Color Me Fascinated By Hues of the Past

By Nadine Godwin

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 positively cartoonish.

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 northeastern Romania.

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 in antiquity.

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?

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