Grecian And Roman Colouring And Painting

THE polychromatic decoration of the Greek temples in the Classic period was a development of the earlier colour application to the buildings of primitive Greece. Many fragments of painted plaster and other evidences of colour decoration from the halls and palaces of Tiryns, Mycenæ, and Thera have been brought to light during the excavations carried out by MM. Schliemann, Dôrpfeld, and others in 1885. It has been found that not only the Megarons, or principal reception halls, but even the private apartments of the palaces had their walls, ceilings, and their floors also painted in coloured fresco. Both outer and inner walls of these buildings, whether the materials of their construction were of wood, stone, or of sun-dried clay, had their surfaces covered with a coating of clay over which a finer coating of plaster was laid, on which, especially in the case of the interior walls, the coloured decoration was executed in fresco, that is, while the plaster was still in a wet or damp state. On the exterior, and sometimes on the interior walls and floors the plaster was coloured in the body before it was applied, and this was laid on some-times in alternating bands of different colours, and sometimes in very large areas of single tints.

The floor decoration consists usually of carpet-like patterns of linear ornamentation.

The colours used in the fresco decorations did not exceed five in number, namely, white, black or dark brown, blue, red, and yellow. The blue is of a bright hue, the red of a chalky kind, but of two distinct shades, light and very dark, the lighter shade being used for grounds and the darker for the ornamental patterns. In addition to the gay fresco tints employed by the primitive Grecian house painter, the structural decoration of the Mycenaean and Tirynthian palaces was rendered more complete by the aid of different coloured woods, gold, silver, electrum, and bronze metals, limestone, green schist, porphyry, and alabaster, as well as a vitrified blue paste, all of which materials have been used in the decorations of the palaces, as testified by the fragments and remains that have been found in the ruins of the edifices. Though the decorator employed his colour chiefly on the plastered surfaces, he did not hesitate to paint in colour the limestone, or the wooden parts of the structure, if he found it necessary in order to harmonize such parts with the brighter colouring of the frescoed work. The portions that appeared white in the wall decorations were the untouched grounds of the white stucco finish, and were not painted in a solid body ; some greenish tints have been found on the painted plaster fragments, but these have been due to the exposure of the original blue and yellow colours to the action of damp, for no genuine green has been found on the archaic fragments.

The forms and motives of the painted ornamentation used by the primitive Greeks were few, and of a simple character, most of which, though having distinctive features of their own, were more or less derived from the types of ornament commonly found in Egyptian and Assyrian art. Volutes, spirals, chevrons, rosettes, or daisies formed the staple kind of their ornament, and all thèse were arranged in bands, or in diapers. Plant and shell-fish forms were also used, and sometimes figures, animals, and other designs of fanciful creation, crudely drawn, but painted with considerable directness of execution. The more geometric varieties of ornament, however, were used with greater frequency, of which spirals and rosettes appeared in endless repetition.

The use of a coloured and decorated dado and the division of the walls above into panels, with surrounding borders or bands of colour, was common in the wall treatment of the early Grecian interiors, and this system of decorative colour application may be regarded as the origin of the more elaborated, but similar method of setting out by subdivisions the whole field of the walls into dadoes, panels, and friezes. This system of space-divisions was followed out in later times in the interiors of the Greco-Roman houses, the best examples of which are those of the Pompeian and Herculaneum wall decorations. Not only were the panelled spaces, borders, bands, and fillets painted in strong tints of contrasting colours, but the superimposed decoration on these divisions was equally treated in the brightest colours at the command of the Mycenaean decorator. Our know-ledge of the primitive Greek polychromy has been further enriched by the discoveries made by Dr. A. J. Evans, who with Dr. D. Mackenzie and Mr. Theodore Fyfe, the architect, excavated the ancient palace of Knossus, in Crete, in the years 1900-1902, where they found many remains of fresco decorations, consisting of fragments of painted plaster. In the entrance corridor of the palace were found the remains of a great processional wall painting, where figures of men were represented, dressed in long robes, and of boys, or youths, carrying vases of tribute, etc. One fine example of a male figure, painted life-size in fresco, was part of the internal decoration of the Propylæum. Other subjects were, wingless griffins with peacock’s plumes, also remains of frescoes showing zones of figures, and others showing groups of warriors, male and female figures engaged in lively conversation. In addition to the remains of the important figure work there were found many examples of purely ornamental designs, composed of running bands of spiral, ornament, rosettes, interlaced fret patterns, chevrons, tooth-ornament, and triglyph motives on painted plaster. Fragments of ceiling decoration in modelled and coloured plaster were also found, consisting of the spiral and rosette ornamentation, all of which motives, both in design and colouring, bore a strong family likeness to those of the Mycenæan palace decorations.

