There was a time when we imagined that most ancient sculpture never had any color except for that of the stone from which it was hewed. Doubt fell upon that notion as long ago as the eighteenth century, when archaeological digging in Pompeii and Herculaneum brought up statues whose color had been preserved, but only in recent years has it come to be presented as an exploded myth. Though some of the coverage of the false “whiteness” of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculpture has divided along drearily predictable twenty-first-century cultural battle lines, this moment has also presented an opportunity to stage fascinating, even groundbreaking exhibitions.
Take Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color, which ran from the summer of last year to the spring of this year at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. You can still see some of its displays in the Smarthistory video at the top of the post, in which art historians Elizabeth Macaulay and Beth Harris discuss the “world of Technicolor” that was antiquity, the Renaissance origins of the “idea that ancient sculpture was not painted,” and the modern attempts to reconstruct the sculptural color schemes almost totally lost to time.
Architect Vinzenz Brinkmann goes deeper into these subjects in the video from the Met itself just above, paying special attention to the museum’s bust of Caligula — not the finest emperor Rome ever had, to put it mildly, but one whose face has become a promising canvas for the restoration of color.
You can see much more of Chroma in the Art Trip tour video just above. Its wonders include not just genuine pieces of ancient sculpture, but strikingly colorful reconstructions of a finial in the form of a sphinx, a Pompeiian statue of the goddess Artemis, a battle-depicting side of the Alexander Sarcophagus, and “a marble archer in the costume of a horseman of the peoples to the north and east of Greece,” to name just a few. You may prefer these historically educated colorizations to the austere monochrome figures you grew up seeing in textbooks, or you may appreciate after all the kind of elegance that only centuries of ruin can bestow. Either way, your relationship to the ancient world will never be quite the same.
In the year 1530, Michelangelo was sentenced to death by Pope Clement VII — who, not coincidentally, was born Giulio de’ Medici. That famous dynasty, which once seemed to hold absolute economic and political power in Florence, had just seen off a violent challenge to its rule by republican-minded Florentines who, emboldened by the sack of Rome in 1527, took their city from the House of Medici that same year. Alas, that particular Republic of Florence proved short-lived, thanks to the pope and Emperor Charles V’s agreement agreed to use military power to return it to Medici hands.
During the struggles against the Medici, the Florence-born Michelangelo had come to the aid of his hometown by working on its fortifications. It seems to have been his participation in the revolt that drew the ire of the Medici, despite their court’s on-and-off patronage of his work for the preceding four decades.
Mercifully, they never actually executed Michelangelo, and indeed pardoned him before long–not least so he could finish his work on the Sistine Chapel and the Medici family tomb. But how did he occupy himself while still living under the death sentence?
As one theory has it, he simply hid out — and in a corner of what’s now the Medici Chapels Museum at that. In a “tiny chamber beneath the Medici Chapels in the Basilica of San Lorenzo in 1530,” writes the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida, Michelangelo spent a couple months “making dozens of drawings that are reminiscent of his previous works, including a drawing of Leda and the Swan, a painting produced during the same year that was later lost.” All of these he drew directly on the walls, and their existence “remained unknown until 1975 when Paolo Dal Poggetto, then the director of the Medici Chapels, one of five museums that make up the Bargello Museums, was searching for a suitable space to create a new exit for the museum.”
Not that you can just waltz into this stanza segreta: “Visits will be kept to groups of four and limited to 15 minutes, with 45 minute lights-out periods in between to protect the drawings,” Horowitz writes. ‘Tickets, each connected to a specific person whose I.D. will be checked to prevent tour operators from gobbling them up, will cost 32 euros (about $34), and include access to the Medici tombs.” During your own fifteen minutes in this cramped, obscure room turned tastefully-lit gallery, you may or may not feel the presence of Michelangelo, but you’ll surely find yourself reminded that a true artist never stops creating, no matter the circumstances in which he finds himself.
Japan’s 19th-century kimonos blur the lines between art and fashion.
Meiji era customers could browse hinagata-bon, traditionally bound pattern books, on visits to drapers and fabric merchants. These colorful volumes offered a glamorous update of the Edo period’s black-and-white kimono pattern books.
Aspiring designers also studied hinagata-bon, as many of the designs featured within were the work of celebrated artists.
Each page featured a standard kimono outline in a back or side view, embellished with the proposed design. These range from traditional floral motifs to bold landscapes to striking geometric patterns, some arresting, some discreet.
As Hunter Dukes observes in the Public Domain Review, the Meiji era ushered in a period of technological advancement. Representatives of the Japanese textile industry ventured abroad, embracing and adapting dying processes they saw practiced in the United States and Europe. The ability to stencil pastes of chemical dye onto silk helped to industrialize the kimono-making process. People who previously couldn’t have afforded such a garment could now choose from a variety of designs.
The explosion in kimono production spurred demand for fresh designs. Publishers began to release hinagata-bon annually. Previous years’ pattern books were of little interest to sophisticated customers clamoring for the latest fashions.
Unlike today’s disposable fashion mags, however, the pattern books’ high aesthetic and production quality saved them from destruction.
