Fragment of the Orpheus Relief. Research loan from the University of Mississippi Museum, 77.3.569. Image: UGA
I n September 2012, researchers at the University of Georgia (UGA) began the The Orpheus Relief Project to determine how a 2000 year old marble relief was originally coloured based on the surviving pigments adhering to the marble, but the final results came as a shock to everyone.
The panel relief consists of the youthful figure of Hermes, the Greek messenger god, which survives from a larger, three-figured composition depicting the god escorting Eurydice to the Underworld during her final parting from Orpheus. This larger composition, known as the Orpheus Relief, is one of the most celebrated examples of Greek sculpture from the High Classical period, ca. 450–400 B.C. that had been copied by the Romans ca. 50 BC-AD 50.
Part of an important collectionThe piece formed part of an important collection of Greek and Roman art donated to the University of Mississippi by the estate of famed art historian David Moore Robinson in 1960. UGA was loaned the piece for research as in antiquity, Greek and Roman marble sculpture was not pristine white but colourfully painted and this example had traces of pigment still adhering to the marble.
The relief was the only one of six surviving Roman replicas of the Orpheus Relief known to preserve remains of ancient colouration. This included a red pigment on Hermes’ garments. The art department and the chemistry department from UGA conducted microscopic tests to determine how the piece was coloured two thousand years ago.
What they found however, was that instead of being a 2000 year old copy, the Orpheus Relief is likely a far more recent historical reproduction.
Project director Mark Abbe says that using microscopy and chemical analysis, they found that the piece was likely created between the 1880’s and the 1920’s. He believes it was a historical reproduction created to decorate a private home in Rome and is a precise replica of a great classical sculpture.
Sold as the real thingAbbe believes someone probably sold it to Robinson as the real thing. Robinson published an article in 1948 dating the Orpheus Relief to the Roman period, c. 50 BC-AD 50.
The piece had never been scientifically analysed in a laboratory setting until the UGA project. Abbe says that there was an exhibition in Germany in the 1880’s which focused on how ancient marble sculptures were actually vibrantly painted. That generated a lot of interest in the period. He now believes this piece was created after that exhibition, not to fool anyone, but to celebrate the original colours in Greek classical art.
The complete results of the recent study will be presented by Abbe and scientists from UGA in an interdisciplinary presentation “The Orpheus Relief: Object, Three Perspectives” at the Georgia Museum of Art on 28th March 2013.
Source: Georgia Museum of Art