Tuesday, October 27, 2015


Paolo Liverani, Ulderico Santamaria (ed.), Diversamente bianco. La policromia della scultura romana. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2014. Pp. 212. ISBN 9788871405575. €42.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Hariclia Brecoulaki, Athens (hbrek@eie.gr)

Version at BMCR home site


Following Paolo Liverani's I colori del bianco, policromia nella scultura antica of a decade ago, Diversamente bianco offers a current overview of research on polychromy of Roman sculpture. Since the exhibition of fully colored reconstructions of Greek and Roman casts made by V. Brinkman and his team,1 interest in the field of ancient sculptural polychromy has produced a significant number of publications and exhibitions around the world.2 Although it is accepted that ancient statues were painted, significant questions remain regarding the extent, complexity, quality and styles of ancient polychromy, in relation to the material, context and function of the statues. Issues of aesthetics and of the appropriate meaning of color also need to be further explored and understood. The major obstacle in studying and reproducing ancient polychromy is the exceedingly scant evidence. Therefore, interpretation, and especially reconstruction, ofthe scarce remnants of original polychromy, must be based on scientific evidence and rigorous and transparent methodologies of interpretation.

The present volume, edited by P. Liverani, an eminent scholar in Roman art and archaeology, and U. Santamaria, the Director of the Diagnostic Laboratory for Conservation at the Vatican Museums, consists of nine contributions, six of them written by experts in the field of ancient sculpture and polychromy and three focusing on laboratory research into the identification of pigments and organic binding agents.

In the first essay, Liverani discusses Roman polychromy in ancient restorations, the symbolic use of color and the relationship between archaeometric, archaeological data and information from ancient textual sources. The author stresses the importance of distinguishing traces of ancient repainting from the original polychromy of the statues and addresses problems related to the extent of ancient interventions and their aesthetic impact. Among the known examples where ancient restoration is attested (Augustus of Primaporta, statues from Delos and Aphrodisias), the author provides new evidence on two statues from the collection of the Albertinum in Dresden (a statue of Asclepius from Cos dated to the second half of the second c. AD, and the head of a Muse dated to the fourth c. AD). The examination of a cross section of a sample taken from a paint layer on the Muse's hair seems to corroborate his hypothesis that beeswax was applied over the paint layer (ganosis). If such hypothesis is further confirmed it might be rare evidence of the ancient practice of ganosis.

The following article by U. Santamaria, F. Morresi, G. Agresi and C. Pelosi presents the results of a laboratory experiment on the consolidation of historical pigments with nanosilica particles, based on the results of previous research in this field. The departing point for this experiment was the observation that in paint layers on fragments from Roman polychrome sarcophagi from the Musei Vaticani, silica based materials have been attested together with inorganic pigments. The authors seem to suggest that the presence of silica components within the paint layers represents a technical invention by Roman painters, who were aiming at enhancing the properties of the original polchromy (p. 49). However they do not explain the reason why such materials are present in the paint layers of these fragments alone, nor do they provide sufficient analysis of their exact composition and their exact function.

As part of an ongoing project of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek on the polychromy of Roman 'ideal sculpture', the paper by J. Stubbe Østergaard, M. L. Sargent and R. H. Therkildsen offers a comprehensive overview of the results obtained from the technological examination of the Sciarra Amazon (IN 1568). Comparisons with two other replicas of the Sciarra Amazon type (the one in the Antikensammlung, Berlin and the other in the Museo Histórico Municipal di Écija, Spain) suggest that there are similarities in the polychromy of the statues, especially as regards the use of Egyptian blue for the white part of the eyes, the color of the skin and the decoration of the garment. The authors address the significant question of whether or not such replicas were both carved and painted according to a prescribed scheme.

The essay by E. Calandra, L. Cenciaioli, M. Cappelletti, A. Scaleggi and P. Comodi, offers a comprehensive synthesis of the polychromy on Etruscan cinerary urns, dated to the second and first centuries AD, from the necropolis of Casaglia and Strozzacapponi in Perugia. E. Calandra discusses the iconography and style of urn 4 of tomb 29, highlighting the unusual depiction of tears in black color on the face of the reclining effigy of the woman upon the lid. A brief passage by A. Scaleggi deals with the restoration of the urns of tomb 29, pointing to the evidence that the decoration on the lids is of inferior artistic quality compared to the sculptural reliefs of the container part of the urns, suggesting a diversification of tasks within the same workshop. The results of the analysis of the polychromy, presented by P. Comodi, attest to the use of rather common painting materials: hematite, goethite, Egyptian blue, carbon black and colorants of organic origin for the pinkish hues.

P. Jockey, after having accomplished (in collaboration with B. Bourgeois) an ambitious and long lasting project on the documentation and the analytical investigation of the polychromy on the marble sculpture from Delos,3 attempts, in this paper, a more art historical approach. The author raises stimulating questions on the possible relationships between the polychromy of the statues, their style and context, considering the multicultural character of Delos during the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, and the influences of regional "cultures" (Greek, Alexandrian and Italian) on Delian art, influences that have already been recognized by J. Marcadé. According to his conclusions, there seems to be no connection between the practices of gilding and painting and the artistic traditions that have influenced the creation of the sculptures. Only in exceptional cases do we encounter homogeneity in terms of style, technique and polychromy, as, for example, with the group of "chrysochrome" statues.