Apart from the love and lavish use of brilliant colours, which characterized the primitive Greeks, in common with the people of all sunlit countries, both in their dress and decoration of their houses, it may be mentioned that they used paint also as a protective covering to wood and plaster, when the former was not sheathed in plates of bronze.

This protective paint, which was most likely a wax composition diluted with naphtha and applied with the brush, was used extensively on the wooden entablatures and other parts of the Mycenaean palaces and houses, the wooden architecture of which was the prototype of the later Greek Doric. The colours on the exteriors of the wooden edifices were therefore used in two senses, namely, to preserve the wood from the weather, and to please the eye by their strong colour harmonies. The most positive hues at the command of the decorator were used, for rarely, if ever, has there been found among the fragments of coloured decoration any examples or arrangements which could be described as low-toned, or subordinate schemes of colour harmony. This practical and at the same time artistic use of colour on the wooden entablatures of the Mycenaean structures was never lost sight of by the architects of the Doric temples, when subsequently stone took the place of wood as a building material. We shall find that the ” protective ” painted decoration of the wooden structures was copied more or less faithfully on the later stone buildings, just as the original wooden construction was copied in stone ; and when in the later Classic period the Doric temple of the Parthenon was reared as a sublime structure of white and glistening marble, its severe beauty was enhanced by the discreet use of a veil of traditional colouring, not sufficient to obscure, but on the other hand, just enough to make clear and intensify the manifold charms of its proportion, constructive features, and the more delicate beauties of its carved decorations.

Remains of colour have been found on mouldings, entablatures, and other parts of many of the earlier Doric temples at Selinous, AEgina, and Poestum, as well as on the Propylaea and Parthenon at Athens. Traces of colouring, though in a lesser degree, have been found on the ruined edifices of the Ionic order, on such temples as those of Halicarnassus, Priene, Didyme, Ephesus, and Athens. We are indebted to the researches and examinations made in the light of this matter by Hittorf, F. C. Penrose, Maxime Collignon, O. Rayet, Newton, and others, who have given much attention to the subject of Greek polychromy, and from the result of their labours we are enabled to glean much valuable information, which will enable us to trace with some clearness the development of Greek colouring.

The colours used by the Greeks on their edifices were prepared in a wax medium and known as ” encaustic, so called because that in order to make them flow evenly under the brush, or spatula, heat had to be applied, or when painted on the warm marble or stone the hot sunshine would melt the mixture quite as effectively as any application of artificial heat. Encaustic or wax-painting will be more fully treated in a separate chapter in this volume. The great advantage of using encaustic colours consisted in the pigments being rendered waterproof, and also the natural hue of each pigment would be extremely lasting, as it would be locked up in the wax medium and there-fore well protected from the bleaching effects of the sunshine and atmosphere. It is owing to this wax medium, and also to the circumstance that the Greeks usually carved, or incised, their patterns before painting them, that any traces of colour have remained on the edifices through the past ages to the present day. On many parts of the structures the delicate incised lines of the patterns, and the good preservation of the marble underneath the spaces, formerly occupied by the decoration, were the proofs, clear enough, that on such places the encaustic paint had been applied shortly after the building had been finished.

About the time of Pisistrates (circa 500 B.C.), the columns of the temples appeared to have been painted a pale yellowish transparent colour, which was spread over the stucco covering of the stone, and Penrose, in The Principles of Athenian Architecture, says that although it is a matter of conjecture how far the plain surfaces of the corona, architrave, and columns of the Parthenon were painted in flat colours, still he found that the columns of the west front had been coated with a peculiar yellow tint which was not the result of the oxidation of iron contained in the Pentelic marble, and that this slight yellow tint was probably applied to reduce the high light of the marble when it was new, without obscuring its crystalline lustre, but to bring it into harmony with the brighter colours introduced elsewhere on the building. It is not known whether the general practice was to colour the capital, but M. Collignon mentions the case of the palmate leaf decoration, which must have originally existed on the capitals of the portico columns of the temple at Poestum, where the salient painted portions were in a good state of preservation, while the unpainted portions had been decayed and corroded by the action of the wind from the sea.

