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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Polychromy of Roman Marble Sculpture

When Roman marble sculpture was rediscovered in the Renaissance, it emerged from more than a millennium of burial essentially devoid of its ancient polychromy. The monochromatic appearance of these works gave rise to new, modern canons of sculpture characterized by an emphasis on form with little consideration of color. In antiquity, however, Greek (50.11.4) and Roman (81.6.48) sculpture was originally richly embellished with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay. Such polychromy, which was integral to the meaning and immediacy of such works, survives today only in fragmentary condition.

Depictions of statuary in Roman wall paintings (03.14.13) provide an indication of their diverse appearances in antiquity. Some marble sculptures were completely painted and gilded, effectively obscuring the marble surface; others had more limited, selective polychromy used to emphasize details such as the hair, eyes, and lips and accompanying attributes.

Roman artists used a wide range of pigments, painting media, and surface applications to embellish their marble sculptures. Ancient authors, especially Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius, provide important information about these materials and express great admiration for the virtuoso technique of contemporary sculptors who developed a technical refinement unparalleled in classical antiquity. White marble itself was prized for its brilliant translucency, ability to take finely carved detail, and flawless uniformity. A vast array of colored marbles and other stones were also quarried from throughout the Roman world to create numerous colorful statues (09.221.6) of often dazzling appearance.

Burial, early modern restoration practices, and historic cleaning methods have all reduced the polychromy on Roman marble sculptures. Many works, however, preserve important evidence of their original polychrome decoration. Such remains are inevitably fragmentary and have altered over time, making it difficult to reconstruct their exact appearance in antiquity with certainty. Nevertheless, through a host of techniques—including microscopic examination, ultraviolet and infrared photography, and different types of material analysis—it is possible to gain valuable insight into the original appearance of these ancient works of art.