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Boshell Foundation Virtual Lecture: Color in Ancient Mediterranean Sculpture

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Ancient Etruscan

When first created, ancient Greek, Etruscan, and Roman sculptures did not look the way that we see them in museums today. Their surfaces—now mostly plain marble—were instead enriched by layers of paint. Polychromy, a term derived from the Greek for “many colors,” refers to the application of this paint, which ancient viewers believed enhanced the significance and beauty of the work. Like form, color was one of the most important elements of ancient sculpture.

In most cases, only microscopic traces of the ancient paint survive, making it difficult to reconstruct the original appearance of these sculptures. As a result, it is important to separate evidence from speculation in our interpretations of polychromy on ancient sculptures. Thanks to modern technology, research into ancient literary sources, and comparison to works in a variety of media, conservators, scientists, and art historians have been uncovering more of the complexity of painting techniques in ancient art. Beyond attempting to understand ancient color, this research can also enhance our knowledge in other areas, including how ancient Mediterranean peoples represented themselves, their heroes, and their gods through painted sculpture.

This program features the insights of Mark Abbe, an expert on ancient polychromy, and curator Katharine Raff and conservation scientist Giovanni Verri, who will reveal findings of their recent research into the polychromy of works in the museum’s collection.

About the Speakers

Abbe Mark 2021

Mark Abbe received his MA in history of art and archaeology (2007) and PhD in Greek and Roman Art and Archaeology (2013) from New York University, Institute of Fine Arts, as well as an Advanced Certificate in the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (2007).

Abbe teaches a full complement of undergraduate and graduate courses on ancient art history. A specialist in Greek and Roman antiquity, he approaches works of art as expressions of culture that are best explained by situating them within their historical, social, and philosophical contexts. In addition to extensive archaeological fieldwork in the Mediterranean (Italy, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt), he has professional training in art conservation and the scientific investigation of works of art. He has received research fellowships from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, the Leon Levy Foundation, the American School of Classical Studies, and the American Research Institute in Turkey. A specialist in the study of color in antiquity, his principal areas of current research are Greek and Roman marble sculpture, particularly issues related to their ancient coloration and polychromy, and the digital visualization of historic materials.

He is the founder of the multidisciplinary Ancient Polychromy Network at the University of Georgia and is associated faculty in the Department of Classics.

Raff Headshot Large File March 2019

Katharine Raff is the Elizabeth McIlvaine Associate Curator of the Arts of the Ancient Mediterranean and Byzantium. She holds a PhD in the History of Art from the University of Michigan (2011), where she also earned her MA in the History of Art (2006) and Museum Studies Certificate (2008). While Raff’s primary research interests center on the arts of the Roman world, she has also worked broadly on topics pertaining to the museum’s holdings in Greek, Etruscan, and Byzantine art.

Since joining the department in 2011, Raff has played a significant role in a number of major departmental projects, including the comprehensive reinstallation of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art in 2011-12, as well as exhibitions and installations including A Portrait of Antinous, in Two Parts (2016) and Collecting Stories (2019). Raff also served as the general editor and primary curatorial author of Roman Art at the Art Institute of Chicago (2017), an online scholarly catalogue featuring original art historical and technical research on 165 Roman artworks in the collection, including marble sculptures, coins, glass, mosaics, jewelry, architectural reliefs, and mummy portraits.

In her role as curator, Raff values the opportunity to uncover new storytelling possibilities through the dynamic reconsideration of the collection, finding engaging and innovative ways to make the arts and cultures of the ancient Mediterranean world relevant and accessible to contemporary audiences.

Verri Headshot

Since 2019, Giovanni Verri has been a conservation scientist in the Department of Conservation and Science. He holds a PhD in physics from the University of Ferrara, Italy, and MA in conservation of wall paintings from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London, UK. His research interests include the development and application of investigative techniques for the analysis of color. In 2007, he developed an imaging technique called visible-induced luminescence imaging, through which it is possible to map the presence of Egyptian blue, a very commonly used blue pigment in antiquity, even when otherwise invisible to the naked eye. This has led to interesting discoveries about the use of color in antiquity and beyond, including how blue was used in the skin tones of the mummy portraits at the Art Institute.

Please note that all event times listed are in central time.

We recommend using a laptop or desktop computer, and downloading the latest version of Zoom to enjoy this program. You can submit questions for the speakers in advance or during the program using the Google Form below.

If you have any questions about virtual programming, please reach out to museum-programs@artic.edu.

Closed captioning will be available for this program. For questions related to accessibility accommodations, please email access@artic.edu

This lecture is generously sponsored by the Boshell Family Foundation.

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