Tales from the Glytpotek Part Two – Or Prelude to Some Thoughts on Polychromy

It’s been quite a week for polychromy (the multicoloured painting of ancient sculpture). First I got into something of an initially heated, but in the end rather good-natured debate, when I suggested on Twitter that maybe some people were perhaps jumping the gun a bit in now assuming that all Greek and Roman sculptures must have been painted. Ok we now know that they weren’t all gleaming white marble but how much do we really know about how often statues were painted? Then just a few days later an interesting article appeared in the New Yorker, which dealt with the subject in quite some depth and has been deservedly widely shared on social media.

It’s been a while since I found any time to write a blog post. I left off weeks ago after having delivered just one of my promised series of posts on interesting things I saw in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen (in August!!!). So, to return to where I left off and to serve as a prelude to a piece (or pieces) I’m now planning to write with some thoughts I’ve had this week on the issue of ancient polychromy here’s a short piece about a rather curious piece of modern sculpture I saw in the museum – a grave monument from the early 19th Century.


The museum label reads: “Tomb monument to Otto Westengaard. Painted plaster cast after coloured drawing by Hermann Ernst Freund. 1837.” I confess I hadn’t previously heard of Freund but he was a disciple of Thorvaldsen’s and quite a famous painter in his day. Some of his statues are on display in the Glyptotek, including an impressive seated Thor, and I’d seen those before I arrived at this piece. My internet searches have failed, however, to find out any information at all about who Otto Westengaard was. He’s presumably the one listed on this genealogy site as living 1763-1835 (though that does make it hard to explain why his date of birth on the side of the monument is given as 1764!) but I’ve got no idea how important he was or why Freund was commissioned to make his gravestone. What caught my eye, however, was what the monument looks like.

4th C Grave Stele of Euphroysne, from the Athenian Kerameikos (source Wikipedia)

It’s clearly inspired by grave monuments from Classical Athens like the one above: the shape of the stelai, the delicate relief of the girl, who seems to be filling an oil lamp, the two rosettes. I’ve seen sphinxes in the round topping grave monuments in the Kerameikos Museum in Athens. The usually stand sideways atop the monument. The two-bodied one still strikes me as a bit fanciful but  today I at least found a fairly close parallel for a sphinx carved in relief looking directly forward on a 4th century grave monument.

4th Century grave monument with Sphinx

Coming from the high point of Neoclassicism the form of the monument is therefore not surprising. What did surprise me about it, however, were the vivid colours.

Although, as the New Yorker piece points out people have known about traces of pigment on ancient sculpture for centuries but tended to downplay it’s significance. It’s only very recently that opinion has begun to tip in favour of the idea that painting statues was common in antiquity – perhaps too far but that’s something I want to come back to in my next piece. Neoclassical sculptors of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, artists like Freund, Thorvaldsen and, perhaps most famous of all, Canova are strongly associated with a belief in the pure whiteness of Greek and Roman statues. They sought to emulate this ideal in their own Classically inspired works, which in turn played a role in reinforcing the idea that ancient artwork was devoid of culture.

So what made Freund decide to paint Westengaard’s grave monument?

I’d be curious to know whether this was the decision of the artist or the patron. Perhaps even more interesting would be to know where he got the idea that a Classical Greek  gravestone could be painted. All of the pieces of ancient sculpture for which I’ve heard pigment was known about before the twentieth century were statues not relief sculpture but this piece suggests some awareness that Classical grave stelai could be painted, something for which concrete evidence is now known. The vividness – to put it less kindly – the gaudiness of the colours comes close to some of the fairly recent and now quite famous reconstructions of ancient sculpture by Vinzenz Brinkmann, seen in the travelling “Gods in Colour” exhibition which I’ve been lucky enough to catch in both Athens and Oxford. (It’s certainly far less subtle than John Gibson’s so-called “Tinted Venus“, mentioned by the New Yorker piece and which generated so much controversy in the 1850s as one of the first Neoclassical sculptures to attempt to replicate ancient polychromy.)

