Arch of Titus restoration project proves colorful
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Arch of Titus restoration project proves colorful

Y.U. professor hopes to colorize record of Temple treasures

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A panel of the Arch of Titus showing the seven-branched candelabrum.

Nobody, not even Indiana Jones, knows the location of the pure gold menorah the Romans plundered from the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.

But the seven-branched candelabrum, along with other sacred vessels carried off by Emperor Titus Flavius Vespasianus, is depicted in an iconic monument in Rome, the Arch of Titus. The arch, built in 81 CE, goes across the route where the returning soldiers displayed their precious Jewish booty in a triumphal procession.

Professor Steven Fine of Riverdale, N.Y., director of Yeshiva University’s Center for Israel Studies, has been fascinated with the missing candelabrum since childhood, and he has written about it from an art history perspective. He doesn’t claim to know the whereabouts of the Temple treasures. But, with the help of an international team of experts, he is discovering exactly how the Arch of Titus originally looked in full color, and that could offer exciting clues about the hues of the long-lost objects.

“Maybe we can find out what the Romans saw when they saw the menorah being brought to Rome,” Fine said.

The Temple menorah, lit with olive oil every day while the Tabernacle and Temples stood, has represented Judaism through the ages. It is the focal point of Chanukah, when an eight-branched version is lit, and it is the official symbol of the State of Israel. The ancient Romans were well aware of its significance.

“It was on display a few hundred yards away when the arch was being built,” Fine said. It disappeared in the fifth-century when the Visigoths sacked Rome, and it may not have survived antiquity. “Now we are going to see the menorah in a way it wasn’t seen before.”

Fine explained that Greek and Roman marble sculptures weren’t drab white, as they appear today. “We know for a fact that everything was painted,” he said. And cutting-edge technology now can reveal the original colors.

That’s what brought Fine to Rome from June 5 to June 7, along with nine leading scholars he gathered for their various fields of expertise.

The technical team, led by Professor Bernard Frischer of the University of Virginia, prepared uniquely accurate digital images of the Arch of Titus panels, hoping to find traces of the natural pigments that once adorned the bas reliefs. They aim to make a digital reconstruction of the arch in all its glory on Frischer’s Rome Reborn website, using evidence collected by 3D laser scanning and modeling carried out by Heinrich Piening of Munich in coordination with the Special Archeological Superintendency for Rome.

“We worked with a UnoCad scanner, one of the most precise instruments available, so we have all the geometry within one half-millimeter accuracy,” Frischer said.

Piening and his wife, Rose, are pioneers in highly reliable ultraviolet visible (UV-VIS) scanning, which enables them to identify traces of coloration by matching wavelengths from reflected light with a database library of more than 6,000 known dye pigments.

The technique uses a probe that never touches the marble, which is a huge advance. The government of Italy had attempted to determine more about the arch back in the 1990s by drilling for samples. Because they did not want to harm the bas relief, they avoided the parts of the arch that really tell the story, Frischer said.

He and Fine are pleased that the multifaith team included Germans and Italians, and that the expedition took place on the week when the Torah portion read in synagogues worldwide described the Temple menorah in great detail.

The biblical candelabrum was fashioned from a solid piece of gold, and sure enough, traces of yellow ochre were found on the arms and base of the menorah as depicted on the arch. This discovery is consistent with biblical, early Christian, and Talmudic writings, and particularly with the first-century historian Flavius Josephus’ firsthand description of the golden candelabrum.

Josephus describes “a golden table, many talents in weight, and a lampstand, likewise made of gold, but constructed on a different pattern than those which we use in ordinary life. Affixed to a pedestal was a central shaft, from which there extended slender branches, arranged trident-fashion, a wrought lamp being attached to the extremity of each branch, of these there were seven, indicating the honor paid to that number among the Jews.”

Fine said that references to the colors of the sacred objects in the Temple, including the menorah and the stones of the building itself, have been found in rabbinic literature, ranging from the Talmud to medieval liturgical poems.

If he can find funding, Frischer is eager to explore other parts of the relief to add to Rome Reborn.

“What I would like to see is the color on the faces of Titus. He makes two appearances on the arch, on the Triumph Relief and on the Apotheosis Relief. We’re told in the sources that triumphal generals painted their faces red, so I’m curious to know if when we analyze the Triumph Relief, we find red pigment. And then on the Apotheosis Relief, which shows the dead Titus being taken to heaven by an eagle, how is his face painted? Is it still red, does it look natural, or is it a pale white?”

Fine said that a book and perhaps an exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum are among his more distant goals for the project.

Restoring the actual arch to its former glory isn’t in the cards. “We can’t recolor the original because that would ruin it, and also maybe we’ll be proven wrong in another decade,” Fine said. “We will do a number of different [digital] reconstructions to account for various possibilities.”

On personal and professional levels, Fine was awed by the opportunity to see the arch up close and to fly the YU banner at the ancient site. “I’ve been there many times, but this time I was able to climb up on scaffolding and stare,” he said, comparing the experience to first seeing his firstborn child 20 years ago. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But I couldn’t get myself to reach over and touch it, because that’s illegal.”

You can find details about the project by going to http://yu.edu/cis/activities/arch-of-titus/.

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