Exhibition: True Colors – Rediscovering Pigments on Greco-Roman Marble Sculpture

Lengthy coverage from Stanford about another exhibition about the original colors of Greek and Roman statuary and the like (tip o’ the pileus to John McMahon):

With the silent attentiveness of a physician, Ivy Nguyen passes her hands over the recumbent white lady in the darkened lab. She cradles a handheld black light in her fingers.

Under the Stanford sophomore’s skillful watch in the Cantor Arts Center lab, long-dead colors on marble come alive after two millennia.

The results of Nguyen’s painstaking efforts are on display in “True Colors: Rediscovering Pigments on Greco-Roman Marble Sculpture” at the Cantor. The exhibition runs until Aug. 7. Admission is free.

Though we still think of ancient Greece and Rome in terms of white marble sparkling under a hot Mediterranean sun, the new exhibition shows at least one Greco-Roman lady as she was meant to be seen – in Technicolor. Not everyone may take to Stanford’s painted lady, but first impressions can change. “It’s very different – some have called it kind of garish,” admitted sophomore Nguyen, but she confesses that she’s gotten used to it.

We’ve always known that ancient statues were painted: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a vase, circa 360-350 B.C., depicting a man painting a statue of Herakles. The most important evidence is on the statues themselves – traces of paint that time did not wash from the creases and crevices in porous marble.

Traces of paint offer hints

Unfortunately, while those traces may tell us the statues were painted, they don’t give us a real idea of what the statues looked like. Nguyen thinks sculptures may have had several layers of paint for a more nuanced effect, but since the layers closest to the surface were exposed to weathering and cleaning, only the base layer of paints lingered in the nooks and crannies of the marble.

So how do we find the invisible paint, the “true colors” that vanished over time? Nguyen, a student in chemical engineering, had a few ideas.

Nguyen was a student in last spring’s “Art, Chemistry, and Madness: The Science of Art Materials,” a course taught by chemical engineering Professor Curtis Frank with his wife, artist Sara Loesch Frank.

The course is one of the “sophomore seminar” series that give Stanford faculty a chance to explore the boundaries of their disciplines and experiment outside their accustomed areas of expertise. The interdisciplinary offerings give students an opportunity for some unusual synergies.

The course was inspired by Loesch Frank’s experimentation with art material – she would ask her husband for help to explain color changes, bubbling or delamination. “Since my research area is materials science with an emphasis on interfacial properties of polymers, I was intrigued by her questions, and we put together the course in an attempt to organize our collective thinking and to share it with bright Stanford undergrads,” said Frank.

For Nguyen, it was an epiphany: “Prior to this, I had always been intimidated by the humanities and arts,” said the science-oriented sophomore. “It definitely showed me other things going on out there – other things besides the current trends.

“Science can give us a deeper understanding of art.”

Nguyen submitted a proposal for an exhibition to a juried competition sponsored by the Cantor Arts Center, and won. Susan Roberts-Manganelli, the manager of collections, exhibitions and conservation at Cantor, became a colleague and leading member of the team that examined the Greco-Roman statue and planned the exhibition. (Roberts-Manganelli came into the field from the opposite direction of Nguyen: she’s an artist who discovered the wonders of art conservation while traveling in Europe.)

For the exhibition, Nguyen explored techniques to detect paint that you cannot see with the naked eye – trace elements, such as lead and gold, which are not native to marble. Ultraviolet light causes the pigment particles to fluoresce, helping determine where the marble had been painted.

While the technique is not new, Nguyen went beyond that with the use of x-ray fluorescence (XRF), commonly used in conservation sciences. XRF can find traces of pigment that are invisible to the unaided eye.

Nguyen’s ultraviolet imaging with the black light reveals “ghost images,” showing the areas that might be promising to test. The XRF reveals what’s in those ghost images.

Although other exhibitions have focused on painted Greek and Roman statues, this exhibition focuses on the science as well as the art, taking the visitor through the laboratory process with cases displaying pigments used in ancient times, wall-mounted images of the analysis and small, painted terra cotta works from Cantor’s ancient collection that were used as controls in the study.

The exhibition includes those early mineral paints – chalk to create white, goethite that can be powdered to yellow ochre, hematite that can be powdered to red ochre, copper to make the pigment known as Egyptian blue and gold leaf for gilding – along with photos taken during scientific analysis.

But the hit of the exhibition is clearly the painted ladies: two high-density urethane foam replicas of the Stanford’s Maenad (4 B.C. – 25 A.D.), a survivor from the Herodian dynasty who was found in a Samarian well.

One of the two reproductions is painted with the colors found during analysis; a second is an educated guess about the additional layers of color that might have been added.

The fully painted Samarian maenad wears a red cloak over an ochre tunic. The figure is headless, but dark hair trails over each shoulder. Over her right shoulder, she has slung a leopard-patterned animal skin. With color, she does indeed look more like a wild Dionysian follower, rather than the noble white marble matron familiar to Stanford museum visitors.

Nguyen predicted in her proposal that “putting the painted reconstruction next to the statue on display will be jarring even for the most knowledgeable of visitors.”

She was right. The world of ancient Greece was not an austere civilization of stately white marble – it was awash with vibrant colors.

Were all the statues painted? “It’s hard to say what really happened over 2,000 years ago,” said Nguyen. “But we know that at least a lot of them were painted.”

They may look garish to us – but the Greeks felt that, without the splash of color, their statues were a little naked and, well, kind of ugly.

“My life and fortunes are a monstrosity . . . because of my beauty,” lamented Helen of Troy in Euripides’ Helen. “If only I could shed my beauty and assume an uglier aspect – the way you would wipe color off a statue.”

The Cantor Arts Center is open Wednesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday to 8 p.m. For museum information, call (650) 723-4177.

