From the Field
ROMAN SCULPTURAL POLYCHROMY AT CORINTH
Extensive work in the storerooms of the Corinth Museum has identified numerous vestiges of ancient painting and gilding on the Roman marble statues excavated at Corinth by the American School of Classical Studies. In February and March, Associate Member Mark Abbe continued his study of the extant polychromy on Roman marble statuary from the site. This research combines detailed archaeological study, microscopic examination, various imaging techniques, and materials analysis using portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry to recover the evidence for the rich applied polychromy of these sculptures. Remains of ancient coloration have been identified on more than one hundred inventoried marble statue fragments, including acrolithic cult images, civic portraits, and “ideal” figures of cultural and mythological heroes.
Together the material constitutes one of the largest bodies of extant sculptural polychromy from Roman Greece. Their study is part of Mark’s dissertation on the coloration of Roman marble statuary at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. His research aims to characterize the techniques and materials used in this little acknowledged tradition of polychrome coloration and to historically contextualize the use of such color on Roman statuary at ancient Corinth.
A primary objective in studying the Corinth material is to properly situate the polychromy of Roman sculpture in its richly-resonant ancient display context. New methods of examination and materials characterization, largely developed in the fields of art conservation and conservation science, can be incorporated into archaeological field research with great profit. Materials analysis does more than simply tell us what pigments and methods were used on statuary – it provides crucial insights into the decisions of ancient artisans and frequently sheds light on how varied were the original appearances of the frequently replicated subjects of Roman statuary.
Closely studying technique encourages us to look at sculpture in new ways. It has, for example, long been noted that the Roman marble sculpture displays a well-defined range of sculpting methods with distinctive tool use and frequently exquisite surface finishes. In antiquity, however, such techniques were not merely visual ends in of themselves as in our more recent post-antique formal tradition of monochromatic marble sculpture. We should see such technique not simply as transparent reflections of quality, date, or style, but as specific and deliberate preparations for different types of polychrome applications.
The marble sculpture at Corinth is remarkable for the range of sculptural types, their rich archaeological context, and their often exceptional preservation. This research has received financial support from the Wiener Laboratory at the ASCSA.
— Mark Abbe
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