26 February 2015

My mind, of course, immediately turned to Ovid X, to the account of Pygmalion and his  ... er ... adventures. Here, also, one finds the emphasis on the whiteness (niveum ebur) of the girl-statue. And, here again, the whiteness is changed only when she blushes (erubuit). At no point is Pygmalion's sculpting or its aftermath described as being interrupted to allow the artists to come trotting in with their pigments and to paint the skin-tones. (And cf Lavinia's blush at Vergil XII 64-69.)

At this point, readers will be wondering if there is any evidence that the chryselephantine statues of Athene Promakhos and Zeus Olympios had their ivory bits delicately tinted ... so am I ...

But stay! A later paper by Clarissa Blume (Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum) tells us that "There is moreover diverse evidence that the areas of skin could have been left marble white and simply given a coating of wax ... there are individual statues the painting of which in its entirety is so well preserved (i.e. there are traces of colour on every detail) that the absence of colour traces on the skin areas is striking. ... The group of statues known, or believed with good reason, to have had marble white skin is still relatively small. One can therefore only speculate what purpose was associated with such a rendering of the skin. Based upon comparanda as well as upon ancient literary sources, it may be assumed that marble white and thus an extremely white skin was meant to emphasise the beauty of the subject." Indeed.

An interesting example, all this, of how texts and artefacts can throw light upon each other (as Zanker showed in his work on the Image of Augustus). You will remember the seduction of Venus by her husband Vulcanus in Vergil VIII "dixerat et niveis hinc atque hinc diva lacertis/ cunctantem amplexu molli fovet. Ille repente/ accepit solitam flammam ..." (worthy of Callimachus, isn't it, that witticism about catching fire from snow). Browsing through niveus/candidus/lacteus/albus in the TLL is informative. In rather bathetic terms, one might observe that in a society which saw the house as the proper zone of the female, very pale skin would be a sexual distinguisher, and that, the higher the social class of the female, the more true this would be. So that in the case of Goddesses ...
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ADDENDUM Timothy Mowl in his William Kent (p242) says, regarding the multitudinous pieces of naked statuary in the gardens at Rousham, "It should be remembered with dismay that in its naughty heyday virtually every statue at Rousham was painted in natural flesh colours. The effect would have been of a Madame Tussaud's gone nudist ...". Mowl's discussion of Rousham acknowledges debts to a thesis by Professor Susan Gordon, The Iconography and Mythology of the Eighteenth Century English Landscape Garden, unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Bristol, 1999, a version of which may be on the Internet. If it is, I'd be grateful for a link.


3 comments:

IanW said...

Thank you, Fr., for your apt and timely instruction.

√Čamonn said...

The thesis you mention is available from the EThOS.bl.uk site maintained by the British Library. Registration is obligatory but once completed allows you to download the thesis free of charge or pay for a print copy.

AndrewWS said...

Yes. I wandered into the exhibition in the Ashmolean last weekend more by accident than design after looking in vain for something else I had been reading about. Your blogpost immediately came to mind. The effect of those painted statues was stunning.