The following essay by F. Donati, further investigates the polychromy of Etruscan urns, with a brief passage on Roman sarcophagi. The results of an analytical investigation of samples taken from the paint layers of urns inv. 7 and inv. 232 from Volterra, are briefly discussed. Apart from the identification of red and yellow ochres, Egyptian blue and a copper based green, the author reports the detection of tin (Sn), aluminium (Al) and silicon (Si) in a white substrate applied under a layer of yellow ochre, and associates the above minerals with cassiterite. Such an assumption however, cannot be plausibly sustained for the following reasons: cassiterite, a tin oxide (SnO2), is a mineral of opaque dark color that has never been used as a painting material; the detection in the white layer of the urn of silicon and aluminium clearly suggests the presence of a white clay (such as kaolinite, often used as a substrate in ancient painting); Sn probably represents a trace element and not a major constituent of the paint layer, since there is no known white pigment composed of aluminum, tin, and silicon.

G. Verri, T. Opper and L. Lazzarini, offer a most promising contribution. The authors present the results of a thorough art historical and scientific investigation of the Treu Head in the British Museum—a Roman ideal head of the 2nd c. BC carved in Parian marble that retains rich traces of its original polychromy—and attempt a new way of developing a two-dimensional reconstruction of the head's original polychromy, prior to the planned creation of a physical painted replica. Critical aspects of ancient sculptural polychromy are explicitly discussed, providing information on the exact composition of the paint layers, their modes of application, the sequence of execution of the painted surface by the ancient painter and the aesthetic function of colors. A particularly interesting passage is dedicated to the creation of the skin tones and the rendering of highlights and shadows. In order to reconstruct the original polychromy of the sculpture the authors used comparative material from Antonine painted portraits and other contemporaneous sculptures, in every instance providing solid argumentation regarding their choices. A color plate (fig. 17) illustrates the various sequences of "pictorial" execution (from 1 to 12), from the underdrawing of the eyes to the sophisticated polychromy of the facial features and the skin. What I consider important in this paper is the effort of the authors to establish an explicit methodology of dealing with the problems of fully polychrome reconstructions, based on archaeological comparanda and the accurate interpretation of cross-checked analytical data.

Two brief essays on analytical methods of investigation of ancient painting materials (pigments and binders) bring the volume to a close. H. Piening's paper stresses the advantages of mobile ultraviolet visible spectroscopy in the identification of ancient pigments as a highly practicable alternative to elemental methods of analysis, such as x-ray fluorescence. The author briefly presents some results obtained through the application of UV-VIS on ancient polychrome statuary, without, however, providing any scientific argumentation as to the real benefits, potentiality and, importantly, the limitations of the technique. In fact UV-VIS spectroscopy may be used for a preliminary diagnosis of works of art when sampling is not permitted, but when dealing with the examination of unhomogeneous and complex paint layers, the interpretation of the spectra becomes problematic, since the ratios among different pigments and the eventual discoloration of the original paint layers may modify the spectral behaviour. Therefore, even in the case of purely non-invasive investigations, the cross-checking of UV-VIS results with complementary elemental and molecular analysis (e.g. Raman and FTIR spectroscopy) is still required for a reliable identification of ancient pigments.

The last paper, written by one of the most qualified teams in the characterisation of ancient organic materials—a team comprising of A. Andreotti, I. Bonaduce, M. P. Colombini, I. Degano, A. Lluveras, F. Modugno and E. Ribechini, offers a succinct and explicit overview of the various organic natural substances that have been used as binding agents in ancient paintings or applied polychromies in the ancient Mediterranean (from prehistory to the Hellenistic period). Based on the results of previous works by the Pisa team, the authors discuss the identification of polysaccharide media, egg, animal glue, milk, casein and beeswax.

In conclusion, I would argue, as P. Liverani points out (p. 9), "that the history of color in the ancient world is not yet written". Although more and more attention is paid to the "tracking" of preserved traces of colors and more and more sophisticated analytical techniques are used for the identification of the painting materials on ancient statuary, we have to be aware that what is crucial is the correct interpretation of the results and not the accumulation of archaeometric data per se. The present volume offers the reader an enhanced understanding of sculptural polychromy during the Roman period and encourages us to speculate on alternative approaches of dealing with reconstructions. In fact, modern reconstructions, be they digital or cast made, will unavoidably reflect specific "points of view", unless more complete evidence comes to light. Until then, ancient polychromy will continue to be rethought, reshaped and reproduced, inevitably conditioned by subjective aesthetic criteria, preconceptions and interests of twenty-first century scholars.


1.   V. Brinkmann, A. Scholl (edd.), Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur, Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich 2010 (Exhib. Cat.).
2.   See for example the recent exhibition at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek: J. Stubbe Østergaard, A. M. Nielsen (edd.), Transformations : Classical sculpture in colour, Copenhagen 2014 (Exhib. Cat.).
3.   B. Bourgeois, Ph. Jockey, "The Polychromy of Hellenistic marble sculpture in Delos, in V. Brinkmann, O. Primavesi, M. Hollein (edd.), Cicumlition. The Polychromy of Antique and Medieval Sculpture, Frankfurt 2010 (with previous bibliography).

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