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VATICAN LETTER Nov-19-2004 (790 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi

Vatican exhibit shows art of ancient world not all black and white

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Imagine the "Venus de Milo" with painted red lips, blonde hair and blue eyes.

Far-fetched? Cartoonish? A new Vatican Museums exhibit maintains that for the ancients colored statues were nothing out of the ordinary -- they were brightened with pigments to make them stand out in temples or family courtyards.

But because modern eyes have grown used to the bleached-white look of Greek and Roman statuary, the Vatican exhibit will probably shock as many viewers as it pleases.

"Even for us, it's a big effort," said Francesco Buranelli, director of the Vatican Museums. "We're looking at these items with eyes conditioned by taste. We have to try to look at them with the eyes of the ancients."

Buranelli spoke at a press conference Nov. 16 to unveil the exhibit, "The Colors of White," which features 15 painted reproductions, some of them alongside the marble originals.

For museum habitues, the effect can be jarring. In some cases, the vivid pigments tend to replace gravitas with a sense of whimsy.

The painted version of a marble lion that once guarded a sixth-century B.C. Greek tomb has a bright yellow body, blue mane and stylized red whiskers. It would not be out of place in a modern nursery room.

A small statue of a crouching archer now wears polychrome diamond-patterned tights and a yellow helmet.

Two busts of the Roman Emperor Caligula are striking: In the uncolored marble original, he seems to gaze out from the depth of history; in the flesh-toned reproduction, he comes to life.

The star of the show is a large statue of the Emperor Augustus, discovered about 140 years ago at a villa outside Rome. Augustus is depicted in the act of speaking to the army, wearing the armor of a military commander and the imperial sash.

In the colorized version, the deep red of the sash matches the emperor's red lips.

Preparing the painted reproductions was a big job, and the work on the statue of Augustus was financed in part by the Florida chapter of the Vatican Museums' Patrons of the Arts.

It wasn't simply a matter of dabbing on paint. The experts had to engage in some high-tech reconnaissance first.

While some statues still bore traces of original pigment -- yellow ochre was found in Caligula's ear, for example -- most of the color had weathered away. But in many cases the experts were able to visualize the paint patterns by using modern techniques like X-ray fluorescence, ultraviolet and infrared photography, spectroscopic analysis and scanning electron microscopes.

Chemical analysis of the pigment traces allowed them to recompose the original paints employed, using minerals and vegetable dyes. The green came from malachite, the blue from azurite and the red from cinnabar, but some more subtle hues were synthetic compositions.

The Vatican exhibit, which is open free of charge until the end of January, is the result of a groundbreaking collaborative effort between the Vatican and two other museums, the Glyptothek in Munich and the Ny Carlsberg Glyptothek in Copenhagen.

The 15 pieces have already been shown in Munich and Copenhagen, and the reaction has been mixed.

"Younger people were the most positive about the show. The older visitors were less convinced, but many of them came back to see it more than once," said Vinzenz Brinkmann of the Munich museum.

Those who came without preconceived notions about ancient statues were more open to the colors, said Jan Ostergaard of the Copenhagen museum.

"Some would take a deep breath and say, 'Now I am beginning to understand.' When they see the colors, it's another world," he said.

The colors seem most disconcerting to art experts. The preference for unpainted statues goes back to the 18th century, when neoclassical standards were set by scholars like Johann Winckelmann, who decreed white the color of ideal beauty.

But even Winckelmann was aware that the ancients painted their statues: Among the secondary pieces in the Vatican exhibit are polychrome reliefs from ancient Rome, found in Winckelmann's personal collection.

Several ancient sources make reference to the colors of sculpted art, and it has long been known that the works passed through both sculpture and painting studios.

Officials of the Vatican Museums emphasized the experimental nature of the exhibit and said they had no intention of colorizing their vast collection of statuary.

"For goodness sake, we're not going to paint the originals. We wouldn't touch them," Buranelli said.

But Buranelli said the exhibit could rightly be described as a "small revolution" aimed at shedding new light -- and color -- on "one of the biggest misunderstandings in the history of ancient art."


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