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.
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.