The thousand colours of marble

It is a well-known fact that our black and white vision of sculpture and classic architecture is the fruit of a misunderstanding that occurred in the XVIII century. The marble buildings of the Graeco-Roman world, like the friezes and statues they housed, featured bright polychromy that represented an essential part of the finished work. Ancient sources were, for example, well aware of the collaboration between the Athenian Praxiteles, undoubtedly the most renowned sculptor of the IV century BC and Nicias the painter, one of the most famous of his generation, whose skilled hands were called upon to colour the complexions and attributes of the marble statues sculpted by the Attic genius.

Although traces of the original polychromy survive - often in good state of preservation - in works found directly in the ground, they rarely survive on those sculptures which have endured centuries of history and collecting vicissitudes, as in the case of the statues exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery. If one considers that still around the end of the eighteenth century, marble statues showing the remains of garish colouring, in Florence, Naples or Rome, were carefully cleaned with acid to remove the remains of decorations held to be the product of belated interventions which had spoiled their original candour, the challenge involved in restoring the original colours of sculptures in an ancient collection may seem a desperate undertaking destined to fail from the outset.

Photo by Maria Brunori

However, the development of instrumentation and the improvement in survey instruments, which currently include the use of portable spectrometric instruments, allowed for the possibility of recovering the relics of a painted decoration, maybe invisible to our eyes, but certainly not to those of sophisticated research instruments. This challenge has given rise to collaboration between the department of Classic Antiquities and the department of Chemistry of the University of Modena and Reggio which, in the persons of Professors Pietro Baraldi and Paolo Zannini, has for at least three decades taken pride in the key role it plays at European level in the study of ancient polychromy. One year on from the beginning of this fruitful collaboration it can be affirmed that the challenge has been won. Where the eye could see nothing but a candid surface, the optical microscopic and the compositive analyses made using X-ray fluorescence have found shadows of ancient colours and supplied useful and hitherto unknown data for restoring the sculptures to their original resplendence. This is the case of a statue of Minerva Minor on whose breast-plate gold particles remaining from the original gilding have been found; these, combined with the greens and reds of the robes, gave the statue a forcefulness and grandeur, that is difficult to imagine today. The greens of the sarcophagi of the Nereids, made with precious lapis lazuli powder, blacks obtained with coal dust used to outline the irises on portraits and statues, like those of the athlete in the first corridor, midnight blues with which the fur of the panther in the group of dancing Menades was painted, reds obtained from iron oxide used to colour the stole of the Augustan matron presented at the "Volti Svelati" exhibition, are just a few of the colours rediscovered after months of patient research and targeted analyses.

But, all these discoveries, however important and unexpected, stand aside in the face of the remarkable discovery of the gold laminas that adorned the hair of the Medici Venus. Restoration work to restore the Tribuna to its ancient splendour has also involved the sculptures housed there since the end of the XVII century. These are the pride of the Medicean collections: the Dancing Satyr, the Wrestlers, the Scythian (knife grinder) and especially the Medici Venus, for centuries the Gallery's icon and held by Canova to be the archetype of feminine beauty. The gilding now brought to light thanks to the surveys made by Professors Baraldi and Zannini is not a completely unexpected discovery. We learned from reports and descriptions of eighteenth century visitors that the Venus's golden blond was still clearly visible at that time and was indicated by the Gallery guides as proof of the work's great importance. Following excessively zealous restoration work which probably occurred when the sculpture returned from its exile in Paris imposed by Napoleon, the gilding completely disappeared and only now, thanks to targeted analyses, has it been possible to show that the observations of the protagonists of the Grand Tour were not the fruit of collective hallucination but rather evidence of this splendid statue's ancient ornamentation which, with the addition of gilt and polychromy (as shown by the traces of red found on the lips) represented the camouflaged and realistic body of a young woman. It is no coincidence, as recent cleaning operations have brought to light, that even the ear lobes are pierced to enable the insertion of metal earrings, thus further accentuating the impression of realism.

Thus the sterile appearance of the classic sculptures arranged along the corridors of the Uffizi, has slowly given way to an array of bright colours which in the future it is hoped will succeed in restoring awareness and enjoyment to an even wider public, thanks to graphic representations placed beside the exhibited works.

Fabrizio Paolucci