In her 1924 book, Block Printing and Book Illustration in Japan, author Louise Norton Brown wrote that cast-off hinagata-bon could be “found in all the secondhand book shops of Japan … (where they were) comparatively inexpensive.”
We owe these pleasures in part to the First Folio, a fat collection of Shakespeare’s plays, compiled in 1623, seven years after his death.
As Elizabeth James, senior librarian at the National Art Library in London, and Harriet Reed, contemporary performance curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum point out in the show-and-tell above, 18 previously-unpublished plays would have sunk into oblivion had they not been truffled up and preserved here by John Heminge and Henry Condell, listed in the Folio as among the ‘Principall Actors’ of his work.
Hemings and Condell’s desire to create an accurate compendium of Shakespeare’s work for posterity led them to scour prompt books, authorial fair copy, and working drafts referred to as “foul papers” — a term rife for revival, in our opinion — for the texts of the unpublished works.
Their labors yielded some 750 copies of a luxurious, high-priced volume, which positioned Shakespeare as someone of such consequence, his words were to be accorded the same reverence as that of classical authors’.
They categorized the plays as comedies, tragedies, or histories, forever cementing our conceptions of the individual works.
The now familiar portrait of the author also contributed to the perceived weightiness of the tome.
Perhaps we would have felt differently in the early 19th-century, when silhouettes offered a quick and affordable alternative to oil portraits, and photography had yet to be invented.
Self-taught silhouette artist William Bache traveled the eastern seaboard, and later to New Orleans and Cuba, plying his trade with a physiognotrace, a device that helped him outline subjects’ profiles on folded sheets of light paper.
Once a profile had been captured, Bache carefully cut inside the tracing and affixed the “hollow-cut” surrounding sheet to black paper, creating the appearance of a hand-cut black silhouette on a white background.
Bache was an energetic promoter of his services, advertising that if customers found it inconvenient to visit one of his pop-up studios, he would “at the shortest notice, wait upon them at their own Dwellings without any additional expense.”
Naturally, people were eager to lay hands on silhouettes of their children and sweethearts, too.
One of Bache’s competitors, Raphaelle Peale assumed the perspective of a satisfied male customer to tout his own business:
‘Tis almost herself, Eliza’s shade,
Thus by the faithful facietrace pourtray’d!
Her placid brow and pouting lips, whose swell
My fond impatient ardor would repell.
Let me then take that vacant seat, and there
Inhale her breath, scarce mingled with the air:
And thou blest instrument! which o’er her face
Did’st at her lips one moment pause, retrace
My glowing form and leave, unequall’d bliss!
Borrow’d from her, a sweet etherial Kiss.
Hot stuff, though hopefully besotted young lovers refrained from pressing their lips to the silhouettes they loved best. Conservators in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, which houses Bache’s sample book, a ledger filled with likenesses of some 1,800 sitters, discovered it to be suffused with arsenic, presumably meant to repel invading rodents and insects.
Most of the heads in Bache’s album arrived unidentified, but by combing through digitized newspapers, history books, baptismal records, wills, marriage certificates and Ancestry.com, lead curator Robyn Asleson and Getty-funded research assistant Elizabeth Isaacson have managed to identify over 1000.
There are some whose names — and profiles — remain well known more than 200 years later. Can you identify George Washington, Martha Washington, and Thomas Jefferson on the album page below?
Some pages contain entire families. Pedro Bidetrenoulleau coughed up $1.25 for his own likeness, as well as those of his wife, and children Félix, Adele, and Zacharine, numbers 638 through 642, below.
Bache’s travels to New Orleans and Cuba make for a racially diverse collection, though little is known about most of the Black sitters. Dr. Asleson suspects some of these might be the only existing portraits of these individuals, particularly in the case of New Orleanians in mixed-race relationships, whose descendants destroyed strategic evidence in the effort to “pass” as white:
As I was learning more and more about this history, I really began to hope that some of the people who are trying to find their heritage today, who realize it might have been deliberately eradicated to protect their ancestors from oppression, might have the chance to discover an image of a great-great-grandfather or grandmother.
Readers, if you are the caretaker of passed down family silhouettes, perhaps you can help the curators get closer to putting a name to someone who currently exists as little more than a shadow in interesting headgear.
Even if you’re not in possession of a silhouette, you may well be one of the tens of thousands living in the United States today connected to the album by blood.
If you attended a seder this month, you no doubt read aloud from the Haggadah, a Passover tradition in which everyone at the table takes turns recounting the story of Exodus.
There’s no definitive edition of the Haggadah. Every Passover host is free to choose the version of the familiar story they like best, to cut and paste from various retellings, or even take a crack at writing their own.
As David Zvi Kalman, publisher of the annual, illustrated Asufa Haggadah told the New York Times, “The Haggadah in America is like Kit Kats in Japan. It’s a product that accepts a wide variety of flavors. It’s probably the most accessible Jewish book on the market.”
Though it bears the coats of arms of two prominent families, its provenance is not definitively known.
