A Bit of Color

Once in a while a story about history may bring up a side issue.

One of those issues for me, though probably of little import to others, is the popular misconception that the Classical World was a world of gleaming white marble temples, palaces, and shining white cities.

Most every reconstruction of Roman and Greek architecture found online shows either the “white marble” model, with perhaps ‘just a touch’ of color or ignores color completely. Most offline resources do also. The fact that the classical world was colorful to the extreme, seems to be one of those dirty little secrets horded by the few out of fear of destroying this great public misconception. Archaeologists and historians both know that the Hellenistic World was colorful and painted to the hilt, yet little of this information makes its way to the public. One of the reasons has to do with the seeming public refusal to accept Greece and Rome as being garish. ( so were Egypt and Mesopotamia ) The “pure white marble” temple concept is so deeply ingrained, that when we do hear about it, we soon tend to forget it.

Much of our Western architectural heritage is based on the concept of “white stone” buildings in the classical world. Washington D.C. is a living monument to the 18th and 19th century vision of classical architecture, as is the Tomb of Victor Emmanuel in Rome. And they are beautiful in their own way. But, the Greeks and Romans would have considered them incomplete. A building without its color was not yet finished.

Now then, picture the gleaming facade of the United States Supreme Court Building in all its white marble glory, just as the majority of us picture the temples of ancient Rome.

supremecourt.jpg image courtesy magazineusa.com

Next, picture it with purple columns and perhaps the body of the building painted purple as well, capitals and other architectural elements highlighted with gold , red, blue, green and polished bronze, or with natural color, if the element is a statue.

Now, you have something visually close to a Temple of Jupiter as it might be in a provincial capital somewhere. The temple in Rome would be even more splendid.

Corinthian capitals on the columns may have had a special treatment of their own. This description of a Corinthian capital comes from archrecord.construction.com, “In the Cause of Architecture.”

“The Corinthian cap in our illustration was exhumed at Olympia in comparatively good preservation. It is difficult to find data upon this subject, and this example is of particular interest, inasmuch as it demonstrates the application of the decorative principles of color alternation, and color separation. The foliated husk of the angle volutes and the lower tier of leaves are painted blue; the centre tier is painted yellow, the yellow is also carried into the centre of the rosette, and on the stems of the lower leaf tier, realizing, as nearly as the motif permits, the appearance of alternating color. Unity in color effect is achieved by the method of separating bright colors with a fillet of another color, red serving this purpose in its outlining of the detail. This well-balanced distribution of red contributes much to the stabilizing of effect.”

Can you imagine the the U.S. Capitol Building all decked out in the national colors of red, white and blue, with a little gold trim thrown in for good measure? – – – It is difficult, isn’t it?

But that is the way Greeks and Romans would have done it. Until the Capitol Building displayed all its appropriate colors, it was not finished.
Above images found at this website where there is also much more about ancient architectural color

It is claimed Augustus said, “I found Rome a city of bricks, and left it a city of marble.” Now, he may have not meant that phrase literally, according to some sources. But if he had, few would have noticed the difference. Both marble and brick would have been plastered over and painted. The finished result looking much the same.

What that phrase may also mean is that Augustus reigned over a peaceful age in Roman history, the heart of the time known as the Pax Romana. Before Augustus, Rome was republic of brick, disparate and fragmented. After Augustus, Rome was an empire, solid like marble.

But I digress. I do that so easily.

I’m old and allowed to.

The concept of a “white marble” Greco-Roman civilization and the architectural purity it stands for, is now so deeply imbedded in our collective mind, a sudden realization that the cultural “mother” cities of Athens and Rome were extremely garish, and even repulsive, by the standards of the modern “Classic” code we have, based on our original misunderstanding of it. (scratching head here)

The temples and public buildings of the time exploded with color. The finest of white marbles were whitewashed over and painted. Marble was used because of its strength and durability rather than for its beauty. (though that did change somewhat later in Roman history when ‘colored’ marbles began to replace painted surfaces. ( more on that later )
Color overwhelmed everything. Classic, and increasingly “corinthian order” public buildings glowed in lime green, red, blue, purple, and once in a while a fairly neutral “sandy” color for large, flat surface, architectural elements.

The beautiful, green patina, bronze, equesterian statue of an emperor we see today, didn’t exist then. The bronze was not allowed to show. The entire statue would have been painted to look as natural as possible. Horse too.

