As the Greek playwright Euripides tells it, princess Helen blamed herself for the tragedy of the Trojan War. If only she hadn’t been so desirable a prize for Paris, she thinks. “If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect,” she says in The Trojan Women, “The way you would wipe color off a statue!”
It’s a famous line from a famous play. So, why is color excluded from the popular imagination of ancient Greece and Rome?
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The myth of both civilizations as paragons of whiteness is rooted in assumptions about race and Western aesthetics. Romans and Greeks were born around the Mediterranean and North Africa and while they recognized distinctions in skin tone, they didn’t categorize their world by it like modern Western society. Rather, color carried poetic associations of health, intelligence, and integrity. (Take this much-dissected verse from The Odyssey, in which the goddess Athena beautifies Odysseus: “He became black-skinned again, and the hairs became blue around his chin.”) Color equated to beauty, and ancient representation of the human form, the sinewy sort beloved in the Renaissance, were typically painted with brilliant skin tones, hair colors, and outfits.
This isn’t news. There is significant evidence of ancient polychromy —from “many colors,” in Greek — in marble, bronze, and terracotta figures. The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder documented it in his Natural History; contemporaneous pottery and paintings corroborate this. Museum curators and art restorers simply cleaned traces of paint from sculptures out of deference for pure form.
Modern technology, however, has made it possible to identify and recreate millennia-old polychromy. The product isn’t perfect, but it is immensely startling in person, and that’s meant as a compliment.
See for yourself at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibition “Chroma: Ancient Sculpture in Color,” for which 17 painted recreations of ancient sculptures have been installed in the museum’s Greek and Roman galleries.