The colors of white

I dunno why I’m on such a roman kick recently, but here’s a post about another interesting thing you might not have known. This past summer I was in Italy, and I spent three days in the Rome area, and at one point I saw the following picture on a bulletin board:

And I thought to myself, “Hey ! That’s awful! what have they done to that famous statue of Caesar Augustus?

Because of course, I was thinking of this famous statue:

But as it turns out, the flyer I saw was for an old exhibit that had been at the Vatican a few years ago called “I colori del bianco” (the colors of white). Apparently in the last decade or so, scientists have been using microscope analysis and ultraviolet light to detect organic compounds left on ancient statues, compounds that appear to have originally come from paint that was applied to these marble masterpieces. The Vatican display was a bunch of original sculptures alongside reproductions that had been colorized to match minute residues of the paint pigments left behind, producing some startling comparisons.


Color Caligula


Color Apollo

If you’re sharp, you’ll notice that the second statue isn’t actually roman, of course. It’s Apollo, so it’s greek. Turns out I guess that both of these great societies liked their marble artwork to be a little more vibrant than this guy in the middle

David: Not in color to begin with

Who of course was NOT painted. Which brings me to an interesting thought: Almost ALL of our statues these days are not colorized: They’re solidly the color of whatever they were carved from, or of whatever metal they were cast from.

Either way, they’re clearly monochromatic. And I suspect the reason for this is that it emulates the Western sculpting tradition developed by people like Michelangelo, and, as a Renaissance artist, I have to think that he and the others of his time period were trying to draw upon the sculpture techniques of the ancient Greeks and Romans. But at that point, Green and Roman artwork was already ancient by a millenium and a half, if not more, so any of the classical statues they knew about would already have lost their coatings of paint. So, is it possible that this entire, large portion of our sculpture tradition (namely, that statues tend to be unpainted) is a result of a historical misunderstanding? That would be weird.

The sight of these colorized statues, by the way, is unnerving to me in the same way that these pictures feel fake to me, no matter how hard I try to convince myself they’re real:

Russian peasants, 1909

You can read up on them at the wikipedia page I link to; basically, a way-ahead-of-his-time russian photographer around the turn of the century developed a way to produce “color”  photos by taking three pictures through three lenses (red, green, and blue) and then displaying the photos as slides through three projectors, with one projector shining only red light, etc. Somehow, years and years of seeing  “the past”  as a time set in black and white, I can’t look at these and see anything other than a scene from a movie about 1911, not 1911 itself. The same goes for the statues: they look like bad pop-art based on Roman statues. Years and years of seeing children’s books depicting rome full of white marble figures has convinced me that basically, color didn’t exist until 1950 or so.

UPDATE: Here’s even more color photos from back when the world was black and white. They are more recent (circa 1940) and, as far as I can tell, they are actual color photos– as in, they were taken with color slide film. Still, since all you ever see of the 30’s and 40s’ is black and white photography, they’re a real treat. Although for me, they are still a surreal treat as well.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

2 Responses to The colors of white

  1. Moominmamma says:

    Where do you find these things? This is amazing to me, something I’d never heard of. I can’t imagine that there weren’t some statues that maintained some little bit of color, deep in a crevice of hair or something, that would have been visible to the naked eye. And what about Pompeii? Surely some of those statues would have been preserved with color, no? I must say, the paint certainly makes the Roman statuary look rather cheap and tawdry. I think I’ll just call on my inner Republican and pretend I never saw this.

  2. Moominmamma says:

    The 1940s photos are awesome. They’ll be even more awesome when I can get them all to load at work.

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