From the traces of colouring found on the Doric temple of AEphaia at AEgina, it has been proved that the architrave was painted red, of a uniform tint. This served as a ground for the gilded shields on which votive inscriptions were placed and executed in metallic letters. Above the architrave the frieze presented an alternation of triglyphs and metopes, the former being painted blue, while the ground of the sculptured metopes was red, which relieved the sculptured decoration, the latter being left the natural marble colour, only that the accessories of the figures were in gilded bronze. The mutules of the cornice were painted blue. The tympanum of the pediment was also blue, serving as a background to the sculptures, which were possibly tinted a pale yellow. The surrounding mouldings were decorated with leaf patterns in red and green, or red and blue, and the gutter, or crowning member, received a similar treatment of lively colouring. We have here an idea of the archaic polychromy with its positive tones, which was in accordance with the colour system of the primitive Greeks, and also in perfect harmony with the austere lines of the old Doric order.

When the proportions of the temple became more elegant, when marble was substituted for the commoner stone, and the work accordingly demanded more finish, the colours were used more sparingly.

As regards the colouring of the Parthenon, Penrose found faint traces of red, blue, and green on the ogee, hawksbeak, and on some fillet mouldings. The hawksbeak moulding and the decoration on it, which is found in Doric architecture, are borrowed from the Egyptians. The great simplicity of the broad Doric mouldings was no doubt an intentional feature in their design, for the purpose of receiving the finished colour decorations. On the edges, and soffits of the mutules of the Parthenon traces of a deep blue colour were found, while the soffits and vertical spaces between the mutules were painted red ; this colour also extended to the narrow fillet underneath the mutules. The soffit of the cornice at each angle of the building was in each case adorned with painted honeysuckle ornamentation. Positive traces of a well-preserved deep blue colour were found inside the channels of the triglyphs, and other but fainter traces of the same colour on the face above the triglyphs. A capital of one of the northern antae has preserved some traces of colour, a restoration of which, according to Penrose, is given in his work on Athenian Architecture. No authority for the gilding has been found in this case, but it has been introduced in this illustration by Penrose, as it must have been necessary in order to give the required harmony, and we know from the mention made of gilding in decoration by the Greek authors that it must have been used on the Parthenon, as on other Greek temples. Some authorities are inclined to the belief that the background of the sculptured Panathenaic frieze was painted blue, but there is no positive evidence of this.

Many fragments of the ceiling of the Propylæa at Athens have been found, on which distinct vestiges of colouring still remained ; the blues, especially in some cases, were quite positive, red, and bright green were also common colours. It will be remembered that a decided green was in common use in the Classic period (a colour that was unknown to the decorators of Archaic times), and was probably derived from a copper base. All the colours used in Classic Greece were much brighter, and more positive in hue than those of the Archaic period.

The soffits of the coffered panels in the ceiling of the Propylæa were ornamented, with stars and conventional flowers in various colours. The plinth of the central hall is composed of black marble, and the wall above is white, on which subject paintings may have been executed, but if they ever did exist, no traces have been found of such. Analogous colouring to the Athenian methods has been found on the Lycian tombs and on some marbles from Lycia, now in the British Museum.

The Grecian Ionic order of architecture had also its proper scheme of colour decoration. This order above all demanded a discreet and refined polychromy. We can understand that the delicate leaf ribs of those exquisite marble carvings which run like lace around the neck of the capitals and under the voluted abacus would be obliterated under a coating of paint. Colour was therefore sparingly applied to underline them, in order to give them their proper value on the whiteness of the marble that would be inundated with the bright sunshine. The colours used here, as in the Doric order, were lively tones of red and blue to which was added the lustre of the gilding. That gold leaf was used by the Greeks in the decoration of their buildings is proved by an inscription of the 92nd Olympiad, about 410 B.C., relating to the building accounts and expenses of the Ereetheion, where mention is made of ” a hundred and seventy leaves of gold, one drachm to the leaf,” which were used to gild the eyes of the volutes of the capitals, and the floral designs on the ceiling coffers. .

