Roman Statues Weren’t White; They Were Once Painted in Vivid, Bright Colors

The idea of the clas­si­cal period—the time of ancient Greece and Rome—as an ele­gant­ly uni­fied col­lec­tion of supe­ri­or aes­thet­ic and philo­soph­i­cal cul­tur­al traits has its own his­to­ry, one that comes in large part from the era of the Neo­clas­si­cal. The redis­cov­ery of antiq­ui­ty took some time to reach the pitch it would dur­ing the 18th cen­tu­ry, when ref­er­ences to Greek and Latin rhetoric, archi­tec­ture, and sculp­ture were inescapable. But from the Renais­sance onward, the clas­si­cal achieved the sta­tus of cul­tur­al dog­ma.

One ten­ant of clas­si­cal ide­al­ism is the idea that Roman and Greek stat­u­ary embod­ied an ide­al of pure whiteness—a mis­con­cep­tion mod­ern sculp­tors per­pet­u­at­ed for hun­dreds of years by mak­ing busts and stat­ues in pol­ished white mar­ble. But the truth is that both Greek stat­ues and their Roman counterparts—as you’ll learn in the Vox video above—were orig­i­nal­ly bright­ly paint­ed in riotous col­or.

This includes the 1st cen­tu­ry A.D. Augus­tus of Pri­ma Por­ta, the famous fig­ure of the Emper­or stand­ing tri­umphant­ly with one hand raised. Rather than left as blank white mar­ble, the stat­ue would have had bronzed skin, brown hair, and a fire-engine red toga. “Ancient Greece and Rome were real­ly col­or­ful,” we learn. So how did every­one come to believe oth­er­wise?

It’s part­ly an hon­est mis­take. After the fall of Rome, ancient sculp­tures were buried or left out in the open air for hun­dreds of years. By the time the Renais­sance began in the 1300s, their paint had fad­ed away. As a result, the artists unearthing, and copy­ing ancient art didn’t real­ize how col­or­ful it was sup­posed to be.

But white mar­ble couldn’t have become the norm with­out some will­ful igno­rance. Even though there was a bunch of evi­dence that ancient sculp­ture was paint­ed, artists, art his­to­ri­ans and the gen­er­al pub­lic chose to dis­re­gard it. West­ern cul­ture seemed to col­lec­tive­ly accept that white mar­ble was sim­ply pret­ti­er.

White stat­u­ary sym­bol­ized a clas­si­cal ide­al that “depends high­ly on the great­est pos­si­ble decon­tex­tu­al­iza­tion,” writes James I. Porter, pro­fes­sor of Rhetoric and Clas­sics at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley. “Only so can the val­ues it cher­ish­es be iso­lat­ed: sim­plic­i­ty, tran­quil­i­ty, bal­anced pro­por­tions, restraint, puri­ty of form… all of these are fea­tures that under­score the time­less qual­i­ty of the high­est pos­si­ble expres­sion of art, like a breath held indef­i­nite­ly.” These ideals became insep­a­ra­ble from the devel­op­ment of racial the­o­ry.

Learn­ing to see the past as it was requires us to put aside his­tor­i­cal­ly acquired blind­ers. This can be exceed­ing­ly dif­fi­cult when our ideas about the past come from hun­dreds of years of inher­it­ed tra­di­tion, from every peri­od of art his­to­ry since the time of Michelan­ge­lo. But we must acknowl­edge this tra­di­tion as fab­ri­cat­ed. Influ­en­tial art his­to­ri­an Johann Joachim Winck­el­mann, for exam­ple, extolled the val­ue of clas­si­cal sculp­ture because, in his opin­ion, “the whiter the body is, the more beau­ti­ful it is.”

Winck­el­mann also, Vox notes, “went out of his way to ignore obvi­ous evi­dence of col­ored mar­ble, and there was a lot of it.” He dis­missed fres­cos of col­ored stat­u­ary found in Pom­peii and judged one paint­ed sculp­ture dis­cov­ered there as “too prim­i­tive” to have been made by ancient Romans. “Evi­dence wasn’t just ignored, some of it may have been destroyed” to enforce an ide­al of white­ness. While many stat­ues were denud­ed by the ele­ments over hun­dreds of years, the first archae­ol­o­gists to dis­cov­er the Augus­tus of Pri­ma Por­ta in the 1860s described its col­or scheme in detail.

