One of the rooms at the Geffrye Museum in London features a
gargantuan oak fireplace most notable for its intricate hand
carvings. Museum signage said the oak trim might have been painted
when it was created, around 1600.
The idea of hiding that wood made me shudder.
As I roam through museums and churches, I look for other
indicators of missing color. There is evidence, such as the
residues of old paint in the cracks or on better-preserved parts of
centuries-old statues and sarcophagi.
Some colors are obviously revitalized. Southwark Cathedral in
London boasts a tomb with full-size effigy in Christmas tree
colors, but Rochester Cathedral has a better one -- the wooden
effigy of Robert of Normandy lying on his tomb.
He died in 1134, but his is no 12th century paint job.
I began to ruminate on color -- missing or otherwise --in the
world's major monuments when late last fall I roamed through
Istanbul's Disneyesque Ciragan Palace, the product of a
restoration. The colors around the giant central staircase are
It struck me that seeing how an older structure might have
looked in its original colors could be a shock to someone with late
20th century sensibilities, trained to appreciate the muted, even
tired look of preserved old things.
The Ciragan Palace exterior is a gorgeous representative of its
era. The building, which houses suites that are part of the local
Kempinski Hotel, is a good modern event site.
As it happens, however, much of the Ciragan interior restoration
is disliked locally for its restorers' failure to use more -- and
therefore more subtle -- colors, the better to reflect the original
19th century palace. Happily, there are more successful efforts to
reveal a past of many hues.
Consider the new Copan Museum on the site of the ruins in
western Honduras, where artisans and archaeologists have recreated
a Mayan temple, showing how brightly colored such sacred places
were in their heyday.
Or consider Crete, where the Knossos ruins are bathed in a
rainbow of Mediterranean colors, revealing how they might have
looked 3,500 years ago.
Other relics of colorful pasts come to us less self-consciously:
I think of mosaics left across Europe and North Africa by Greeks
and Romans, decorative tiles in Portugal and Spain or frescoes,
especially in Bulgarian monasteries and on church exteriors in
Asians work hard at refreshing the color on old, or relatively
new, temples and palaces.
I recall learning in Bhutan that when a painting of the Buddha
or other meaningful image there is worn and dull, it is not
restored. Rather, an artist paints a new piece over the old in
precisely the same style as the old, which is another way of
restoring the original look and feel of a place.
Think about how different things might have been if nature were
kinder to paint.
Imagine urging clients to visit the Temple of Luxor because all
the pillars look so pretty from the Nile. They are, in this
scenario, still covered with the primary colors splashed over them
Ancient Egyptians painted richly hued hieroglyphics on temple
walls the same way they sent off their dead royals inside the
brightly bedecked tombs that tourists see today.
Or imagine hyping a visit to the Acropolis with a brochure that
reads like this:
"See how the ancient Greeks painted their hilltop Parthenon to
impress viewers even from long distances. In the statues, note the
colors, especially of the hair and eyes."
I'd love to buy these trips. Wouldn't you love to sell them?