Jan Stubbe Østergaard
The term “polychromy” has been in use since the early 19th century to denote the presence of any element of colour in Greek and Roman sculpture. The evidence for such polychromy is literary, epigraphical, archaeological, and archeometric; research on the subject therefore requires collaboration between the humanities, conservation science, and natural science. Such research should go hand in hand with the investigation of the polychromy of Greek and Roman architecture, since it is symbiotically related to sculpture, technically as well as visually.
Knowledge of Greek and Roman sculptural polychromy is still very uneven. Scholars have focused on stone sculpture, and most research has been directed towards the Archaic, Early Classical, Hellenistic, and Imperial Roman periods. For terracottas, the Hellenistic period has enjoyed the most research, while investigation of the polychromy of bronze sculpture has only recently begun.
The scientific research methodology applied concerns the materials and techniques employed. The main colouring agents are paints, metals, and coloured marbles. Pigments are based on inorganic and organic materials applied with proteins, wax, or plant gums as binding media. Metals used are bronze, copper, silver, and gold. A range of coloured marbles came into use in the Roman Imperial period, but in all periods, assorted materials such as semi-precious stones and metals were used for inlaid details and attached objects like jewelry and weapons.
The element of colour in Greek and Roman sculpture is of varied character and is found on works in all formats and materials, in a wide spectrum of contexts and functions covering the chronological and geographical history of sculpture in Classical Antiquity. No matter the period, sculptures had an element of colour; this element was not just a decorative addition but integral to the meaning and message of the sculpture. A logical relationship existed between the sculptural forms and their polychromy. A major division in the history of sculptural polychromy is therefore congruent with that found between the highly stylized forms of Archaic sculpture, on the one hand, and the naturalism dominant from the Classical period to the onset of Late Antiquity, on the other hand.
The list of sculptures on which remains of colour have been observed, but not analyzed, is long. Many are included in Reuterswärd’s 1960 monograph, which constitutes the point of departure for studies since then. This article is, however, based on the results of interdisciplinary investigation, an activity still in its infancy.