The Venus de Milo: white. The Apollo Belvedere: white. The Barberini Faun: white. The passing centuries may have cast their pall of grime, yet ever since the Renaissance rediscovered antiquity, our Platonic ideal of classical statuary has been bare marble: bleached, bone white.
The Greeks and Romans did not see it that way. The current show "Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity" -- through Jan. 20 at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum on Harvard University's campus -- makes a bold attempt to set the record straight. On view are replicas painted in the same mineral and organic pigments used by the ancients: pulverized malachite (green), azurite (blue), arsenic compounds (yellow, orange), cinnabar or "dragon's blood" (red), as well as charred bone and vine (black). At first glance and quite a while after, the unaccustomed palette strikes most viewers as way over the top. But few would deny that these novelties -- archers, goddesses, mythic beasts -- look you straight in the eye.
The prime mover behind the show is Vinzenz Brinkmann, 49, a German archaeologist who has spent the past two decades investigating polychromy -- literally, the use of many colors -- in Greek and Roman sculpture. The longtime director of the Glyptothek, in Munich, one of the foremost collections of ancient sculpture outside Greece or Italy, he has recently moved on to the Liebighaus, a museum in Frankfurt dedicated to sculpture through the ages, as director of the antiquities collection. "Without color," Mr. Brinkmann said on a recent visit to Harvard, "you can't understand ancient figures at all." On Dec. 7, he will be back to deliver the keynote address opening a two-day symposium, "Superficial? Approaches to Painted Sculpture," which is free and open to the public. He will also participate in the concluding panel discussion the following afternoon.
For centuries, the world has been living partly in ignorance, partly in denial. When Lord Duveen put up the money for a new wing of the British Museum in the 1930s, he forced the restorers to clean the surfaces of the Elgin Marbles with copper chisels, abrasives, and iron brushes. They knew perfectly well that this was wrong, but as the ostentatious patron of the arts he was, Duveen insisted that his showcase look "classically" pristine.
The fashion for white antiquities dates back to the early 16th century, when the Renaissance began excavating works that had lain buried in the earth for centuries. Color traces still visible to the naked eye, deep in the folds of draped clothing, for instance, went unnoticed. Following what they believed to be the Greek and Roman example, Italian sculptors -- notably Michelangelo -- conceived their creations as uncolored. By the 18th century, practitioners of the then-new science of archaeology were aware that the ancients had used color. But Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the German prefect of antiquities at the Vatican, preferred white. His personal taste was enshrined by fiat as the "classical" standard. And so it remained, unchallenged except by the occasional eccentric until the late 20th century.
Has it been a case simply of cultural inertia? Mr. Brinkmann thinks not. "I can't prove this," he says, "but you can't help noticing the way the postwar generation in Europe rejected color. The 20th century was the cruelest in modern European history. It traumatized the middle class in ways we are still only beginning to understand. For decades, the mainstream didn't want color. They wanted things to be white. It was part of the modernist aesthetic. Color and ornament box you in. A white cube leaves space open, undefined. It's irrational. Throughout history, the world fought against the irrational, but now people like it. It's an escape from history in a way. So it's a kind of comfort."
The ancients valued marble, Mr. Brinkmann says, but not as we do. "In modern times," he explains, "marble has been prized for its surface effect. Sculptors in antiquity knew it as the material that would allow them to do exactly what they wanted. They thought about it as filmmakers today think about their cameras. You got what you paid for. You ordered a block of Parian marble -- the best there is -- and you paid a fortune. But once it was delivered, you could relax. Because in those 12 cubic meters there would never be a fault or a flaw. If the sculptor wanted to make a fold a meter long, he could do it. In limestone, he'd run into a shell or a bump or a hole. The crystal structure of marble is absolutely pure and even. It's the most homogeneous natural material in the world. It's a gift from God. It's perfection." Once the sculptor had finished, however, it was the painter's turn.
Nor was that the end of the story. "We think of white marble figures as aesthetic monuments," Mr. Brinkmann says. "We think of them as static, frozen in a museum installation. But we've learned by our studies of polychromy that the interplay with architecture and the large ornaments on the pediment of large structures in fact turned them into actors on a kind of stage. And the more color they had, the more lifelike they looked." Much in the manner of the builders of medieval cathedrals, the Greeks told their great legends in pictures.
Not all the sculpture in question is in the round. Friezes, showing figures in low or high relief, were treated in the same manner. One example Mr. Brinkmann has studied with particular attention is the frieze of the Siphnian Treasury in the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi. One section shows the gods of Olympus assembled to determine the outcome of the combat between Achilles and Memnon. Rather than debate the warriors' merits, the divine herald Hermes places their souls in the scales of Fate. Memnon, whose soul proves the heavier, must die.
Typically a modern viewer sees such material up close in museums and galleries. The Greeks saw them at a distance. So we may wonder how much of the abundant detail actually registered.
"Perceptual physiology hasn't changed in the last 2,000 years," Mr. Brinkmann says. "Color enhances legibility tremendously. The Greeks painted the names of the figures on the friezes. You can read the names from 50 meters away. The eye has amazing powers of resolution. You must also remember that the ancient world, unlike ours, was a world with few images. The images people saw were built up from a repertoire of elements that never changed. What we call 'seeing' is really only 10% actual vision. The other 90% is memory. And so the details that seem to vanish in the distance mysteriously read all the same."
The research behind Mr. Brinkmann's replicas has been going on since the early 1980s, but the building of replicas in plaster or synthetic marble -- "color reconstructions," he calls them -- is of more recent date. Early on, a principal tool for investigating the surfaces of ancient statues was a hand-held lamp positioned at an angle to create conditions of extreme raking light, which can reveal crucial surface details. Another was ultraviolet, which reveals "color shadows" of pigments no longer visible to the naked eye. Since then, other, far more advanced technology has come into play, and the wealth of knowledge is expanding exponentially.
Mr. Brinkmann and his associates have long known that archaic statues were painted in flat, even colors. To enhance the effect of roundness or volume, artists might use elaborately calibrated patterns (a zigzag design, for instance, swelling and tapering with the shape of an arm or leg). But mostly, they depended on natural light and shadow. To his astonishment, Mr. Brinkmann recently discovered that the polychromy of later sculpture used shading, hatching and highlighting to convey plasticity. Darkened colors in the fold of a garment, a pinprick of light in the black pupil of an eye, bright glints in a head of curly hair: details like these create their own chiaroscuro. (The so-called Alexander Sarcophagus, in Istanbul, which depicts Alexander the Great in action, is Mr. Brinkmann's pièce de résistance in this regard.) While occasionally the color reconstructions rely on guesswork -- was a given piece of body armor ochre or actually golden? -- the speculative margin in Mr. Brinkmann's creations is narrow.
Since 2003, when the first of his color reconstructions went on display in Munich, the slowly growing collection -- some two-dozen pieces now -- has traveled widely, not only to such postclassical Northern cities as Copenhagen, Basel and Amsterdam but also to the ancient capitals Rome, Athens and Byzantium (Istanbul to you).
"Harvard is our 10th venue," Mr. Brinkmann says. "The emotional response of viewers here is as intense as it has been everywhere else. The new view of antiquity upsets some people. Unconsciously, they register the message that images lie. Artists through the ages have been working hard to achieve just that. The aesthetic ideal of the Greeks was mimesis: the imitation of life. And it was color that brought their statues to life."