The widespread desire for “aesthetic purity”—and our current mental image of the pristinely white ancient statue—has its origins in the mid-14th century, when relics from the Classical world were first excavated from the terrain of central Italy. White, unembellished, and exquisitely carved, these ancient masterpieces that were hiding for thousands of years were taken by the Italians at face value, mistakenly believing they had always lacked color.
Not only did this initial misunderstanding transform into a new artistic ideal that partially sparked the
, it also led to the development of several theories that remained gospel in art circles for centuries.
For one, the definition of artistic refinement was essentially rewritten after the discovery of these white statues. Italians had thought the Greeks and Romans—whose achievements in subjects like philosophy and political theory were well known—left their marbles bare on purpose, and perceived this approach as yet another intellectual accomplishment from the Classical era.
Further, Italians of the 14th century associated colored sculpture with the preceding Middle Ages, a time period they viewed as degenerate. To them, medieval sculptors weren’t intelligent enough to think to not paint their works—unlike the brilliant Greeks.
Suddenly, “high art” had to be smart, and a sculpture was only considered as such if it was colorless. Indeed, from around the 15th century on, painted statues were rarely welcome outside of churches—where the Catholic public used them in prayer—and private homes, where they functioned as decorative trinkets. As Met curator Luke Syson has written, “Polychrome sculpture [was] judged too easy and too popular to be good art, high art, or even art at all.”
The initial misunderstanding of ancient sculpture also raised the question of skill. What mattered most to Renaissance viewers wasn’t the superficial coloring of a work’s surface, but the way in which its maker transformed a block of stone into a stunning vision of humanity, using hammer and chisel alone. Painting a statue was, thus, viewed as a form of cheating. Why would a sculptor need to add color if his work could be beautiful without it?