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Ancient statues were colorful

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A painted bust of Caligula
Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Wherever we look, film productions show us the world of ancient Romans devoid of colours, and full of white and beige statues and buildings. That was even the case in “Ben Hur” (1959) by William Wyler or “Gladiator” (2000) by Ridley Scott. Certainly, this way of showing Roman civilization proved its power and role in the then Mediterranean world.

Painted head of Caligula.

However, the reality is quite different, which is confirmed by the research of scientists. Most (or maybe all) public buildings, statues, monuments, etc. shimmered with numerous colours, which as a result of wind, sun, sand and time lost their colour and faded.

To check this fact yourself, you can do an experiment. It is enough to shine with ultraviolet light on the monument at such an angle that the light runs almost parallel to the surface of the object. In this way, you can discover invisible colours.

The sculptors’ works were properly painted when the bronze statues had relevant parts of the body such as eyes, lips, teeth made of other colourful materials: ivory, copper, silver or amber. The statues were also made of gold, silver and ivory. The Romans also used coloured marble in their work.

Author: Coolest Gadgets | Creative Commons license Attribution - On the same terms 3.0.

The dyes were mainly of inorganic origin and originated from minerals or other soil products. Below are some of the materials from which the colours were obtained:

  • Cinnabar, mercury sulfide – a popular and expensive red mineral pigment.
  • Ocher – earthy in colour, containing iron oxide, occurs in colours from orange to reddish-brown.
  • Lead minia – also known as “minium”, it was red.
  • Alizarin – pink-red organic dye.
  • Orpimentation and realgar – minerals used to produce yellow pigments.
  • Azurite – a copper mineral and a source of deep blue. It can transform into a greenish shade by weathering.
  • Calcium and copper silicate – the oldest known synthetic pigment. It was the source of the popular Egyptian blue colour.
  • Malachite, copper carbonate – green.
  • Black bone or vine – the colour was obtained as a result of charring.
  • Cerusite, lead carbonate – white.

Modern researchers are still researching and suggesting what monuments known to us from the ancient world might have looked like.

  • Glyptoteket
  • Christopher Reed, Dazzlers, December 2007

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