We must be mindful that here, in the Ionic order, as in the Doric, the colouring was not an absolute system, but was determined in accordance with the variations of taste, and the traditions of the Schools. From examinations that have been made of the ruined Ionic edifices of Priene, of Didyme, of Ephesus, of Halicarnassus, and of Athens we can form an idea of the measure of polychromy that is associated with the Ionic order. Two colours, above all others, red and blue, have been in common use, the first was reserved for the backgrounds and parts in shade, to which it gave value by its intense tint ; sometimes red was also employed to underline the darts between the eggs on the carved ovolo moulding, and those also on the rais de coeur, or ogee moulding. Blue was applied to the surfaces that were more in light, as on the eggs of the ovolo moulding, which showed in full light, while the more salient lines and edges were left white. By this colour treatment a harmony was obtained that was at once discreet and gay ; the shaded parts of the hollows warm and transparent, the blues softened by the bright sunshine, while the fine and delicate carving of the more prominent edges and outlines conserved in all its purity the whiteness of the marble.

The acquired knowledge of Greek polychromy up to the present, clearly proves that it conforms to the severe requirements and taste of the Greek genius, so contrary to our modern tastes and prejudices as to the division of the arts, for it shows to what point in the mind of the Greeks the arts blended in the finished building. If we are inclined to think that the Greek colouring was too strong, or too barbarous, we must not forget that it was the conditions of the climate which rendered such colouring necessary. A uniformly white building in the glare of the sunshine would not only be blinding to the sight, but all the delicate carvings would be monotonous or would hardly be seen if they had not been relieved, or brought out by the aid of colour. Generally speaking the mouldings in the Doric order were decorated with painted ornament, while those of the Ionic were carved, so that in the latter case the colour was used in a more discreet and re-strained sense. Colour was seldom employed on buildings of the Corinthian order.

Although no remains of Greek painting have been found either on the interior walls of the temples, or in private houses, yet there is evidence enough from the historians’ accounts that the Greeks practised the art of painting on walls, panels and canvases, and the names have come down to us of such Greek painters as Apollodorus of Athens, Zeuxis, Parrhasius, the founder of the Ionic School, and Eupompus, who with Pamphilus founded the Sicyonian school. The latter school was brought to its climax of perfection by Apelles, who was Court painter to Alexander the Great. Apelles painted decorative pictures for the Temple of AEsculapius, in the isle of Cos, and for the Temple of Diana, at Ephesus, as well as many other portable pictures, the greatest of which was his celebrated picture of Venus Anadyomene.

Polygnotus of Thasos was another celebrated painter, who decorated the public porticoes of Greece with subjects illustrating the Trojan wars. He was first trained as a sculptor, a training which helped him considerably as a designer of monumental painting, for he was essentially a great decorator of wall spaces. He was noted for his ” disposition of delicate drapery,” and it is related that he placed his figures, especially in the more distant parts of his compositions, in rows over each other, with no attempt at perspective. Polygnotus was a great favourite with the Athenians, and winning their confidence and respect he was entrusted with the work of decorating many of the new temples which were erected in Greece immediately after the end of the Persian wars—449 B.C.—when Greece ” rose up in beauty from the ashes of the Persian fires.”

Apollodorus, who flourished in the latter half of the fifth century B.C., was, according to Pliny, the first painter who painted easel pictures, and is also credited with the invention of light and shade. Timanthes, a contemporary and rival of Parrhasius, painted the ” Sacrifice of Iphigenia,” a copy of which was found on a wall at Pompeii. Pausius is mentioned as the first encaustic painter, and was also noted for the foreshortening of his figures. Nikias was a painter who was employed by Praxiteles, the sculptor, to colour his statues, and has been named by Overbeck as one of the Greek artists whose original works were often copied on the walls of the interiors at Pompeii. Protogenes, Aëtion, Euphranor, Timonachus, and Theon are the names of other notable Greek artists whose works have been freely copied in the wall decorations at Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Besides the paintings found in the houses of these two provincial outposts of Greek civilization a few other examples may be mentioned, which were executed about this period, and which are either of Greek workmanship or influence, namely : the pictures in the garden of the Villa Farnesina, which represent scenes from the Odyssey, the landscape, with birds, of Livia’s Villa at Prima Porta, the ” Aldobrandini Marriage ” on the Esquiline, the pictures in the house on the Palatine, the painted tombs at Poestum and Etruria, and the important ceiling decorations of the Baths of Titus. The vase paintings and those on the Corinthian pinakes afford further proof that the Greeks were consummate masters of the arts of design and painting, as they were equally so in sculpture and architecture. The Greek wall-paintings were quite likely to have been as definite and clear in their composition as their relief sculpture and their vase painting, for confusion and vagueness were foreign to the Greek artist’s mind. A small collection of Greek pictures in the Museo Borbonico, in Naples, are good in drawing and composition, beautiful in colour and definite in the precision of their execution. These pictures are small, but they enable us to form a good estimate of what the larger decorative wall paintings must have been like.