Reconstruction of a Classical grave stela from the “Gods in Colour” exhibition

Yet, if we compare Freunds’ grave monument with a reconstruction of a Classical grave stele that featured in Brinkman’s exhibition (see above) the palette is completely different. The red background against which the girl is set is reminiscent of some of the famous wall paintings from Pompeii which I suspect could have been an inspiration here but where did the idea for all that yellow come from? Had Freund perhaps seen an ancient tomb marker that preserved traces of that colour? And if so, where had he seen it? Although some Classical grave monuments had made their way to Italy in the time of the Roman Empire  they weren’t copied like statues in the round and therefore don’t exist in the country in anything like the same numbers. Greece at the time Freund made Westengaard’s gravestone had just won its independence from the Ottoman Empire so although excavations wouldn’t begin in the Kerameikos for another three and a half decades it is conceivable that Freund might have seen or known about a coloured stele discovered at around that time somewhere in Greece. On the other hand, perhaps it was nothing more than a fantasy.

Another interesting question is what did people make of this grave stone when they saw it in the 1830s? It’s unclear from the museum display whether the monument itself was ever actually completed and, if so, where it is or whether it retained the colours of the plaster cast and drawing. Was Otto Westengaard really buried beneath a gravestone that looked like this? And if so, does the real monument still exist anywhere? (And these aren’t just rhetorical questions. If anyone knows I’d be very glad to know!)

This piece of sculpture raises more questions than I can answer here but intriguingly it hints that knowledge of ancient polychromy and attitudes toward the possibility of ancient sculpture being painted were more complex in the early 19th century than we generally now tend to suppose.



Face to face – with Pompey

It’s a few weeks ago now that I visited the Glyptotek in Copenhagen for the first time and but I’ve only now found time to write the first of my promised blog posts about some of the things I saw there.

The bust of Pompey the Great in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

One of the highlights of the visit was coming face to face with the famous bust of Pompey (or Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to give him his full name), one of Rome’s leading generals in the declining years of the Republic and the arch enemy of Julius Caesar. I later found out (through Twitter) that without knowing it I’d chosen a very appropriate day to see the bust because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Pharsalos (in 48 BC, in Thessaly, Greece) when Caesar definitively defeated Pompey and he fled to Egypt where he was murdered by an Egyptian faction seeking to curry favour with Caesar. That led to Caesar becoming sole ruler of Rome only to end up being brutally murdered himself a few years later by group of senatorial conspirators seeking to defend the Republic. Caesar received his fatal wounds at a meeting of the Senate in the theatre that Pompey had built. Ironically, so the sources tell us, he died beneath a statue of Pompey, perhaps the very one that served as the model for the bust in the Glyptotek.

Photos of the bust are widely reproduced and I’ve seen them countless times over the years in textbooks and lectures; I once had a job where there was a full-sized copy of the bust on the shelf in my office. There was then some peculiar satisfaction in seeing it up close for real. The most striking thing about seeing the sculpture in the museum was the way that it is displayed together with twelve other busts of men and women said to have been found in the so-called Tomb of the Licinii, an aristocratic Roman family.

The tomb (if it really existed – see below!) was in use for many generations and the family decorated the tomb with representations of themselves and their illustrious ancestors. Pompey was one of the most famous of these. Seen in isolation, as it is typically shown in books, it is easy to forget the context in which the bust was originally displayed. Assuming the bust has been identified correctly (again, see below!) it is interesting to think about how ancestry was so important to noble Roman dynasties living under the Empire and how sculpture was used to advertise dynastic links. It is particularly striking to think of how this family could draw such pride from their familial links to Pompey, a man who once been the figurehead for Republican resistance to tyranny, when they lived at a time when the system of one-man-rule had become firmly established in Rome. On grounds of carving technique the bust has been dated to between 30-50 AD, so a good century or so after Pompey died and sometime in the reign of the emperors Tiberius, Caligula or Claudius.

The bust of Pompey in among the others found in the Licinian Tomb

The thing that’s prompted me to choose this item as the first of my Glyptotek blog posts, however, is not simply that it made an impression but because the week after seeing it I was sitting in the meeting room of my department at Aarhus University, scanning the bookshelves when I caught sight of a book with the title “The Licinian Tomb: Fact or Fiction”.* It seemed that perhaps all was not as it seemed with the Licinian Tomb. Intrigued, I took the book down and began to browse….

