True Colors

Archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann insists his eye-popping reproductions of ancient Greek sculptures are right on target

The painted replica of a c. 490 B.C. archer (at the Parthenon in Athens) testifies to German archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann’s painstaking research into the ancient sculpture’s colors. The original statue came from the Temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aegina. (Stiftung Archäologie, Munich)
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The palette of these works, however, was not as eye-popping as that of Brinkmann's reproductions. His "Lion From Loutraki" (a copy of an original work dated circa 550 B.C., now in the sculpture collection of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen) displays a tawny pelt, blue mane, white teeth and red facial markings. That exotic archer (from the original at the Glyptothek in Munich) sports a mustard vest emblazoned with a pattern of red, blue and green beasts of prey. Underneath, he wears a pullover and matching leggings with a psychedelic zigzag design that spreads and tapers as if printed on Lycra. Unlike previously proposed color schemes, which were mostly speculative, Brinkmann's is based on painstaking research.

My own introduction to Brinkmann's work came about three years ago, when I was traveling in Europe and the image of a reproduction of a Greek tombstone in a German newspaper caught my eye. The deceased, Aristion, was depicted on the stone as a bearded warrior at the height of his prowess. He stood in profile, his skin tanned, his feet bare, decked out in a blue helmet, blue shinguards edged in yellow, and yellow armor over a filmy-looking white chiton with soft pleats, scalloped edges and a leafy-green border. His smiling lips were painted crimson.

Bemused by the image and intrigued by the text that accompanied it, I e-mailed the Glyptothek in Munich. Brinkmann himself replied promptly with an invitation for a private demonstration of his methodology. We met at the museum soon after.

Brinkmann led me first to a sculpture of a battle scene from the Temple of Aphaia (c. 490 B.C.) on the island of Aegina, one of the Glyptothek's prime attractions. Within the ensemble was the original sculpture of the kneeling Trojan archer whose colorfully painted replica Brinkmann had set up for the photo shoot on the Acropolis. Unlike most of the other warriors in the scene, the archer is fully dressed; his Scythian cap (a soft, close-fitting headdress with a distinctive, forward-curling crown) and his brightly patterned outfit indicate that he is Eastern. These and other details point to his identification as Paris, the Trojan (hence Eastern) prince whose abduction of Helen launched the Trojan War.

At Brinkmann's suggestion, I had come to the museum late in the day, when the light was low. His main piece of equipment was far from high tech: a hand-held spotlight. Under "extreme raking light" (the technical term for light that falls on a surface from the side at a very low angle), I could see faint incisions that are otherwise difficult or impossible to detect with the naked eye. On the vest of the archer, the spotlight revealed a geometric border that Brinkmann had reproduced in color. Elsewhere on the vest, he pointed out a diminutive beast of prey, scarcely an inch in length, endowed with the body of a jungle cat and a majestic set of wings. "Yes!" he said with delight. "A griffin!"

The surface of the sculpture was once covered in brilliant colors, but time has erased them. Oxidation and dirt have obscured or darkened any traces of pigment that still remain. Physical and chemical analyses, however, have helped Brinkmann establish the original colors with a high degree of confidence, even where the naked eye can pick out nothing distinct.

Next, Brinkman shone an ultraviolet light on the archer's divine protectress, Athena, revealing so-called "color shadows" of pigments that had long since worn away. Some pigments wear off more quickly than others, so that the underlying stone is exposed to wind and weather at different rates and thus also erodes at different rates. The seemingly blank surface lit up in a pattern of neatly overlapping scales, each decorated with a little dart—astonishing details given that only birds nesting behind the sculpture would have seen them.

A few weeks later, I visited the Brinkmann home, a short train ride from Munich. There I learned that new methods have greatly improved the making of sculptural reproductions. In the past, the process required packing a statue in plaster to create a mold, from which a copy could then be cast. But the direct application of plaster can damage precious color traces. Now, 3-D laser scanning can produce a copy without contact with the original. As it happened, Brinkmann's wife, archaeologist Ulrike Koch-Brinkmann, was just then applying color to a laser reproduction of a sculpted head of the Roman emperor Caligula.


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