Why Are Renaissance Statues White?

The question seems absurd or even disrespectful on its surface. The hallowed names of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, Caravaggio, and others inform every student of art and art history. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa portrait, which is a mere 30 x 21 inches, receives its own love letters and fan mail. The painting of The Last Supper alone spawns countless imitators. Popular shows Battlestar Galactica and Billions distributed parodies featuring their own characters in place of Jesus and the twelve disciples. Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part One imagines an origin story for the halo over Christ’s head. There is no collection of art more universally beloved.

Like the boy who pointed out the emperor’s new clothes, however, I am compelled to ask inconvenient questions. To modern audiences thoroughly accustomed to it, bare marble speaks for itself — beauty and tradition justify its existence. But no one makes decisions in a vacuum, and that applies doubly to greatness. After all, accomplishments belong to those who capture the motivations and spirit — the zeitgeist — of their generation. The answer for the Renaissance’s unadorned sculptures, then, lies in the spirit of the Renaissance itself.

What ideas caught the attention of those old masters?

The Renaissance

The Renaissance

Primavera – Painter: Botticelli (1445-1510)

Any attempt to categorize history is something of a futile task. Historians identify trends and assign names after the fact. No 10th century peasant knew they lived in what historians called “The Dark Ages.” No 18th century scientist knew they lived in the Enlightenment. They didn’t know the judgments that history would hand down. So what do we mean when we talk about the Renaissance? What defines it?

The Renaissance (from the French word for “rebirth”) was a movement that transformed politics, art, and economics in 14th century Europe. Paradoxically, it was equal parts traditional and secular. It chased the glories which preceded its so-called “Middle Ages” and opened itself to Greek and Roman influences. Older works from the ancient Romans and Greeks formed the basis for a new culture. Monks dusted off copies of Plato and Apuleius. Orators delved into Cicero and Julius Caesar. Ultimately, it is this rededication of society to older philosophies that distinguishes the period.

Transition from Medieval Art

Transition from Medieval Art

Madonna and Child – Painter: Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1318)

Artistically, the Renaissance’s core principles were harmony and attention to nature. It diverged from the prior medieval styles in a few key ways.

For instance, medieval art flattened its subjects with a two-dimensional perspective (Ducio’s “Madonna and Child” above). The Renaissance (re)introduced depth, shadow, and perspective (Botticelli’s “Primavera”). Medieval painters depicted Christian subjects. The Renaissance expanded its selection to classical figures like Venus, Adonis, and Hercules. Renaissance artists paid attention to the human body and imitated nature closely. Colors would darken and lighten with an imagined light source and painters would determine details through the lens of real-life subjects.

The colors seen in their paintings, however, do not extend to their statuary.  The iconic and stark white of Renaissance sculpture is its hallmark. The observations of many 19th century scholars view this as deliberate. Johann Joachim Wincklemann, an accredited and influential art historian from the 18th century, makes much ado about it in his Writing on Art. “[The] essence of beauty,” he says, “consists, [sic] not in color, but in shape. . . . [A] beautiful body will be more beautiful the whiter it is.” His is not a minority view on the matter.

Yet it’s more likely that this creative choice is not a statement or even a quirk, but has more to do with incomplete scholarship. Strangely enough, the best explanation for that error lies in a tomb on the other side of the world: the Terracotta Army located in the Xian province in China.

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army

The Terracotta Army

The first archaeologists on any site are often not professionals, but farmers. Farmers like those who, in 1974, discovered a clay army — 8,000 archers, horsemen, and soldiers guarding the tomb of a long-dead emperor. These soldiers were not some elaborate monument to rule, but an army designed to accompany their master into the afterlife. Their creators breathed as much life into them as they could. Each head possesses unique facial features, beards, hairstyles, and poses.

They were once painted, though the farmers didn’t know that. Their fragile lacquer undercoats proved unsuitable for the long-term and reacted poorly to internment. Usually the paints stuck to the soil instead of the statue. On the rare occasions when it didn’t, it shriveled within seconds due to exposure. Thousands of soldiers vibrant with yellows and purples became a mass of grey and brown. If history entrusted the job entirely to those farmers, the art of the Qing dynasty would have become intricate, yet colorless.

The Terracotta Army

Recreation of Original Terracotta Army

Thanks to the marvels of modern science, archaeologists recognized what was taking place and chemists preserved the original state of the warriors. Unfortunately, the Renaissance had no such luck.


Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology Oxford

Recreation of Augustus of Prima Porta

Like the Terracotta Army, Greco-Roman statues endured extreme conditions which advanced their rate of decay. Anticipating the Roman Empire’s collapse, citizens stashed their artworks in underground caches. Humidity and moisture eroded surfaces and attacked the marble itself.

The chemical composition of the pigments, like that of the lacquer, did not suffer exposure well. According to Pliny, classical pigments were mineral- and iron oxide-based. Those pigments either rusted like old pennies or disappeared with the sudden introduction of sunlight.

So when Renaissance farmers in Italy unearthed the relics of their own past, they saw unblemished limestone and marble. In cases like Pompeii, where volcanic ash or calamity preserved paint, they mistook it for a defect and scrubbed it off. When the intellectual spheres of Italy found inspiration in classical authors and artists they attended to the unpainted forms of their muses and not the painted originals.

The Renaissance’s misinterpretation of their muse birthed a rich world in its own right. Few can say that its elegance has not informed their sense of art. From one point of view, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and other bright minds of the Renaissance blazed their own trail. From another point of view, they based their works on an archaeological oversight. They saw the stark white marble as a conscious choice and not a casualty of time.