The coverage includes a nice little YouTube video:

With all that observed, we should mention some of our previous posts in regard to other, similar exhibitions (some links within these may or may not work any more):

I still think the modern colorization attempts ‘go too far’ …

More coverage:

Romm and Cartledge on Alexander Redux!

After a brief hiatus, Romm and Cartledge are back and are talking with Oliver Stone about Alexander:

Also of note in the above, is the notice of a reading group for the Landmark Arrian starting April 11 (for free, via Eventbrite … I’m unfamiliar with this format).

Latin Not Alive and Well in Gettysburg?

This item from the times includes the excuse I keep hearing — ‘no demand’ (a.k.a. “no expressed interest”) — and I always wonder how one can say there is no demand, if the product isn’t offered in the firs place? Anyhoo:

Today marks the Ides of March, when Adams County high schools once observed the assassination of Julius Caesar as part of their Latin classes.

But there won’t be any students dressed in togas today parading throughout their towns, to commemorate the death of Rome’s greatest general and statesman. Latin classes are no longer offered as part of the standard curriculum at most local schools.

“We offer — or would offer — Latin classes as an online course, if there was interest,” says Littlestown School District Superintendent Donald Wills. “There has just has not been an expressed interest to date.”

Similarly, the Fairfield School District does not offer Latin to its high school student body.

The Gettysburg Area School District offers four Latin courses as part of its regular curriculum, and two other classes as independent studies. Latin teacher Mal-Lee Gong-Johnston launched the Ides of March in the 2010 spring semester, as a mini-lesson and hopes to offer expanded programming in the future.

“Latin is a building block toward a complete education,” says Gong-Johnston, adding that classes cover literature, mythology, Latin grammar, English grammar culture, diversity, geography, and history.

“Latin builds English vocabulary, makes connections among English and the Romance languages, and provides a true liberal arts education,” says Gong-Johnston.

The program was offered at Biglerville High in the Upper Adams School District for nearly four decades, before the retirement of popular Latin instructor Dan Bushman in 2002. When Bushman retired after 46 years of teaching, the district educated existing Latin students, before discontinuing the program in 2005-06. Upper Adams Superintendent Eric Eshbach notes that Ides of March festivities were “carried through until then, but alas, just like Julius Caesar, they died.”

Former teachers point out that the English language was derived from Latin, and it is also the base of the world’s five common Romance languages: Romanian, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian.

“If you understand Latin, then you know the English language — that’s what I always tried to stress to the students over the years,” says Bushman, noting that medical terminology also has Latin roots.

Bushman started the Ides of March parade in the mid-1960s in Biglerville, when students wore white togas, yielded cardboard swords and carried a Caesar impersonator atop a stretcher, throughout school hallways and the streets of the borough. Band members joined the march, too, which often drew up to 60 participants. Bushman taught for 46 years, and the Latin program was offered to students in eighth through twelfth grades.

“When you’re in it for that long, you really develop a relationship with the students, and that’s something you never forget as a teacher,” says Bushman.

Charlotte, N.C. resident Erin Bushey Mistry took five years of Latin with Mr. Bushman at Biglerville High, where the first two years covered English, the third year covered Greek and medical terminology, and the fourth and fifth years focused on mythology and philosophy.

“Although Latin may not be a spoken language, it is everywhere in our society,” says Mistry, a senior Biotech-Pharma engineering consultant. Mistry says she could “not have been more impacted by an individual teacher” than she was by Mr. Bushman, noting that he was “demanding but supportive, caring and interested in us, excited about what he taught, an advocate and a charismatic adult.”

Bushman’s popularity with the student body was a main reason the program was discontinued three years after his retirement, according to Eshbach.

“We were not able to find a replacement for him,” Eshbach says regarding Bushman. “Obviously, he is irreplaceable.”

At Biglerville, Mistry points out that students “wanted to be in Bushman’s class,” because “he taught them about Latin, and how to be adults.”

“We were passionate and we also wanted to do well not only for ourselves, but we also did not want to let him down,” she says.

Mistry notes that Latin is commonly used in the legal and financial systems, with the Latin phrase “E Pluribus Unum” printed on most coins or bills.

Even though only one local school offers Latin as a regular course, most superintendents agree that if students expressed interest, it wouldn’t take long to revive the program.

“Over the years, we have had sporadic interest by students, and have offered the class when requested,” says Conewago Valley School District Superintendent Dan Trimmer.

As a member of the Roman Senate, Caesar was called to a special meeting March 15, 44 B.C., and attended, despite repeated warnings about threats on his life. Fearful that the former Roman General would eventually become a powerful all-ruling dictator, the Roman Senate turned on Caesar that day, stabbing him 23 times. Realizing that his friend Brutus was in on the assassination plot, Caesar uttered the famous words, “Et tu, Brute?”, translated “you too, Brutus?”

Getting Into Tufts … ca 1888

Excerpt from an item in the Tufts Daily:

Rather than submitting an application, prospective students came to campus and completed an entrance examination the June before their first year. The exam covered a wide range of subjects — if “wide” can be taken to mean classical history, languages and literature. Students taking this exam in 1888 were tested on Caesar, Cicero, Virgil and Ovid in Latin, as well as Homer’s writings in their original Greek. Students also solved problems in arithmetic, algebra and plane geometry; demonstrated their knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history and geography; and translated a passage of “The Iliad” into English. And no need to worry about running out of time: This exam lasted for two days.

But let’s say you came out of the womb reading Virgil and could practically translate ancient Greek in your sleep. What could you expect once you arrived for the 1888−89 academic year? To say the least, Tufts was a pretty happening place to be. […]

… outside of the math component, it sounds an awful lot like the comprehensive exams one has to write for a Ph.D. nowadays, no?