The clean grace of marble was not enjoyed by ancient Greeks as we enjoy it now. We ooh and aah over the interplay of light and shadow on perfectly chiseled stone – that once was covered by bright, gaudy colors. The discovery of pigments on Greek sculpture had a controversial beginning. Traces of color remained into the 18th century and were observed by British travelers.
Unfortunately, the efforts of those trying to preserve ancient sculpture also contributed to destroying it. Upon the first inspection of the Elgin Marbles for traces of color in 1836, Lord Elgin’s former secretary, W.R. Hamilton, admitted, “the whole surface of the marbles had been twice washed over with soap lyes as that, or some other strong acid, is necessary for the purpose of removing the soap which is originally put on the surface in order to detach the plaster of the mould.”
Any remaining paint was removed during a botched scrubbing the delicate marbles received at the hands of The British Museum in the 1930s. Metal tools and abrasive substances were used to scrape and scratch until the patina was removed. They were described at the time as being “skinned.” The museum attempted to cover their horrendous mistake, and were assisted in their hope for silence with the onset of World War II. By the time the marbles went on display in 1949, the scandal was largely forgotten. Only in recent years has there been mention of their blunder as Greece continues to seek the return of the artwork.
As the Greeks had a very limited array of paint colors, their use of color seems garish to the modern aesthetic. Recreations of their original coloring results in an optical flattening of the rounded forms. Imagine the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs shown in Lego brick colors.
As the Smithsonian magazine points out, Euripides’ Helen of Troy laments:
My life and fortunes are a monstrosity,
Partly because of Hera, partly because of my beauty.
If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect
The way you would wipe color off a statue.
Granted, our modern sensibility is driven by Greek form, sans color. We have been viewing Greek sculptures this way for thousands of years. If the Greek paint had remained, would Renaissance sculpture also be brightly colored? The loss of artwork in its original condition is always tragic, so it is not without guilt that I say: thank goodness the “unsophisticated” paint has faded away and the marble endures.