For centuries after the 1300s, scholars continued to strip classical statues bare. The  tableau of Laocoon, itself a Roman recreation of a Greek original, doesn’t reflect its prime years. Neither does the Augustus of Prima Porta, which was uncovered and returned to the modern world in 1863.

Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology Oxford

Augustus of Prima Porta – Site: Wikimedia Commons

Modern science prevented us from making the same mistake with the Terracotta Army in 1974. Techniques like electron microscopy recognized the original presentation and uncovered a larger achievement.

The Painted Parthenon

The Painted Parthenon

Credit: Public Domain

So what did those brilliant Italian minds miss? In other words, what was the ancient world’s “true” form?

In truth, its dilapidation stole the majority of its achievements and we marvel at the bones. The Parthenon, for example, featured rich blues, yellows, and reds. It did not tower over the Athenian landscape like a blank slate. The “Trojan Archer” sported blistering yellows and oranges in its heyday, as seen in one reconstruction. The Augustus of Prima Porta, which portrays a major victory of the Roman prince (princeps) Caesar Augustus, is a garish array of blue and red.

This is not to declare the Roman aesthetic superior to that of the Renaissance. Antiquity preferred loud primary colors and harsh complementary color schemes. Those don’t appeal to modernity’s pastels and earthy tones. The fickleness of fashion applies to the ancient world as well as ours, and the appetites of any two centuries are not the same. Few women, for instance, would wear the absurd hairstyles from the Flavian period.

Istanbul Archaeological Museum

Site: Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, the comparison between the 1974 dig in China and the 1300’s own efforts teaches three major lessons.

Science’s Contribution to Archeology

As mentioned before, science was integral to coaxing out the truth. The very act of excavation damaged the most rudimentary forms of material evidence. What excavation did not ruin, excavators wiped clean through misguided restoration. What survived through unusual deposits (such as volcanic ash), intellectuals dismissed as fake. The problem required scrutiny not available to the naked eye.

One of the key techniques was electron microscopy. A scanning electron microscope (commonly referred to as SEM) uses accelerated electrons to achieve higher resolutions and pick out smaller details more accurately than with a normal microscope. The images are greyscale, but they can identify tears in the statue surfaces or elements in trace pigments. In the Terracotta Army’s case, SEM noted signs of grinding and polishing — evidence that artists washed and lathed the clay to receive paint. For classical statues, SEM helped identify minerals in pots of unused paint and detect those minerals on the marble.

SEM is one tool out of many, of course. Ultraviolet and infrared light can activate organic binding agents in ancient paint and make them glow. When exposed, statues light up. This shows residue from the oils and substances like egg yolk which held paint together. “Raking angles” revealed incisions where drawings and inscriptions once existed. These are just a few examples.

Science acts as an arbiter in this case and others. Without its input, historical oversights can persist for hundreds of years.

Side Note: Vinzenz Brinkmann

I have included a few recreations from various sources. Anyone interested in seeing more should look up the work of Vinzenz Brinkmann. Brinkmann engages in what is known as experimental archaeology, a field of study which tests hypotheses via replication and experimentation.

He painstakingly followed the Roman recipe for painted statues:

  • Red:  cinnabar (mercuric sulfide), minium (a red lead), and paste from the madder plant.
  • Orange and brown: ochre, an earth of iron-oxide.
  • Blue: azurite and Egyptian blue, the latter of which is a combination of calcium, silicon, and copper.
  • Green: malachite and azurite exposed to malachite. For black and white: carbon and lead mixes.
The head of a painted soldier -- one of Brinkmann's recreations of original statuary.

Vinzenz Brinkmann’s Recreations – Exhibit: Gods in Color

Some components such as malachite and azurite are dizzyingly expensive. Others you could possibly manufacture from vegetable mulch. Brinkmann’s attention to detail is exemplary.

Correcting such an extensive historical record is a remarkable achievement. The art community was firmly against it. For example, the previously mentioned art historian Wincklemann studied the perfectly preserved and colored stuccos from Pompeii; he deemed them “too primitive” to be Greek. He discarded a clear challenge to his assumptions. Even now, the naked marble versions of the Augustus of Prima Porta remain the dominant ones.

Significance of Archaeology and Anthropology

The fragility of interpretation speaks to the heart of archaeology itself. Technically, archaeology is the study of human culture through human remains. Functionally it feels like a game of telephone. At its worst, it’s like playing a game of charades through kaleidoscope goggles. Research and study bring your frame of reference into alignment with your subject. Once you accomplish that, you can perceive clearly what your subject is trying to say. Until then, you run the risk of damaging the evidence you already possess.

Easier said than done. Members of any culture struggle to even cope with the frailty of their own customs. When English explorer Joseph Banks encountered the natives of Tahiti in 1768, a fight nearly erupted over stolen goods. The Europeans’ concept of personal property was so alien to the free-sharing islanders that neither party understood each other. That happened when both groups were alive and talking. Imagine Banks stumbling across Tahitian ruins and trying to reconstruct their lives. Wouldn’t he assume ownership deeds, titles, and commerce? After all, he knew nothing else.

We shouldn’t judge the close-mindedness of Banks — or Wincklemann or Renaissance farmers — too harshly. As I said before, no one knows our place in history. In the history of the future, 2020 could be the start of another “Dark Age.” But we can train our mind and check our assumptions. We can see Michelangelo’s David and ask why it has no color.