Changing Preconceptions about Polychromy
In recent times, there has been an increasing push from historians, archaeologists and curators to remind the public of one of the greatest misconceptions surrounding ancient art – it wasn’t intended to be displayed as simply white marble. In fact, virtually every sculpture and every building was painted in bright colours, though little of this paint remains. Largely, it has chipped off or faded into obsolescence over time, and when colour does still exist, it is often in microscopic fragments that the naked eye is unable to detect. An unfavourable physical environment, the conditions in which the item was buried, and, in some cases, human agency, have been significant contributors to the loss of polychromy.
Previously, virtually the entire western world was convinced that the antiquities of Europe, particularly sculpture, were made of white marble and nothing else. This has led not only to a very widespread misunderstanding around what ancient art might have looked like, but some of the most serious errors ever in conservation. This fixation on marble proved particularly damaging in the case of the British Museum’s Elgin Marbles – the museum staff, it transpired, had used nitric acid on the marbles in an attempt to make them whiter. Matters were only made worse in the 1940s when the frieze’s natural patination, mistaken for discolouration, was scraped off with chisels and scalpels in an attempt to ‘restore’ the original white, inevitably damaging the marbles yet further.
Our Own Examples of Polychromy
The fragments which technology has enabled us to see have revealed that antiquities were covered in paint of a vast array of colours – blues and reds, yellows and greens. There are hints of this disposition towards colour in pottery as well – for example, the Daunian Pottery Jar (EC-301). From the items currently in our collection, there are a few Greek terracotta figures which offer a terrific idea of how Greek art might once have looked (items such as PM-43, PM-84, and PM-41).