Eye to Eye: Polychrome in the Age of Augustus

To begin, I would like to introduce you to a statuette – or at least what is left of it: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/26.7.1428. We know remarkably little about this piece of art.

We know it now sits in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and that it originally came from the region of Memphis in Northern Egypt. It’s a miniature, at only 6.8cm tall. We can identify the subject as the Roman Emperor Augustus from his features. The style of his portraiture, as a young face with a broad forehead, fine brows, aquiline nose and carefully arranged locks of hair, suggests a date from early in his rule, giving us a date of 27-20BC. But the most bizarre thing about this portrait of Augustus is staring us in the face, so to speak: he’s blue.
When we think about ancient Rome, we tend to think of grand marble buildings, and clean white sculptures. We do not think about brightly painted walls, multi-coloured floors, or painted statues. This is a misconception that we have carried since we first began to excavate Roman sites. Very little paint can survive over nearly two thousand years, and that which does remain is often not visible to the naked eye. When archaeologists first discovered the art of Rome, they did not have the technology to preserve the colour that did remain, nor examine the surface for the remnants of pigments. Thankfully, we now do, and increasingly, research is showing the Roman world to be more and more colourful.
Many statues were painted to make them look more life-like. Pliny the Elder, famous for his literature and ill-fated rescue attempt at Pompeii, had something to say on the matter. In his discussion on the most famous sculptors of the ancient world, he talks about the artist Praxiteles, who considered his best works those that were finished off by Nicias, a painter. The finished product painted over the marble to tint the skin, pick out the eyes, and colour the hair. An example can be seen in a fully reconstructed bust of one of Augustus’ successors, the Emperor Caligula, as demonstrated in the image above.
This illustrated the features of Caligula’s face, and we can even see a slight family resemblance between these two Roman rulers. But this illustrative colour still doesn’t explain why our Augustus is blue.
If colour wasn’t applied to make the art more lifelike there must have been some reason that it was appropriate in this case. The Romans associated colour with emotion or meaning, just as we do today. For us, green is envy and yellow is cowardice. What were these colour connotations for the Romans, and could this explain our colourful bust?
Blue was not as easily accessible in Italy as other dyes like red or yellow, because almost all of its dyes and pigments came from lands considered barbaric to Roman society. Woad, a plant based blue dye, was used extensively by the British Celts and Germanic tribes, and indigo was imported from India and the Middle East. Azurite was imported from Armenia and Cyprus, and blue frit was an artificial compound made by the Egyptians from copper. Though there were sources of lapis lazuli within the reach of Rome, these were not high quality deposits and purification techniques could not, as yet, produce a stable pigment. Consequently, lapis lazuli had to be imported from the Middle East. With such a selection of sources, for the Romans blue represented barbarianism, the over-luxurious east, and Cleopatra’s Egypt - which had only recently been brought under Roman control after the deaths of Anthony and Cleopatra. As a result, the Romans tended to use blues only sparingly - in fact, in comparison to other colours, there is little blue to be found in any Roman art or literature, and there is no decisive term for blue as a focal hue in their language. This led some nineteenth-century scholars to promote the theory that the Romans were entirely blind to the colour blue.
Naturally this was not the case. But blue simply was not used much, because of its negative associations. This is most apparent from the earliest parts of Roman history. Before the Roman Republic, Rome was just one city-state amongst a collection in Italy. To the north of Rome, a group of these belonged to the Etruscans, a civilisation which merged into Rome’s around two hundred years before this bust was created. Many Etruscan tombs contain wall-paintings where colour has survived, and one example of this is the Tomb of the Blue Demons in Tarquinia. In this tomb, one wall is decorated with a scene from the Etruscan Afterworld, populated with grotesque blue demons. In this depiction, the blue represents the putrefaction of the body after death, and while there are ‘guardian’ demons present, these have a human skin tone: the blue is associated with the aggressive and negative death-demons of the afterlife. This colour connotation will have been absorbed into Roman society at the merging of their cultures, and goes some way to explain their aversion to shades of blue.
But if, as we have shown, the Romans did not like the colour and associated it with barbarity and death, why would our statuette deliberately link Augustus with something so undesirable? Next, we need to look at the material of the head of Augustus more closely: it is not painted blue, but glazed. This glaze is called faience, a type of ceramic finish developed by the Egyptians thousands of years prior to the rise of the Roman Empire. It was initially produced in the Middle East from around 4500 BC, making its way into Egypt by 3000 BC, and there the process was perfected and later distributed to the rest of the Mediterranean. Faience was a glaze applied onto carved soapstone figurines or statuettes to recreate lapis lazuli, which was expensive and highly sought after. The process used a mixture of shavings of a copper based material like azurite or malachite, sand and potassium, with the blue green colour appearing naturally from the copper silicates as a substance similar to that of crystalline quartz. Faience glazed objects were relatively common in Egypt, and carried a positive meaning.
One example is this ankh from the sixth to eighth century BC in Gebel Barkal, which resides at the British Museum: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_image.aspx?image=ps239496.jpg&retpage=15261. This is clearly glazed in faience, and is packed with imagery that displays a message of prosperity. The ankh itself was a symbol of life, and it was decorated with a sceptre, which is the Egyptian glyph for power. Behind the sceptre is a pillar, the glyph for stability, upon which sits a small figure with upraised arms. This figure indicated the idea of eternity, and held in each hand the glyph for a year. Thus the ankh celebrates the long life of the holder – that their power should remain strong for millions of years. With this use of blue, seen also in other ritual objects, we can see that for the Egyptians, the colour suggested a completely different thing to that of the Romans. It called for prosperity and longevity, and a protection against evil spirits if it were applied to funerary objects. It was also often used in sacred practices to decorate the image of a celebrated god.
This leads us to an interpretation of our head of Augustus. We know that it was found in the region of Memphis, and it was here that a cult to Augustus was established. It was here also that the Priest of Ptah, who was the most powerful religious figure in the area, was appointed as the prophet of Caesar. This miniature bust could have been a part of a full image of Augustus, a focus for this religious celebration of the new Augustan rule and glazed in blue faience to send the message of good wishes towards the emperor.
One would hope that an adviser would have explained this rather puzzling form of flattery to Augustus, if only for the sake of the Egyptian who displayed it. For a Roman, as we have seen, this bust gives the emperor the rotting flesh of a death-demon, or the woad-smeared face of some Celtic barbarian. But for the Egyptians, this was a peace-offering after the tumultuous years of the Battle of Actium, and the death of Anthony and Cleopatra. The Egyptian priests had accepted Augustus as their new figure of authority, and as such, celebrated him in the same way they had for previous Pharaohs. For them, it was no insult; even their chief god, Osiris, was often portrayed with blue skin.
By just looking at the example of blue, this case study has demonstrated that by investigating the Roman understanding of colour we can discover information about an object that would otherwise remain unfamiliar. We can also see that that there is far more to be seen and understood about the society that the Romans lived in, if we accept and embrace the fact that their world was at least as colourful as our own. Only an estimated 14% of the population were literate, so colour was a far better medium through which to spread the ideas of Augustan rule. Their art was full of meanings and associations, not only through the colour blue, but through every part of the spectrum. These colours could influence the way they thought about the art in front of them, and by seeing the Roman world in colour, and not monochrome, we can see far more of their culture than if we assume that they were colour-blind.


Credit for image: Giovanni Dall'Orto