The Greek authors when speaking of painting only mention the large paintings that were executed on the walls of public buildings, and a few of the portable or easel pictures. We have little or no evidence as to the general colour schemes of the important edifices, or the character of the ornamental painted decoration, but fortunately we can judge from that which has been preserved in the interiors of Pompeii and Herculaneum how the Greek interiors must have had also their elaborate schemes of coloured decoration which embraced the representation of figure subjects, ornamental, and landscape compositions.

The artists of Pompeii and other Roman cities formed themselves into guilds, and the master, or chief artist, of each guild was a Greek, who was responsible for the design of the work, and who executed the more important parts. It is well known that many of the designs for the wall paintings were copies of Greek examples, although the greater part of the grotesques, arabesques, and other ornamental details are quite likely to have been the work of the native Italian assistants. In connection with this kind of decoration it is interesting to note that the painter Antiphilus of Egypt is credited by Pliny as the originator of Grylli—the grotesque combinations of animal, human and foliated forms of ornament. Pompeian art may therefore be classified as Greco-Roman. At Herculaneum four monochrome paintings were found that were signed by Alexandros of Athens.

We have already mentioned that the Pompeian method of decoration had its origin in that of the primitive interiors, as the system of dividing the wall-spaces were almost identical in both cases, only that the Pompeian decoration illustrates a more amazing wealth of idea, is richer in colour, is more elaborate in the space-divisions, and displays a greater power of artistic skill than is found in the work of the primitive Greek decorator. It is a far cry from the art of Mycenæ to that of Pompeii, but at the same time the latter is only a development of the former, and although the links between the two are missing, it is fairly proved, from what we have seen, that they must have existed in Greece during the Archaic and Classic periods of its history.

The wall spaces at Pompeii are usually divided into panels or fields, either by painted borders, lines, or bands, or by an elaborate system of painted architecture, where columns were represented of a very attenuated, but graceful appearance. These columns often carry airy and fantastical superstructures through which perspective glimpses of landscape and distant buildings are seen. Many of the enclosed panels are occupied either by single decorative figures, or by compositions or scenes, both of realistic and idealistic types, such as children playing, animals, satyrs and fauns, landscape, objects from still life, also idyllic, historical, and mythological compositions. Some of the floating, or lightly-poised female figures, clothed in delicate draperies, and also the figures of Cupids, that are painted in the centres of the panels, for charm, grace of pose, and move-ment, as well as for directness of execution in the painting, have never been equalled in decorative art. In the later period of Pompeian art the painted decoration is characterized by the increased employment of fantastic and grotesque motives, coarse in execution, bad in drawing, and garish in colour, which clearly showed that the Greek influence was waning, that the artisan had occupied the place of the artist, and finally, that the period of decadence had already set in.

Marble and mosaic were also used as decorative materials in these interiors, although in Pompeii there was an extensive employment of veined and coloured plaster, or stucco, which was made to imitate marbles. Mosaic, however, was extensively used both for the floors and for wall decoration. The mosaic pictures were wonderful examples of craftsmanship and were undoubtedly copies of Greek paintings. The well-known fragment of the great mosaic ” The Battle of Issus,” representing the victory of Alexander the Great over the Persian king, Darius, is an excellent piece of workmanship, and from all accounts is a copy of a Greek picture which the Emperor Vespasian brought to Rome. It was found in the House of the Faun, at Pompeii, in 1831, and is now in the Museum at Naples.