Cri­tiques of clas­si­cal ide­al­ism don’t orig­i­nate in a polit­i­cal­ly cor­rect present. As Porter shows at length in his arti­cle “What Is ‘Clas­si­cal’ About Clas­si­cal Antiq­ui­ty?,” they date back at least to 19th cen­tu­ry philoso­pher Lud­wig Feuer­bach, who called Winckelmann’s ideas about Roman stat­ues “an emp­ty fig­ment of the imag­i­na­tion.” But these ideas are “for the most part tak­en for grant­ed rather than ques­tioned,” Porter argues, “or else clung to for fear of los­ing a pow­er­ful cachet that, even in the belea­guered present, con­tin­ues to trans­late into cul­tur­al pres­tige, author­i­ty, elit­ist sat­is­fac­tions, and eco­nom­ic pow­er.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Ancient Greek Stat­ues Real­ly Looked: Research Reveals Their Bold, Bright Col­ors and Pat­terns

The Met Dig­i­tal­ly Restores the Col­ors of an Ancient Egypt­ian Tem­ple, Using Pro­jec­tion Map­ping Tech­nol­o­gy

Watch Art on Ancient Greek Vas­es Come to Life with 21st Cen­tu­ry Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Ralph Ahseln says:

    Out­stand­ing pre­sen­ta­tion !
    Reveal­ing truth in his­to­ry and art is mag­i­cal.
    Well done !

  • Margo says:


  • Michael Gos says:

    Besides, to con­tem­po­rary tastes, the look of plain mar­ble is much more beau­ti­ful. We could paint wood or plas­ter and have sim­i­lar look­ing stat­ues, but noth­ing beats the look of that beau­ti­ful mar­ble.

  • Tom Gallagher says:

    Tenet. It’s a tenet. A prin­ci­ple of thought or belief. Not a lodger.

  • Andy Goss says:

    Racial obses­sives may have seized on the white mar­ble, but the point is aes­thet­ic — art often works bet­ter with­out colour. Pho­tog­ra­phy and film use mono­chrome to empha­sise the image, many artists like to work in pen­cil and black ink.

    After Hen­ry VIII British church­es lost their vivid dec­o­ra­tion, and gen­er­a­tions came to appre­ci­ate the colour and tex­ture of the raw stone beneath. Even though the orig­i­nal colours and paint­ed scenes are now known about, there has been no rush to re-gaud­i­fy.

  • Shortstory Woman says:

    Wow. thanks for this!

  • The Knight says:

    That’s a bit of a judg­ment call. Who’s to say that art looks best with­out col­or? This seems more a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non. Clear­ly the Romans wouldn’t have agreed with you. The pref­er­ence for mono­chrome in film, pho­tog­ra­phy, and oth­er mod­ern media bespeaks either the lim­i­ta­tions of those media or some­thing more abstract. Much in the same way that har­mo­ny was jet­ti­soned in mod­ern, avant-garde music, the pref­er­ence for an absence of col­or is more like­ly a philo­soph­i­cal choice than an aes­thet­ic one. Per­son­al­ly, I find the obses­sion with mono­chrome in so many aspects of mod­ern West­ern cul­ture to be fair­ly depress­ing. One sees it in all spheres—architecture (bru­tal­ism, end­less seas of gray con­crete), fash­ion (Swedish min­i­mal­ism), etc. It’s become a way to sig­nal one’s jadedness/hipness. Noth­ing to do with aes­thet­ics.

  • Mark Macho says:

    Good lec­ture.

    It would improve things if you pro­nounced Winck­el­man­n’s name the Ger­man way or the Eng­lish way, the lan­guage in which you are speak­ing. It’s a bit dis­con­cert­ing to hear it pro­nounced as if you or he were Span­ish.
    He was Ger­man.

  • Daniel Jonathan Parry says:

    Stat­ues in ancient Rome being paint­ed does­n’t say any­thing either way about race — they were still Ital­ians so the idea of some con­spir­a­cy to con­ceal colour does­n’t make sense.

    Since the aware­ness of colour on ancient stat­ues came about rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly in the main­stream (maybe last 150 years) every­one is aware they were coloured — but it does­n’t change any­thing ? It’s not as if they were con­ceal­ing that the stat­ue sub­jects were not Ital­ians.

    Also how does a white mar­ble stat­ue pro­mote racial white­ness ? Nobody has skin colour like that. It is unlike any human appear­ance white or black. Just like Egypt­ian stat­ues in black stone don’t sig­ni­fy black peo­ple racial­ly.

    I don’t think your argu­ments stack up.

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