Why Didn't Romans Carve the Eyeballs?

Just got back from the museum where I saw some wonderful Roman busts. Beautifully carved, exquisite detail, yet the blank stare is puzzling. What gives? Were eyeballs originally painted in?


Greeks and Romans painted their statues with colored, wax-based paints. I have heard one scholar state that the final product would have looked “a lot like those plastic Jesus statues on car dashboards”.
I seem to recall reading that the technique for carving lifelike eyes (drill a deep hole for the pupil, carve the iris in low relief) was not developed until the Nineteenth Century A.D.

Michelangelo did it a bit earlier. http://www.wmich.edu/~emrl/vt/paint10a_big.htm

To help out the scholars — who are swamped with other work and just haven’t gotten around to it yet — bring some paints with you next time you visit the museum. Color the statues suitably, so that they look realistic again. It’s a small thing you can do to honor our ancient ancestors, revive the glory that was Greece and Rome, and it makes a fun day’s outing for the kids.

The guards might not appreciate your work, but that’s only because most of them aren’t classics scholars. Hell, most of them haven’t even been to college. But that’s their problem. So be prepared to explain yourself when you’re brought to the interrogation room. Keep in mind throughout that artists have historically suffered for their work, and you are likely no exception.

(This recommendation brought to you by the Board of Irresponsible People.)

As has been stated, marble statues were often painted to make them look more lifelike. The blank stare, however, was sometimes a stylistic choice and therefore quite deliberate, particularly in Etruscan artwork. This mirrored the artistic output of the Greeks, whose “Archaic” Period produced many sculptures of human subjects that were blocky, rigidly posed, and featured the same blank facial expression.

Greek and Roman sculptors working in bronze, on the other hand, often left blank eye sockets that were to be filled in with glass or other materials to make them more realistic.

Some roman statues did have carved eyes:


Neat-o. Anyone have any pictures of appropriately painted Roman or Greek statues?

All those white marble columns and statues that we see today were gaudily polychromed back when they were new. Leave the carvings sitting around for 2000 years and the paint gets worn off a bit.

Wow! Thanks for the quick and informative responses. I think I’ll pass on painting them myself, although a quick touch up with a “sharpie” is tempting.

There’s a statue (of Venus, I think) from Pompeii that still has somer of its painting on it. Leave a statue buried in volcanic ash for 2000 years and it’ll be preserved like that.

By the way, does anyone else find the thread title really gross?

Well, it’s not what I was looking for, but here’s a Pompeiian wall painting of a painted statue:


I know you were asking for Roman, but since the practice is also Greek, here is the Peplos Kore; there are still traces of paint on her hair and eyes. Here is an idea of what she may have looked like painted.

A side-by-side comparison.

Also, a bust of Hadrian with eyeball details – carved wouldn’t be an appropriate term with a bronze piece, at least not as applied to the statue itself; the detail would be carved into the mould.

I found it in my art books, but not on line. It’s a statue of Aphrodite with Priapus from the House of the Vettii in Pompeii. It still has a lot of the gilding and some of its original paint, includig the eyes.
See Pompeii AD79, Vol. I, p. 65

When I was in Rome doing the Sistine Chapel/Museum tour the tour guide brought up this very issue.

Except he said the eyes were made of glass, not paint. In fact one of the busts on display still had one of its glass eyes intact.

Sometime back in the 1970’s, Sheik Mohammed Al-Fassi, a Saudi millionaire bought a Beverly Hills estate and placed a number of classic nude statues on the wall surrounding the grounds. There was quite an uproar when he painted them in natural color, including black pubic hair and pink nipples. An arsonist tried to set fire to the house in retaliation, and the neighbors gathered to chant “Burn, Baby, Burn!”

Would they have preferred he paint them with pink pubic hair and black nipples?

Something of a hijack, but I can’t recall these details being depicted accurately in any toga-and-sandal movie or TV production. Has any movie ever shown the statuary and temples in their original gaudy Technicolor?

I seem to recall some statues in Alexander having the paint on.

I also seem to recall that some Egyptian statues have surviving paint.

…Let’s see… Paint a little crimson there… add a little burnt sienna… a smattering of titanium white… can’t forget a happy little tree…


Much better.