Even the triumphal arches which today stand in white splendor were once quite different. The Arch of Constantine, which is the largest in Rome – “… that the arch was completed with precious pictorial and metal decorations. The dominating colours were gold and purple, the colours of the Empire.” – Quote From romaturismo.com

The numerous portrait busts of Roman men and women we find jammed into our museum displays, all glittering so pure and white under the specially designed lighting, probably at one time looked more like this, with full color overall.
bust.jpg Please note that this is a ‘composite’ statue ( more later ) where polished stone of various types replaces paint as the color medium. Only the hair and face would have required painting. – – – image courtesy tias.com

In fact, finding a Roman sculpture surviving with any paint on it at all, is such a rare thing it makes the news. – From Discovery Channel

The only two artistic architectural developments of any significance made by the Romans were the Tuscan and Composite orders; the first being a shortened, simplified variant on the Doric order and the Composite being a tall order with the floral decoration of the Corinthian and the scrolls of the Ionic combined.

However, innovation did start as early as the first century BCE, with the invention of concrete, a stronger and readily available substitute for stone.

Tile-covered concrete quickly supplanted marble as the primary building material and more daring buildings soon followed, with great pillars supporting broad arches and domes rather than dense lines of columns and flat architraves. The freedom of concrete also inspired the colonnade screen, a row of purely decorative columns in front of a load-bearing wall. These decorative columns were usually painted a contrasting color to the wall behind. Later in Roman history, contrasting colors of marbles were used.

The tiles covering the concrete were themselves often large slabs of marble, plastered over and painted. In fact, the banks of the Tiber River, within the confines of Rome, were entirely paved with slabs of marble, and concrete being used to eliminate the dips and bumps for a smooth paved surface.

In smaller-scale architecture, concrete’s strength freed the floor plan from rectangular cells to a more free-flowing environment. On return from campaigns in Greece, the general Sulla brought back what is probably the most well-known decorative element of the early imperial period: the mosaic, a decoration of colorful chips of stone inset into cement. Now even Roman floors took on color of their own.

One of my favorite stories about the great “need to paint” attitudes of the Classical World comes from Greece. It seems an architect actually wanted white marble to show in a shrine. So, the building was constructed of white marble, plastered over, painted white, and with small brushes the lines and markings of fine white marble were painted on the new surface. Actually imitation “painted” marble finishes were not unknown.

Now back to that change from painting to colored marbles that took place later in Roman history. Just as color has always had symbolism, stone, especially colored stone, developed its own symbolism as the Empire grew, and both sets of symbols meshed.

As Rome’s conquests of the Mediterranean basin continued, it gained access to more colored stones such as yellow marble from Tunisia, purple marble from Turkey, along with red, green, and black marbles from Greece. Egypt was the richest source of color. It provided red, gray, and black granite, basalts and sedimentary stones, even black volcanic glass (obsidian). Sardonyx was imported from as far away as India.

Color in stone served a variety of purposes just as it did in painting. Exotic color stones were suitable for sculpture or buildings representing non-Roman subjects like barbarians, Africans, Germans, etc.

Materials could be combined to create composite statuary. ( see image above )

And perhaps most of all, the use of colored stone was a political reminder of the areas under Roman subjugation. It was this last usage which facilitated the rapid changeover from paint to colored stone in buildings representing the state shortly after the end of the Republic. The color didn’t change, only the material used to display it. This use of color was no longer merely decorative, it now signified the Power and Authority of the Roman State. ( the anthropology of ‘signified’ and ‘signifier’ is a subject all its own )

As Rome moved away from painting to allowing more ‘naked stone’ to show, it never did give up the color. If the new piece of stone couldn’t give the color depth needed or wanted, they still painted.

From Hollywood movie sets to public architecture, I’m sure the “white marble” concept of the Classical World is here to stay. That does not make it right, but like many other things in popular culture, though it is wrong, it won’t go away.

Till later


2 Responses to “A Bit of Color”

  1. Knowledge_Seeker says:

    Fascinating Digs!

    On a related note, I have always kept in mind a comment you made about the laser-light shows at the pyramids of Giza. You said that, while they may feel commercial and tacky to us, the ancient Egyptians would have been pleased. In fact, if they had had our technology, they would certainly have done the same thing.

    Interesting we always seem to think that the people who came before us were somehow more pure that we are.

    Hey, didn’t you do some interesting computer artistic renditions on this topic? I recall some cool interior views and at least one exterior pyramid scene. Maybe you could post some of those here?

    Thanks for the post and great links.


  2. digsalot says:

    Thanks KS

    Those graphics you mentioned are long lost. They went when I had to wipe this whole machine a year or so ago.

    Maybe I will do some more.