The bust ended up in Denmark in the late 19th century when it was acquired, together with the other twelve, for the Danish collector Carl Jacobsen by a German archaeologist Wolfgang Helbig, who was based in Rome. Seven sarcophagi from the tomb ended up at the same time in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore. Carl Jacobsen’s father had founded the Carlsberg brewery and Jacobsen’s collection forms the heart of the collection of the museum that still bears the name of the beer. It turns out, however, that a cloud of doubt hangs over whether the busts all came from the tomb at all. There is no concrete documentation to prove where the sculpture came from and Helbig is known to have not always acted scrupulously in acquiring objects for collectors. The puzzle of the sculptures’ origins was the mystery that a group of Danish scholars set out to explore in the book I had in my hands.

I only had time to browse the book and have now added it to my ever-growing and increasingly unachievable list of things I’d like to read properly but the authors seemed to conclude that there is nothing to securely tie the sculptures to the tomb after all. There’s a good review of the book in the online journal Bryn Mawr Classical Review in which the reviewer argues that the evidence is such that it the matter cannot be settled decisively but that there’s still every possibility that the sculpture’s reported findspot is genuine after all. The controversy will no doubt continue and may never be resolved.

I did manage to read a short section on the bust of Pompey, which caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, it turns out- surprisingly since it is hard to find a book or website that talks about Pompey without a picture of the sculpture as an illustration – that the grounds for identifying it as him are rather more flimsy that I would have thought. There are basically three reasons: (i) it bears a striking resemblance to his portrait on coins, (ii) the fringe of the sculpture is brushed back in a manner that resembles portraits of Alexander the Great; Plutarch, who wrote in the late first century AD and had seen statues of Pompey, tells us that Pompey wore his hair like Alexander. Pompey’s nickname, Magnus, “the Great”, was also taken in emulation of his hero and (iii) the known familial connection with the Licinii. Point three, of course, cannot be taken as conclusive since we don’t know for sure where the bust came from; and as for point two I’ve always thought that the fringe of the Pompey bust looks distinctly unimpressive compared to the lion’s mane effect of Alexander’s portraits (see the picture below). As for point one I’m no numismatist and I don’t know the coin portraits of Pompey but I’m not sure I’m completely convinced that matching rather crude relief images in profile on the backs of coins to much more detailed sculpture in the round can ever be a fool proof way of identifying statues. Still, since no expert has ever challenged the identification let us accept that it really is Pompey.

Portrait of Alexander the Great. Said to be the inspiration for Pompey’s hairstyle

Something that I found even more striking in the book chapter was a truly bizarre assessment of the sculpture by Helbig that it quoted in full. It is impossible to imagine anyone writing something like this today:

Normally good portraits supplement the idea we have formed of famous persons from the historical tradition. For the memory of Pompey it would certainly have been preferable that his portrait had remained unknown, because it confirms and completes in an evident way the unfavourable judgement of him pronounced by modern critics. Even the condemnation thrown upon him by Mommsen seems too mild before this head.

The broad but low forehead indicates a mediocre intelligence. His weakness in character is not only revealed by the softness of the face, but also in the small eyes which look out in an insecure and, in fact, nearly embarrassed way. It is easy to understand from this look that Pompey, in civil life, was very shy and blushed when he was faced with a crowd. The skin of his forehead raised together with the eyelids and crossed by three deep furrows is especially significant. May people move the skin of the forehead in this way, when they think, If this movement is fixated in marble we may suppose that this, in the face of Pompey, was something usual, and deduct that he pondered and reflected a lot and therefore had difficulty reaching a decision…the head presents a true philistine, not particularly good, and not particularly bad, of mediocre intelligence, weak character and whose most conspicuous quality is vanity.

Helbig was clearly not a man who held any store by the King Duncan’s famous maxim in Macbeth: “There’s no art to find the man’s construction in the face”. For Helbig Pompey’s face was an open book in which it was easy to read weakness of character, stupidity, insecurity, embarrassment, indecision, a lack of culture, and vanity! And this single image of Pompey was enough to count against all the literary evidence we have of Pompey’s vast achievements – tremendous military victories, ridding the eastern Mediterranean of pirates, giving Caesar a good run for his money. Just imagine a defendant in a criminal trial faced with a juror like Helbig!

