Visiting the exhibit of colored Greek statues at the Legion of Honor museum here in San Francisco this week brought me a new perspective on classical statues.
Art scholars have known for years that the ancient Greeks painted their statues and that the pure white statues found in so many European and American museums today are not at all like the ones the ancient Greeks knew. Like every other human activity, sculpture changed over the years. The introduction of Christianity changed the direction of art in Europe and throughout the Western world. The image of snow white marble sculptures influenced the way people thought about ancient Greece. Is it possible to see the statue of Socrates as it is shown in this picture and not associate it with austere, intellectual philosophy? Would we think of Socrates in the same way if he were portrayed in an orange or red toga with a busy, bright pattern?
Do we ever truly know what an historical period was like? Can we ever really imagine how people thought and felt in times gone by?
It wasn’t until the 19th century that the sculptures of ancient Greece were sought out by people from Western Europe. Many of them had been neglected for years. The Parthenon in Athens Elgin Marbles had been used to store arms and the pediment sculptures that make up the Elgin marbles were neglected by the Turks who ruled Greece for many years. Eventually, many of the sculptures that decorated the Parthenon were brought to Western Europe—most famously to England, but also to Denmark, Germany and France.
The 19th century is much closer to us in time than the ancient Greeks were. But much of
the story of the removal of the Elgin Marbles to England were still done in a period of history that seems foreign to us. Susan Nagel in her fascinating book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles: A Biography of Mary Nisbet, Countess of Elgin (2010) tells how Lord Elgin and his wife managed to persuade the Turks and some Greeks to help them move the sculptures to London. But their story also raises questions about how well we understand historical characters.
Lord Elgin was a noted spendthrift who had gambled away his own fortune and relief on his wife’s money to make his purchase and transportation of the Elgin marbles possible. The Nisbets were a devoted couple for several years, but bearing three children in three years made Mary very reluctant to continue having children. It is hard for us to realize how helpless wives of those times were in controlling their bodies and their frequent
pregnancies. Without access to contraceptives, Mary Nisbet was entirely at the mercy of her husband. She was the wealthiest woman in Scotland, but that was no protection. Lord Elgin wanted a large family and Mary had no power. Eventually he managed to get a divorce—which took an act of Parliament—and take their three children away from his wife. He married a second wife and had seven more children.
Whether it is ancient Greek color schemes or 19th century marriages, the past is a constant surprise. We are always discovering new truths about it. Historians are kept busy discovering new records and old remains that offer different glimpses of our ancestors. Someday, no doubt, historians will be search back through our Facebook posts and Twitter feeds to discover what in the world 21st century people were thinking and feeling. Will they ever really know us?