Colloquium Looks at Color in the Ancient World

codex
Image from the "Florentine Codex," Mexico, 16th century. Photo: World Digital Library

The annual Templeton Colloquium in Art History at UC Davis will journey across oceans and centuries for “The Power of Color: Polychromy and Pigments in Ancient Mediterranean And Latin American Art.” It will bring together visiting scholars with UC Davis art history faculty members Feb. 2 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art.

codex
 Florentine Codex, Mexico City. Photo: World Digital Library.

“Recent research shows the ancient world was vividly colorful,” said Alexandra Sofroniew, an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Art History who specializes in the ancient Mediterranean world. “Tracing the use and perception of color in past cultures can be elusive, but an understanding and appreciation of color is fundamental to art history. Research has taken diverse approaches -- from investigating the manufacture of pigments to considering literary descriptions of the workings of the eye -- that illuminate ancient artworks.”

The topic also recognizes and taps into the expertise of new art history faculty member John Lopez, who studies pre-Columbian art and architecture of the Americas.

“We want to think about parallels between the ancient Mediterranean and Latin America,” said Sofroniew.

The ancient Mediterranean primarily consisted of the wide-reaching Greek and Roman worlds from around 1100 BCE to the fourth century. Pre-Columbian/ancient Latin America refers to the time in the Americas prior to European contact including major civilizations of the Olmec, Mayan, Aztec and Inca dating back to 2500 BCE. 

"Whitewashing" the past

trojan archer
Reproduction of Trojan archer sculpture from "Gods in Color." Photo: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

One of the most widely-held inaccuracies about color is that ancient Greek and Roman sculptures and buildings were gleaming white, when in fact many were painted. Color in Greek and Roman sculpture and architecture was examined in the recent exhibition “Gods in Color: Polychromy in the Ancient World” at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. Sofroniew also points to recent, somewhat controversial articles by scholars that explore how this view of the ancient Western world has resulted in a “whitewashing” of the past that has implications for the contemporary world.

Making the primary presentations at the colloquium will be Diana Magaloni, deputy director and director of the program for the Art of the Ancient Americas at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Jennifer Stager, a teacher, curator and speaker, who specializes in ancient Mediterranean art.

Magaloni, former director of the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, is an expert on Mesoamerican and indigenous pictorial techniques in the 16th century. She is author of The Colors of the New World: Artists, Materials, and the Creation of the “Florentine Codex,” a 16th-century ethnographic study organized by a Spanish friar made up of 2,400 pages with 2,000 illustrations by native artists.

Stager co-curated last year’s LACMA exhibition “Picasso and Rivera: Conversations Across Time,” that examined Pablo Picasso’s and Diego Rivera’s connections to their respective ancient Mediterranean and Pre-Columbian worlds, and gave a lecture in conjunction with the “Gods in Color” exhibition.

Accessible to general audience and scholars

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Mummy portrait of a young woman, 1st century CE, Egypt. (Photo: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

“Their presentations will emphasize the materials used, the production processes and therefore the people behind these artworks,” Sofroniew said. “In the New World and the ancient Mediterranean, most artists were anonymous craftsmen; by illuminating their practices and lives, we gain a richer, more complete and more colorful understanding of the past.”

After Magaloni and Stager speak, Lopez and Sofroniew will give short responses; then the four will engage in conversation, followed by questions from the audience.

The colloquium is free and open to the public and while it will be of interest to scholars and students, it will be presented in a manner accessible to the layperson with an interest in the topic, Sofroniew said.

This is the sixth year the Templeton Colloquium has been held. It is supported by Alan Templeton, a 1982 UC Davis College of Letters and Science graduate with degrees in art history and psychology.  Last year's event was on "The Life and Afterlife of Ancient Roman Architecture."

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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