But even if our real faces were as reliable a guide to our character as Helbig believed it is even stranger that he talks as if he had actually seen Pompey’s face and not merely a stone likeness of it. Nowadays scholars of sculpture are well attuned to the nuanced  choices that Roman patrons faced in deciding what their statues should look like. They could draw on a history of Greek portraiture stretching back half a millennium and which included styles ranging from Classical idealism to psychological realism to baroque emotional intensity.

A prime example of verism in Roman portraiture

Even the, to our eyes, grotesquely realistic portraits, which were popular among the Romans from around the middle of the second century BC represents a choice to accentuate particular qualities of the individual. The art historical name for this style is ‘veristic’ after the Latin word ‘verus’ which means ‘true’ (think of the English words ‘verity’ or ‘verily’). Yet we have no way of knowing just how true to life such portraits really were. We might think that these sculptures must show their patrons as they really looked simply because they are so unflattering, and it certainly is possible that there was an aspect of vanity to the style with Roman patrons wanting their statues to be accurate likenesses, but at the same time we can never rule out that the features we assume to have been taken from life, even if we find them ugly, might not have been deliberate distortions introduced by patrons or artists to create a desired effect.

Deeply wrinkled brows, unshapely noses and squinting eyes served to advertise age, experience and a rugged militarism, thereby emphasising that the men portrayed in this way had accrued a certain authority, influence and gravitas. Pompey’s bust with its podgy cheeks, squinting eyes and bulbous nose has more than a few hints of the veristic style about it. So, strange as it might seem to us, the features that Helbig so despised in Pompey’s portrait might have been deliberately insisted on by Pompey to convey a particular effect.

Nowadays nobody would try to use the statue as evidence for Pompey’s character. Rather we would take it as evidence for how Pompey wished to be portrayed, think about the choices he could have made and discuss why he wanted to look like this. From a historical point of view these are surely far more interesting questions.

As I stood before the bust in the gallery of the Glytpotek I will admit, however, that, just for a moment, I did allow myself to indulge the fantasy that I really was standing face-to-face, not with a lump of cold marble but with Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus himself. Unlike when Helbig had held the bust over a century ago Pompey stared vacantly back at me, giving not the slightest twitch of expression to hint at what kind of man he really was.



* Kragelund, P., Moltesen, M., & Østergaard, J. S. (2003). The Licinian tomb: fact or fiction? (No. 5). Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek

Why take photos in museums?

Last week I finally managed to visit Copenhagen for the first time. I didn’t have much time to experience the city – though I really liked what I saw of it – because I only had two days and was determined to squeeze in as much museum time as possible. The plan was to visit the Ny Carslberg Glytpotek (how many times have I seen that name in a picture credit below a photo of an ancient statue?), the National Museum of Denmark and the Thorvaldsen Museum. This was a lot to do in so short a visit and by the second afternoon I was feeling a bit museum fatigued as I drifted through the National Museum’s medieval galleries without the patience to read any of the labels. But I saw a great deal and found plenty of things that gave me food for thought (which is always good). One of the only disappointments is that I’d really been looking forward to seeing the famous statue of Demosthenes in the Glyptotek but could only see it from a distance because the room was closed for repainting. At least it didn’t yet have a plastic bag over it!

The statue of Demosthenes in the Glyptotek

As I always do when I visit museums with ancient sculpture I left with an enormous number of photos on the memory card of my camera – well over 400. With my last blog post I failed miserably– as I usually do – to keep things brief (I’m always reminded of whoever it was that said “I apologies for sending you a long letter. I didn’t have time to write you a short one”. Who was that?) So I’ve promised myself to now write a series of short posts with some thoughts about some of the things I photographed, partly to do something with those ideas while they’re still fresh in my mind, partly I suppose to justify taking so many photos.