The colours used in painting at Pompeii were found to be of mineral extraction ; white of chalk, or lime, yellow ochre, red chalk, minium, and vermilion, as reds, blue from oxidised copper, burnt ochre for brown, and charcoal black. The greens were mixtures of blue and yellow. A rosy purple was sometimes used, which was probably derived from the sea-snail, but this was only employed as a tempera colour, or in the encaustic paintings. The decorative paintings on the larger wall spaces were executed in buon fresco, but the more important figure compositions were done in fresco-secco, or tempera, a space being left in the centre of the wall panels for these paintings which was afterwards filled in with a plaster ground, in which marble dust was mixed with the chalk or lime, so as to form a hard and firm surface for the tempera paintings. Both fresco and tempera paintings were covered with a solution of wax, or with a resinous varnish in order to fix and preserve them.

Pompeian colouring is generally bright and lively with strong contrasts. Black, white, red, blue, yellow, and green are effectively used in their full hues and in a great variety of combinations. It may be reasonably imagined that such colouring appeared garish and almost barbarous, as it certainly would in a medium light, but the Pompeian interiors were not well lighted, and this system of colouring would naturally in such situations appear much subdued, and therefore was extremely appropriate for dark interiors.

In regard to the architectural polychromy of the Ancient Roman temples and other public buildings of Ancient Italy apart from the Pompeian examples, the data we possess is very meagre. Roman art was in its inception an application of the Etruscan, to which it owed the adaptation of the round arch in architecture, but about the time of the Scipios, about 200 B.C., the Romans cultivated a taste for the Grecian forms of art, and subsequently Roman architecture became merely a mixture of Etruscan and Greek forms in its esthetic aspect ; but on the other hand it expanded on the lines of a practical materialism, which developed in accordance with the new requirements of such a powerful and progressive nation.

The designs of the Roman buildings were characterized with a magnificent impress and grandeur, which reflected the might and unlimited ambition of the Roman people. The expression of magnificence in the Greek temples was due to their beauty of style, and not to their size, for they were small in comparison with Roman buildings, but in the latter the same effects were produced by their vaster proportions and greater dimensions. The Romans used the Grecian column in some of their buildings in conjunction with the Greek entablature and pediment, but more often only as a decorative feature rather than an essential and vital element of the construction, and when the column was frankly employed as a distinctive feature, selected the more ornate Corinthian as the type of their choice, rather than the Doric or Ionic. The two latter were seldom employed by the Romans, possibly from the reason that simplicity and plainness did not appeal to the Roman mind so effectively as the wanton luxuriance of the Corinthian capital. But this capital in common with all the sculptured decoration and carving which the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, deteriorated in their hands from the original purity of style, when they sought to obtain richness of effect by overloading these architectural forms with an incrustation of heavy and lifeless ornamentation. Although this corresponded to the desire of the Romans for magnificence and splendour, we have to acknowledge that they reached a high point in construction, and in the technics of building. This was due to their skilful use and adaptation of the round arch, which became the most distinctive expression of the Roman style. Consequently we find that the two methods of construction, namely, the Grecian column and the Etruscan arch, are combined in most Roman buildings, but the round arch, from which the simple arch-vault and cross-vault are developed, is the essential element which mainly constitutes the most ingenious and original expression of Roman architecture.

The use of the arch and the various applications of semicircular and segmental lines, especially in later Roman work, led to the modification of the internal architecture, where the ceilings of many buildings were constructed on the cylindrical arch, or barrel-vault, the cross-arch, and the dome-arch. These arches were generally ornamented with sunken moulded panels, carved with ornamental decorations, sometimes in marble, and in some cases they had bronze decorations attached in the centres of the panels as in the Pantheon at Rome. In some cases the vaulted roofs were entirely painted with coloured arabesques, and with small figure medallions, but with-out having moulded panels. Among the latter may be classed the decorations of the Baths of Titus and Diocletian, and those of the palace of the Csars on the Palatine Hill, all of which were similar to the ” grotesques ” of Pompeii and Herculaneum. As regards the more important figure compositions and landscapes, that we know must have decorated the walls of the Roman buildings in the period of the Empire, we can form a good idea of their importance from three sources, namely, the Pompeian paintings, the earliest paintings from the Catacombs (which were likely to be modified copies of the motives and composition of older Roman frescoes), and from descriptions of such work as related by Pliny and other historians.