An International Debate

Breaking Tradition

Traces of painted decorations on Greek temples had been recorded by the middle of the 18th century, but this had not put into question the ideal of whiteness and purity of Classical art and architecture, fervently promoted by Winckelmann. It was the merit of Jacques Ignace Hittorff to shake off tradition, assert that Greek architecture was coloured and open the debate on classical polychromy. Hittorff based his theory on the restoration of the Temple of Empedocles at Selinus, in Sicily, which he excavated with Ludwig von Zanth in the summer of 1823. In 1827, they published L’Architecture Antique de la Sicile (Fig. 1), provoking an international debate and general interest for colour that spread all over Europe. Restitution du temple d’Empédocle à Sélimonte, ou l’architecture polychrome chez les Grecs (Fig. 2) followed in 1851, but by then classical polychromy was no longer a matter of discussion. – AVB

Hittorff/Zanth 1827. Hitorff 1851. Van Zanten 1977. Middleton 1982. Van Zanten 1983. Guilmeau-Shala 2011.

A New Awareness

Hittorff’s interest for colour was not isolated. In the 1820’s, Henri Labrouste and his colleagues pensionnaires at the French Academy in Rome, were also investigating its presence in Roman architecture and proposing highly coloured architectural prospects. The remains of Pompeii and the recent excavations of the Etruscan tombs of Corneto helped to promote a vivid restitution of antique architecture. All over Europe, colour became a central question, thanks to the studies of Félix Duban, Michael Gottlieb Bindesbøll, Gottfried Semper, Jules Goury, or Leo von Klenze. While archeological findings confirmed the importance of polychromy in all civilizations, its presence was reassessed for medieval times, too, through the study of Gothic as well as Islamic monuments. – AVB

Van Zanten 1977. Middleton 1982. Van Zanten 1983. Guilmeau-Shala 2011.

A Colourful Alhambra

In Plans, Sections, Elevations and Details of the Alhambra (1836-45) Jones stated that the original colours employed in the Alhambra were mostly the primary blue, red, and yellow, this last one being replaced by gold (Fig. 3). Evoking a relationship between the state of a society and the use of polychromy, he remarked that the “primitive coulours” had been employed “during the early periods of art; whilst, during the decadence, the secondary colours became of more importance”. According to him, this could be seen in Egypt, classical Greece and in the Alhambra. He therefore restored the polychromy of the Nasrid palace using the three primaries (Figs. 4-5), with gold replacing yellow on the columns, a reconstruction that corresponded more to an aesthetic ideal than to archaeological evidence, but which proved very popular in the 19th century. – AVB

Jones 1835: plate 38. Goury/Jones 1836-42. Darby 1974. Van Zanten 1977. Van Zanten 1983. Ferry 2004. Flores 2006.
Fig.1 (en)

Fig. 1. Polychrome rendition of the entablature and roof of a Greek temple (Hittorff/Zanth 1827, Pl. 40).

Fig.2 (en)

Fig. 2. Front elevation of the Temple of Empedocles at Selinute (Hittorff 1851, Pl. 2).

Fig.3 (en)

Fig. 3. Chromolithographed title page of Goury and Jones volume on the Alhambra (Goury/Jones 1836-45, vol. 1).