The Polychrome Reconstruction of the Prima Porta Statue

To what extent did the ancients colour their sculptures?


Polychrome reconstruction of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus, 2004. Painted plaster cast made after a prototype by P. Liverani, Vatican Museums, Rome, height 2.2 m. Courtesy: Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford.

Polychrome reconstruction of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus, 2004. Painted plaster cast made after a prototype by P. Liverani, Vatican Museums, Rome, height 2.2 m. Courtesy: Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford.

With cerise lips and auburn hair, crimson cloak and tunic, and details on his armour picked out in maroon and electric blue, Caesar Augustus raises his right hand in the air. He resembles, as the art historian Fabio Barry unhappily commented to the Washington Post in 2008, ‘a cross-dresser trying to hail a taxi’. Is this really what Rome’s first emperor was supposed to look like? The coloured reconstruction in plaster of Paris, made by Vatican conservators in 2004, radically transforms the Prima Porta statue of Augustus. The original Parian marble work, from around the start of the first century CE, is one of the masterpieces of the Vatican Museums. There, it stands within a conventionally pallid gallery of unpainted Roman statues and busts. But the classical whiteness of ancient sculpture is an illusion. It has been known for more than two centuries that Greek and Roman artists routinely added pigments both to statues and architecture. The acknowledgement of their use on ancient Greek temples like the Parthenon inspired the bright, variegated decoration of Greek Revival architecture in 19th-century Europe. Occasionally, ancient sculptures themselves bear extant traces of paint. When the Prima Porta statue was excavated on the site of the Empress Livia’s villa near Rome in 1863, some of its colours were still visible to the naked eye. Not long afterwards, new archaeological discoveries in Greece – particularly the archaic sculptures of the Athenian Acropolis – seemed to prove that at least some ancient marbles were as brightly painted as Mediterranean fishing boats.

Nevertheless, academic awareness of polychromy has never much penetrated popular consciousness of ancient art; nor, indeed, has it shaped research. Only in recent years has scholarship on the subject blossomed, notably with a groundbreaking scientific project at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen and with touring exhibitions of astonishing plaster reconstructions by the German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann. It was in the context of Brinkmann’s 2003 exhibition at the Glyptothek in Munich, ‘Gods in Colour’, that a team at the Vatican subjected the Prima Porta statue to scientific analysis, identifying the pigments that had apparently vanished since the sculpture’s discovery. Visitors to Brinkmann’s iconoclastic exhibitions are invariably shocked and delighted. Yet, we should be cautious about such reconstructions. Notwithstanding the gamut of scientific imaging techniques available to modern research, a lot of speculation is employed to fill the gaps. Reconstructions in plaster hardly do justice to the marble originals. There are good reasons to believe that colour was a much more subtle component of many ancient sculptures than the eye-catching re-creations imply. The Romans, for example, conceived of portraits as true likenesses. To leave them unpainted would have been as senseless as presenting white waxworks in Madame Tussauds. For the same reason, however, garish colours would have undermined their evocative purpose.

Perhaps, though, our biggest obstacle is an insurmountable one. Reconstructing the colour of ancient sculpture can jolt us into re-imagining a world that differs from our expectations, but ancient viewers took polychromy for granted and, therefore, literally saw it in a different way. We can never view these colours through their eyes.

Polychrome reconstruction of the Prima Porta statue of Augustus, 2004, painted plaster cast made after a protoype by P. Liverani, Vatican Museums, Rome, height 2.2 m. Courtesy: Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology, Oxford

Dr Peter Stewart is Director of the Classical Art Research Centre and Associate Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology at Oxford University, UK. His books include Statues in Roman Society: Representation and Response (2003) and The Social History of Roman Art (2008).

Issue 6

First published in Issue 6

October 2017

Most Read

Royal bodies, the ‘incel’ mindset and those Childish Gambino hot-takes: what to read this weekend
In further news: women wearing rainbow badges beaten in Beijing’s 798; gallerists Georg Kargl and Richard Gray have...
‘Coping as a woman in France is a daily battle: the aggression can be subtle, and you always have to push harder to...
The rapper and artist have thoughts about originality in art; Melania Trump tries graphic design – all the latest...
The dilapidated Nissen hut from which Rachel Whiteread will take a cast
Yorkshire residents complain that the concrete sculpture of a ‘Nissen hut’ will attract excrement, vandalism and litter
Poul Erik Tøjner pays tribute to Denmark’s most important artist since Asger Jorn
Toyin Ojih Odutola’s portraits of a fictional aristocratic Nigerian family push toward an expanded definition...
Photographer Dragana Jurisic says her account was deactivated after she uploaded an artwork depicting a partially naked...
In further news: open letter protests all-male shortlist for BelgianArtPrize; Arts Council of Ireland issues...
From Sol Calero’s playful clichés of Latin America to an homage to British modernist architect Alison Smithson
Everybody’s favourite underpaid, over-educated, raven-haired art critic, Rhonda Lieberman, is as relevant as ever
‘Prize & Prejudice’ at London's UCL Art Museum is a bittersweet celebration of female talent
The curators want to rectify the biennale’s ‘failure to question the hetero-normative production of space’; ‘poppers...
A fragment of the brutalist Robin Hood Gardens will go on show at the Venice Architecture Biennale
‘Women's role in shaping the history of contemporary art is being reappraised’
Three shows in Ireland celebrate the legendary polymath, artist and author of Inside the White Cube
The legendary performance artists will partner up again to detail their tumultuous relationship in a new book
An open letter signed by over 100 leading artists including 15 Turner prize-winners says that new UK education policy...
Naturists triumph at art gallery; soothing students with colouring books; Kanye’s architectural firm: your dose of art...
Avengers: Infinity War confirms the domination of mass culture by the franchise: what ever happened to narrative...
The agency’s founder talks about warfare in the age of post truth, deconstructing images and holding states and...
From hobnobbing with Oprah to championing new art centres, millennial crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is following a...
A juror for the award last year, Dan Fox on why the Turner Prize is and always will be political (whatever that means)
The argument that ancestral connection offers a natural grasp of the complex histories and aesthetics of African art is...
One of most iconic and controversial writers of the past 40 years, Tom Wolfe discusses writing, art and intellectual...

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

March 2018

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018