Thursday, July 2, 2009
British Museum finally spots colour on the Parthenon Marbles
The British Museum has grandly announced the results of "a new study" indicating that the Parthenon in Athens was originally painted in various colours, notably 'Egyptian Blue'. Evidently a Dr Giovanni Verri has been shining a light onto the Marbles held by the British Museum, leading him to conclude that the ancient temple was once decorated in shades of blue, red and probably gold.
"We informed our Greek colleagues," Dr Verri said, "and they responded warmly, saying they are interested in examining these flecks themselves."
What is this all about? For generations it has been common knowledge among art historians and archaeologists that the Parthenon and its sculptures would originally have been decorated. Lawrence Alma-Tadema's painting of 1868 — Pheidias and the Parthenon Frieze (shown above left) — depicts the sculptor showing Athenian citizens around his team's handiwork high up on the scaffold.
By the mid-nineteenth century, a lively debate was raging in British scholarly circles over the question of polychromy — the colouring of sculpture — but it was not about whether the ancients painted their buildings and sculptures, but about how and to what extent.
Today, even virtual reality reconstructions of the Parthenon use nineteenth-century sources such as Benoit Loviot's Cross-Section of the Parthenon of 1879-81 (Ecole des Beaux-Arts Paris) (right) as their guide to the use of colour on the Parthenon. These late nineteenth-century sources were themselves drawing on much earlier research by architects such as Jacques-Ignace Hittorff (1792-1867) and Quatremère de Quincy (1755-1849) which had established beyond doubt that Greek temples and sculptures were coloured, both with 'applied' polychromy (paint) and 'natural' polychromy (the use of naturally coloured materials such as gold and ivory).
Not even this was enough, however, to convince some skeptical British sculptors that polychromy was an acceptable way to proceed in the modern world. John Bell, writing in 1861, insisted that, "in these civilised days, the colouring of statues is not an advance, but a palpable retrogression towards earlier times of less intelligence, and of a lower dispensation and, moreover, as far as art is concerned, that a decadence would at once ensue on a general adoption of such practice."
It was that kind of aesthetic prejudice — a determination to keep sculpture white (and thus by extension morally uncontaminated) — that led to the British Museum scraping the Parthenon Marbles with wire brushes in the 1930s in an effort to restore some notional whiteness.
It is thus hard not to see the recent announcement of "new" research results — timed to coincide with the opening of the New Acropolis Museum — as another indication of how defensive the British Museum has become over its retention of the Parthenon Marbles. So the Greeks have "responded warmly"; of course, they always do. But how much better it would be if the British Museum would reciprocate that warmth and permit the Greeks to conduct this kind of research themselves — on all the Parthenon Marbles — by returning them to Athens.