecting a multi-ethnic world. However, the prevailing image of ancient societies as uniformly white can be traced back to an 18th-century scholar, Johann Winckelmann, who favored the purity of white marble.
Today, experts like Rachel Sabino are meticulously studying these statues to uncover their original appearance. They reveal maroon draperies and hint at the elusive nature of ancient skin pigments. The implications of these findings challenge the belief that Western civilization was solely constructed by white individuals, reshaping standards of beauty in the process. This discovery prompts some classicists, including Sarah Bond, to advocate for accompanying displays that restore these statues' original vibrancy, bridging the gap between historical fact and the fiction of white marble. However, resistance to such alterations lingers among those attached to the idea of a monochrome past.
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Top image: Erechtheion with Original Paintwork Reconstruction. Source: Mark Cartwright / CC by NC-SA.