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Polychromy in Greek and Roman sculpture [video]

Greek and Roman sculpture serves as a foundational benchmark of Classical art. From the world-famous “Venus De Milo” to  Michelangelo’s iconic “David,” ancient Greek and Roman sculpture has always been characteristically colourless. Thus, ancient Greek and Roman sculpture gained its reputation for monochromaticism, as well as lasting renown amongst scholars, cementing the relationship between white, chiseled marble and ancient sculpture.

However, in 1814, an archaeologist and architectural theorist, Antoine-Chrysostome Quatremère de Quincy, coined the term “polychromy” in relation to Greek and Roman Classical sculpture. By definition, polychromy is the art of painting in several colors, especially as applied to ancient pottery, sculpture, and architecture. Quatremère de Quincy, working off of the findings of an eighteenth-century excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum, asserted that Classical Greek and Roman sculpture was not, in fact, monochromatic. Instead, Quatremère de Quincy claimed that these ancient sculptures once had colour that, over centuries, had faded into the recognizably colourless marble.

Despite the empirical data from which Quatremère de Quincy had drawn his claim, Classical scholars were hesitant to adapt such a theory. Quatremère de Quincy had disrupted all preconceived notions of ancient Greek and Roman sculptural aesthetics. This video explores the history and recent research advances made into the polychromy of Greek and Roman sculpture, highlighting the multi-millennia misconception.

Since 1960, there has been a change of heart amongst scholars in their attitudes towards polychromy and ancient Greek and Roman sculpture. Researchers, now working to identify the pigments and techniques utilized by these pre-anno domini sculptors, are creating imaging of what these sculptures might have looked like when they were first made. Now, researchers are saddled with a new and diametrically different dilemma from their predecessors: how much colour is too much colour?

Featured image credit: “Male Grecian bust” by Juliet Furst. Public domain via Unsplash.

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