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What colour was Rome? For most of us, the first colour that comes to mind is white – white togas, and the gleaming white marble of temples and statues. With a few exceptions, such as Fellini’s colourful Satyricon, most films depict the Roman Empire as a place filled with white buildings and statues, and a visit to the sculpture galleries of the Vatican or the Capitoline Museums does nothing to dispel this belief. When you come face to face with a marble god or emperor, they’re nearly always completely white.
We like to imagine that the Colosseum was white too, a monument of pristine marble that dazzled in the sunlight. But while the majority of the amphitheatre was indeed white, it was also much more colourful than previously thought. Recent restoration work on the third level of the Colosseum has uncovered some astonishing frescoes. Plant motifs, human figures and even erotic scenes were painted on the walls in shades of red, green, pink and blue. While the exterior of the Colosseum consisted of white travertine marble, many of the interior sections – walls, ceilings and pillars – were vividly decorated in technicolour.
Until recently, it was taken for granted that all Ancient Greek and Roman statues were white too. The eye-opening international exhibition Gods in Color: Painted Sculpture of Classical Antiquity in 2003 made many realize that this was not the case. This exhibition featured Greek statues reconstructed in bright colours, based on examination of “paint ghosts” on the original statues – traces of paint detectable with ultraviolet lights. Researchers came to the conclusion that the majority of Greek marble sculpture was painted, and it seems likely that Roman art was equally colourful.
Far from being monochrome, Roman statues seem to have been brightly painted and adorned with decorations and jewels, just like their Greek predecessors. This revelation is shocking, and maybe even a little upsetting, if you’ve grown up with the idea of Ancient Rome being full of elegant white statues. The garish colours of the reconstructions may seem less aesthetically pleasing than the white marble on display in the Vatican Museums.
Michelangelo and his contemporaries would have been shocked too. The artists of the Renaissance were heavily influenced by Greek and Roman art, and Michelangelo was even present at the excavation of Laocoon, a masterpiece of Roman statuary that now has pride of place at the Vatican. By the 16th century any trace of colour was long gone, and the artists who found inspiration in ancient artworks would have assumed, as we once did, that these statues were always white. If Michelangelo had known that they were originally coloured, this knowledge may well have transformed his own art, and in turn changed the “classical aesthetic” that dominated Western art ever since.
You might think that we know all there is to know about the ancient world. But as archaeologists and scientists continue to uncover hidden layers of paintings, or discover the secret colours of ancient statues, it’s clear that that isn’t the case. History is not a closed book, but a scroll that continues to unwind over the centuries. To learn about fascinating new discoveries and have your preconceptions of history radically challenged, join our Rome tours. With the help of our expert guides, you’ll see the past in a new light – and new colours.