The Emperor Augustus gets back his colours in the second millennium of his death

August de Prima Porta / ©Ivan Rodon

Who would have said Emperor Augustus would get his colours back just in time for the second millennium of his death… Emma Zahonero and Jesús Mendiola, from the Restoration Workshop and Fine Arts Taller MV Arte, have been responsible for bringing back the colours to the sculpture of Augustus of Prima Porta, by means of a labourious process which has taken exactly three months to complete, without taking into account the time spent on the actual research and previous documentation.

The polychrome proposal has not been applied to the actual bronze statue standing on the top of a pedestal in the Passeig Arqueològic, surrounded by cypresses, keeping an eye on Tarraco’s Walls, but to a resin and plaster reproduction that weighs about 100kg and that, for the duration of Tarraco Viva (until May 25), is available for everyone to visit at the Recinte Firal del Palau de Congressos, actual epicentre of the festival.

The Augustus of Prima Porta is a statue of Caesar Augustus discovered on April 20, 1863, in the village of Prima Porta, which belonged to Lívia Drusila, Augustus’ wife, in the outskirts of Rome. The bronze statue of Tarragona is a copy presented to the city by Mussolini in 1934.

One must admit that the job done by MV Arte when introducing their polychrome proposal of Augusts has been both rigorous and brave. As it is said in this year’s official book of the festival ‘if we close our eyes and try to imagine how a Roman city would have been in the old days, it will mostly be presented to us in a single colour: white. And this is because white is the colour museums and galleries around the world have used to represent those days’.

Presentació d'August de Prima Porta / ©Ivan Rodon

Jesús Mendiola explains how the polychrome proposal ‘has been based on the analysis done by chemists at the Vatican Museums. From there on, we’ve been able to find out what part (and what colour) every chemical was referring to’. Next, Zahonero and Mendiola have been trying to add naturism to the statue by using pictorial techniques and procedures from the Greco-Roman period. Thus, in the polychrome statue of Augustus of Prima Porta, there’s a predominance of bronze tones and purple, a colour that would only be designated to the Emperor.

The statue of Augustus of Prima Porta is then, probably, the most accurate polychrome reproduction ever made taking archaeological and scientific investigations as reference. The German archaeologist and researcher Vinzenz Brinkmann was one of the first ones to suggest a similar polychrome range to the original, despite his colours were a bit too plain. On the other hand, ‘statues –maintains Emma Zahonero– were painted using many layers of colours’. An example: in order to obtain the original colours, up to twenty-four egg yolks have been used, as well as minerals such as cinnabar and pigments such as the Egyptian blue, among others.

The director of the Tarraco Viva Festival and the actual person in charge of requesting the polychrome statue of the Emperor, Magí Seritjol, predicts that the proposal created by MV Artewill have a worldwide scientific repercussion; a number of debates and congresses will be held, which will lead to a certain controversy starting in Tarragona, which is actually a good thing since that will put us into the spotlight. Besides, this is our hypothesis’.

Text and photographs: Ivan Rodon (@irodon on Twitter)
Translation: Artur Santos (@artur_1983 on Twitter)