Skin colour in ancient mosaics and why it matters
This post is a response to an October 2018 New Yorker article, The Myth of Whiteness in Classical Sculpture, written by Margaret Talbot, which discusses the use of colour on ancient Roman and Greek statues. The article argues that academics have known for centuries that the marble figures were covered in bright paint but chose to ignore it so that we, the viewers of ancient statutes, now believe they were intentionally white.
The reasons are multiple, according to Talbot. Among them is that up until recently excavation techniques were rudimentary and if a statue was discovered covered in earth (and undisturbed pigment) it would quickly be hosed down to reveal the marble beneath. Snobbery, aesthetics and overt racism (the idea of whiteness being equated with purity and goodness) are also given as factors behind this collective amnesia.
So far, so interesting. But only up to a point. For one thing, the debate about pigmentation on ancient statues has been alive and well for a long time and has not been ignored – see the clip below about the 19th century Alma Tadema painting at Birmingham Art Gallery, Pheidias and the Freize of the Parthenon, which is a contemporary response to a heated discussion of this very topic more than 100 years ago.
Without denying that snobbery, skewed aesthetics and entrenched racism are significant issues, my view is that the whiteness of classical statutes had more to do with acquisitiveness and archaeological ineptitude than any other factors. For hundreds of years ancient artefacts were amassed by the wealthy with scant regard for their general art historical or other importance. Collectors were purely concerned about how they looked in their grand hallways and pigment, being flaky and messy, had to go. There is not much difference, it seems to me, between this archaeological vandalism and the way chunks of mosaic floors were routinely hacked away, discarding the rest because it wasn’t interesting enough or was too difficult to remove as a whole.
Be that as it may, the article also covers the subject of what colours the statues would have been in their original state. Academics who specialise in examining marble for tiny flecks of remaining pigments (usually in discreet crevasses of the body – ears, nostrils, inside lips) are quoted giving their theories on how the stone faces and bodies would once have looked.
“Figures that were deftly painted would have looked eerily lifelike, particularly in low and flickering light,” writes Talbot. She goes on to include a fascinating quote from Mark Abbe, professor of ancient art at the University of Georgia: “When you went into a place, the divide between what was sculpture and what was actual life was fluid, and highly theatrical. You go to a dinner party in Pompeii and there are statues of nude homoerotic youths, in the old, noble Greek tradition. And then there are actual slave boys that look just like those well-tanned bronzes, and at first they’re standing still. And them they move…”
You can see where this is leading to. We have an article devoted to skin colour in ancient sculpture, we have the concept of optical illusion brought up and examined, but we do not have a single mention of ancient mosaics (or frescoes for that matter). Not one. Despite the fact that ancient mosaicists from the same period as the classical sculptors used colour expertly and precisely, not a single academic says: ‘By the way, just look down and you can see what colours the original statues might have been. Stone doesn’t significantly wear away, pigments don’t flake off it, no amount of hosing would remove the colour and people couldn’t possibly idealise whiteness in them because they are coloured through and through. Moreover, the floors, walls and statues all played a part in the visual trickery so beloved by the Romans so let’s look at mosaics to consider the question of polychromy in ancient art.’
Skin colour in ancient mosaics and the polychromy debate
Hold on for a minute while I climb down off my high horse and brush myself down. I want you (by which I mean Talbot and all the polychrome academics) to look at mosaics and see what is right there in front of your noses. I am amazed I have to do this. It’s so obvious, it’s ridiculous. The designers, artists and makers of ancient mosaics were not shy about skin colour – all shades and races are clearly depicted.
Talbot and others explain that the ancients had a different attitude to race to our own. “Several scholars explained…that though ancient Greeks and Romans certainly noticed skin color, they did not practice systemic racism. They owned slaves, but this population was drawn from a wide range of conquered people, including Gauls and Germans,” she writes in the New Yorker. This is backed up by Sarah Bond writing in Forbes about Whitewashing Ancient Statues: “…Romans had a great variety of skin tones within their Mediterranean world. Frescoes, mosaics and painted ceramics from both the Greek and Roman periods reveal a fascination with black Africans and particularly Ethiopians, but did not employ what W.E.B. Du Bois would call a “color prejudice.”
The ancient mosaicists were adept at handling colour, whether it be folds of cloth or the glisten on a cricket’s wings. If they wanted to depict blackness or whiteness they did so along with the whole spectrum in between. The methods they used could be infinitely subtle with careful gradation of stone and glass to depict shadows, tones and bone structure. Of course I recognise that a mosaic is not a statue but there are many points of comparison and it is plainly absurd to ponder the issue of original skin colour in statues without looking at other ways that flesh tones were represented in the ancient world.
I’m glad I’ve got that off my chest. I fear that sometimes a faint whiff of rantiness rises from the screen but when it comes to mosaics I often feel that they are wrongly neglected. Mosaics could patently play an important role in the study of ancient art but, just like pigmentation, they have been ignored and scrubbed out of the story of art history. Unlike painted colours, however, they cant be entirely washed away.
Find out more: