Polychromy of Roman Marble Sculpture

  • Fresco wall painting in a cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale
  • Portrait head of an elderly woman
  • Column-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water)
  • Statue of a member of the imperial family shown in heroic semi-nudity
  • Torso of a centaur
  • Disk with a herm of Dionysos in relief
  • Fragmentary head of a deity wearing a Dionysiac fillet
  • Ringstone with an artist painting a sculpture


When Roman marble sculpture was rediscovered in the Renaissance, it emerged from more than a millennium of burial essentially devoid of its ancient polychromy. The monochromatic appearance of these works gave rise to new, modern canons of sculpture characterized by an emphasis on form with little consideration of color. In antiquity, however, Greek (50.11.4) and Roman (81.6.48) sculpture was originally richly embellished with colorful painting, gilding, silvering, and inlay. Such polychromy, which was integral to the meaning and immediacy of such works, has largely been lost in burial and survives today only in fragmentary condition.

Depictions of statuary in Roman wall paintings (03.14.13) provide an indication of their diverse appearances in antiquity. Some marble sculptures were completely painted and gilded, effectively obscuring the marble surface; others had more limited, selective polychromy used to emphasize details such as the hair, eyes, and lips and accompanying attributes.

Roman artists used a wide range of pigments, painting media, and surface applications to embellish their marble sculptures. Ancient authors, especially Pliny the Elder and Vitruvius, provide important information about these materials and express great admiration for the virtuoso technique of contemporary sculptors who developed a technical refinement unparalleled in classical antiquity. White marble itself was prized for its brilliant translucency, ability to take finely carved detail, and flawless uniformity. A vast array of colored marbles and other stones were also quarried from throughout the Roman world to create numerous colorful statues (09.221.6) of often dazzling appearance.

Burial, early modern restoration practices, and historic cleaning methods have all reduced the polychromy on Roman marble sculptures. Many works, however, preserve important evidence of their original polychrome decoration. Such remains are inevitably fragmentary and have altered over time, making it difficult to reconstruct their exact appearance in antiquity with certainty. Nevertheless, through a host of techniques—including microscopic examination, ultraviolet and infrared photography, and different types of material analysis—it is possible to gain valuable insight into the original appearance of these ancient works of art.

Mark B. Abbe
Sherman Fairchild Center for Objects Conservation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

April 2007


Abbe, Mark B. “Polychromy of Roman Marble Sculpture.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/prms/hd_prms.htm (April 2007)

Further Reading

Pliny the Elder, Natural History, XXXV–VI.

Vitruvius, De Architectura, VII.

Brinkmann, Vinzenz, and Raimund Wünsche, eds. Color of the Gods: Painted Sculpture in Classical Antiquity. Munich: Stiftung Arch&uaml;ologie, 2007.

Grossman, Janet Burnett. Looking at Greek and Roman Sculpture in Stone. Los Angeles: Getty Museum, 2003.