Putting color back into antiquity – Palatinate


By Cameron Beech

Whilst visiting the likes of the Victoria & Albert, and The British Museum, you are likely to come across the marvelous marble statues of Antiquity. Their monochromatic appearance immediately associates them to the Classical world, whilst heavily influencing the Neoclassicism movement. However, its influence doesn’t stop there. It also roots itself within the Modern Age through the ‘light academia aesthetic’. But what if this was not their intended appearance?

Color breathes life into art

In her article ‘The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture’, Margaret Talbot highlights the 2003 ‘Gods in Color’ exhibition set up by the Liebieghaus in Frankfurt, Germany. The goal of the exhibition was to share with the world, Ancient Greek and Roman statues as they would have existed during their time. But in doing this, they also expanded the minds of the many. How much of what we know about the Classical world is true? And what else remains to be discovered?

The Liebieghaus also has an excellent digital exhibition. For myself, there was one particular moment which really stood out to me. When looking specifically at the statue of the ‘So-called Persian Rider’ c.490 BCE, it appears in the white marble image we have come to associate with the Ancient world. However, sliding the mouse across the screen causes the user to reveal its true decadence and colorful richness.

A remarkable way of including the user in unveiling a key part of Ancient history

The highly pigmented blues, reds and greens found on the rider’s clothing are a magnificent display of artistry. The colors enable the user to engross themselves in the beautifully symmetrical patterns both in regards to shape and color scheme. The striking contrast between the simplicity of the horse’s design and the complexity of the rider’s clothing works in tandem with the idea of ​​accentuating the relationship between a warrior and his horse, and how they balance each other out.

The fact the online user themselves have to manually move the mouse to uncover the painted version is a remarkable way of including the user in unveiling a key part of Ancient history. It is through this that the online user becomes an active participant and observer in the rewriting of history. Color breathes life into art, and this rejuvenation of Ancient world gives such artworks a second life. Whereas the white marble statue connotes legacy and legend, through its associations with perfectionism and idealism, the coloring of such statues does something different. It rather humanises the Ancient world and showcases individuality.

A sublime testament to the capabilities of AI

Fortunately, through a collaboration between Microsoft and the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and Sports, anyone with internet access is able to get a glimpse into the true vibrancy and richness of Ancient Greece had to offer. The ‘Ancient Olympia: Common Grounds’ project is a sublime testament to the capabilities of AI. It allows the user to take themselves on a tour of Ancient Olympia in colour, including monuments such as the ‘Temple of Hera’, the ‘Statue of Zeus’ and the ‘Temple of Zeus’. A personal favorite of mine is their reconstruction of ‘Nymphaeon’ c.160 BCE.

What does this mean for our future understanding of the Classical world?

Similar to the ‘So-called Persian rider’ sculpture, adding color to the ‘Nymphaeon’ revitalizes it. The color scheme of reds, blues and greens further compliments the meaning behind the monument. With its main function being to provide fresh water, the colors of the monument could be read as paying tribute to nature’s elements. The blue on the floor mirroring the water taken from the springs. Green acting as the next layer to represent the Earth, depicting nature springing from the ground. Then the final layer being red fire and the sun which resides above us. This is simply my interpretation of the Nymphaeon’s color scheme, but this interpretation is enough to evidence the power of colour.

To not just look at what is there, but also what is not

But what does this mean for our future understanding of the Classical world? Would John Flaxman’s ‘The Fury of Athamas’ (1794) or Antonio Canova’s ‘Hebe’ (1796) look different if these artists had known about the Classical world’s colorful history. To what extent would this impact the Neoclassical movement? Overall, it has caused me to not just look at what is there, but also what is not.

Illustration: Rosie Bromiley

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