I suppose there are three main reasons why I take so many photos. The first is to remind me of things I’ve seen that I find interesting. And since so many statues and other objects display features that in some way depart from the norm, prompt comparisons with other things I’ve seen elsewhere or make me think of questions about ancient society that I realise I’ve never given much thought – that means that I end up taking an awful lot of photos. The other reason is that I like having a big catalogue of images that I can draw on for my teaching so I’m not dependent on using the standard examples that are readily available on the internet. The third reason, in the case of statues, is that the medium itself invites taking large number of pictures because of the infinite angles and perspectives from which sculpture in the round can be viewed. Taking multiple photos, even of well known pieces, means getting away from the standard full-frontal view typically reproduced in text books (an idea that I know generated a lot of interest recently on Twitter with the #reversenotobverse hashtag started by Sarah Bond) and, I feel at least, can help to get a sense of how ancient viewers might have experienced these objects.

Going around taking all these photos I was reminded of my last really intensive museum trip when I visited Italy two years ago and how then I’d found myself getting a little bit irritated and rather perplexed by the extent to which other people were taking photos and by the types of photos they were taking.

Firstly there were all the people posing for other people to take their photos or taking selfies beside all the most famous works of art. I will never forget the mother and daughter I saw going around the Capitoline Museum seemingly taking it in turns to compete to strike the most Vogue-like pose in front of each and every statue, not reading a single label, not even looking at the sculpture itself. I’ve never posted a selfie to social media and I’ve only ever taken a handful and then as a joke but I’ve got absolutely nothing against people wanting mementos of seeing famous works of art to show their friends and family. I certainly am not a fan of the Greek policy of not allowing photos of people next to museum objects because it is seen as a sign of ‘disrespecting the antiquities’. What I just don’t understand however is taking a photo of yourself posing beside something that you haven’t even bothered to look at.

Two occasions have made a lasting impression on me in that respect – the first in Naples, the second in the National Gallery in London when I saw people march into a room, snap a photo of a friend in front of the Alexander Mosaic and Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks and then march straight out again barely even glancing at the works in question. Now to be fair I might have been jumping to conclusions. These people might have spent hours of their lives standing entranced before these masterpieces and simply made a quick return visit because they’d forgotten to get a photo before. My suspicion, however, is that this is simply a case that they’d read in the guidebook that these were the must-see works of art and it was just a case of getting proof of been there, done that.

Caravaggio’s ‘John the Baptist’ (Musei Capitolini, Rome) – Source Wikipedia

An occasion that I found even more bizarre – and a good deal more frustrating – occurred in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. I had read in my own guidebook that one of the most famous baroque paintings in the collection was Carravagio’s John the Baptist.  When I got to the canvas I found myself waiting for a good five minutes to be able to take a proper look at it because someone was struggling to capture the perfect shot of it on their phone. They must have tried at least ten times to get it quite right and I don’t know how long they’d been there before I got there. Of course it’s going to be impossible to take a good photo of a painting in those conditions – the angle will never be perfect, the lighting is going to be next to useless, to say nothing of the quality of the camera itself. There’s also far less point than there is with a piece of sculpture because only a perfect full on frontal shot is going to do the work justice.

More than anything, the reason it seems pointless to me to photograph paintings is that almost any work of art that you see in a museum is going to have been photographed professionally already and you are going to be able to find a copy on the internet in perfect high definition. The excellent photo of Carravagio’s painting shown here is in the public domain on Wikipedia but there are plenty of other reproductions online and an extremely high definition one in Google Art that is under copyright. I’m sure they also sold postcards and posters of it in the museum shop. What can possibly be the point of having a second rate photo that you took yourself of something that is readily available at your fingertips in detail so crisp that you can zoom in and literally see the cracks in the paint? At least with a selfie you’re going to get an image that no one else has!

Maybe as I snapped my way around the Glyptothek or Thorvaldsen museum there were other visitors supressing irritation and asking themselves “Why’s he taking so many photos?” but I think at least I didn’t get in anybody’s way too much and I did at least spend time actually looking at the things I was photographing.

Since I realise I’m in danger of sounding like I’m auditioning for an episode of “Grumpy Old Men” and since I’ve again gone over the word limit I set myself on starting this piece I’ll leave it here. Over the next few posts you’ll be able to judge for yourself whether at least some of my reasons for taking photos were good ones. And I really will do my best to keep things short.