Leora Bromberg of the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library notes that it is “especially striking for its colorful illuminations of biblical and Passover ritual scenes and its beautifully hand-scribed Sephardic letterforms:”
As precious as this Haggadah was, and still is, Haggadot are books that are meant to be used in festive and messy settings—sharing the table with food, wine, family and guests. The Sarajevo Haggadah was no exception to this; its pages show evidence that it was well used, with doodles, food and red wine stains marking its pages.
Some brave soul took care to smuggle this essential volume out with them when 1492’s Alhambra Decree expelled all Jews from Spain.
The manuscript’s travels thereafter are shrouded in mystery.
It survived the Roman Inquisition by virtue of its contents. As per a 1609 note jotted on one of its pages, nothing therein seemed to be aimed against the Church.
More handwritten notes place the book in the north of Italy in the 16th and 17th centuries, though its new owner is not mentioned by name.
It was briefly sent to Vienna, where a government official replaced its original medieval binding with cardboard covers, chopping its 142 bleached calfskin vellum down to 6.5” x 9” in order to fit them.
It had a narrow escape in 1942, when a high-ranking Nazi official, Johann Fortner, visited the museum, intent on confiscating the priceless manuscript.
The chief librarian, Dervis Korkut, a Muslim, secreted the Haggadah inside his clothing, reputedly tellingFortner that museum staff had turned it over to another German officer.
After that folklore takes over. Korkut either stowed it under the floorboards of his home, buried it under a tree, gave it to an imam in a remote village for safekeeping, or hid it on a shelf in the museum’s library.
Whatever the case, it reappeared in the museum, safe and sound, in 1945.
The museum was ransacked during 1992’s Siege of Sarajevo, but the thieves, ignorant of the Haggadah’s worth, left it on the floor. It was removed to an underground bank vault, where it survived untouched, even as the museum sustained heavy artillery damage.
The president of Bosnia presented it to Jewish community leaders during a Seder three years later.
Shortly thereafter, the head of Sarajevo’s Jewish Community sought the United Nations’ support to restore the Haggadah, and house it in a suitably secure, climate-controlled setting.
A number of facsimiles have been created, and the original codex once again resides in the museum where it is stored under the prescribed conditions, and displayed on rare special occasions, as “physical proof of the openness of a society in which fear of the Other has never been an incurable disease.”
UNESCO added it to its Memory of the World Register in 2017, “praising the courage of the people who, even in the darkest of times during World War II, appreciated its importance to Jewish Heritage, as well as its embodiment of diversity and intercultural harmony depicted in its illustration:”
Regardless of their own religious beliefs, they risked their lives and did all in their power to safeguard the Haggadah for future generations. Its destruction would be a loss for humanity. Protecting it is a symbol of the values which we hold dear.
For those interested, the Sarajevo Haggadah figures centrally in the bestselling 2008 novel People of the Book, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks. You can read an New Times review here.
That vast repository of American history that is the Smithsonian Institution evolved from an organization founded in 1816 called the Columbian Institute for the Promotion of Arts and Sciences. Its mandate, the collection and dissemination of useful knowledge, now sounds very much of the nineteenth century — but then, so does its name. Columbia, the goddess-like symbolic personification of the United States of America, is seldom directly referenced today, having been superseded by Lady Liberty. Traits of both figures appear in the depiction on the nineteenth-century fireman’s hat above, about which you can learn more at Smithsonian Open Access, a digital archive that now contains some 4.5 million images.
The 2D artifacts of interest include “a portrait of Pocahontas in the National Portrait Gallery, an image of the 1903 Wright Flyer from the National Air and Space Museum, and boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali from the National Museum of African American History and Culture.”
More items are being added to Smithsonian Open Access all the time, each with its own story to tell — and all accessible not just to Americans, but internet users the world over. In that sense it feels a bit like the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, better known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, with its mission of revealing America’s scientific, technological, and artistic genius to the whole of human civilization. You can see a great many photos and other artifacts of this landmark event at Smithsonian Open Access, or, if you prefer, you can click the “just browsing” link and behold all the historical, cultural, and formal variety available in the Smithsonian’s digital collections, where the spirit of Columbia lives on.
Kudos too to National Art Library Special Collections curator Catherine Yvard…if she ever wants a break from medieval manuscript illumination and Gothic ivory sculpture, she could specialize in extremely soothing voiceover narration.
Our ears may not be able to detect much difference between the skin sides and flesh sides of these remarkably well preserved pages, but Bower does due diligence, as Yvard slowly drags her fingers across them.
No need to fear that Yvard’s bare hands could cause harm to this 530-year-old object.
Experts at the British Library have decreed that the modern practice of donning white gloves to handle antique manuscripts decreases manual dexterity, while heightening the possibility of transferred dirt or dislodged pigments.
The sturdy parchment of this particular antiphonary has seen far worse than the careful hands of a professional curator.
Pages 7, 8, 9 have been singed along the bottom margins, and elsewhere, the gothic hand lettering has been scraped away, presumably with a knife, in preparation for a liturgical update that never got entered.
If your brain is crying out for more after spending 15 and a half intimate minutes with these medieval pages, we leave you with the snap crackle and pop of other items in the V&A’s collection:
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