PLUTARCH'S REPORT ON THE BLUE PATINA OF BRONZE STATUES AT DELPHI: A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION
WALTER A. FRANKE, & MAGDA MIRCEA
Around A. D. 120–125 the ancient Greek writer Plutarch (1935) related that the Spartan Monument of the Admirals from Delphi was coated with an unusual blue and glossy patina, due to peculiarities of the air inside the sanctuary. A few decades later Pausanias (1979) provided a more detailed description of the whole statuary group, composed of 37 life-size bronze statues representing the Spartan general Lysander, as well as the gods and the masters of ships who helped him to defeat the Athenian fleet at Aigos Potamoi. The Spartan Monument of the Admirals was created between 405 and 395 B. C. and has vanished without a trace, presumably after A. D. 392, when the Oracle at Delphi was closed by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius (Pouilloux and Roux 1963; Bommelaer 1971).
At Delphi little escaped destruction except a few small bronze objects that mostly had a grayish black appearance (e. g., griffin heads used as cauldron attachments, an incense-burner, Daedalic figurines), and one life-size bronze statue, the one now called the Charioteer. Polyzalos, the tyrant from Gela, dedicated a statue of a chariot with a charioteer and four horses to Apollo after he won the chariot race at the Pythian Games in 478 B. C. The Charioteer of Delphi was placed in the upper part of the precinct and, during the earthquake of 373 B. C. or later, was destroyed by rock falls and buried by a huge landslide. After 2, 000 years of burial, the statue was brought to light at the end of the 19th century by the excavations of the French School at Athens (Bourguet 1914; Pouilloux and Roux 1963).
The French archaeologist Emile Bourguet (1914) suggested that some of the bronze artifacts found at Delphi, mainly the Charioteer, might have the famous blue patina reported by Plutarch on the Spartan Monument of the Admirals. These bronze fragments of the Charioteer's group exhibited an astonishing bluish patina when just recovered from the sanctuary's soil. Bourguet, who was an eyewitness to the discovery between April 28 and May 1, 1896, described the tinge sometimes as “greenish-blue ” (240) and other times as “bluish-green ” (44, 239). Since 1902 this masterpiece of early classical art, one of the best preserved examples of classical bronze casts, has resided at the Archaeological Museum of Delphi (Andronicos 2001). This bronze was cast by lost-wax process (Mattusch 1988) and was preserved in three fragments: torso with head (acc. no. 3520), lower torso from waist to feet (acc. no. 3485), and right arm (acc. no. 3540). Other bronze fragments belonging to the group include fragments of the horses, harnesses, and chariot (Boardman 1985; Rolley 1990; Stewart 1990).
Unfortunately, after more than a century of indoor exposure, the Charioteer's patina became less blue and more an uneven greenish color. However, the belt, the harnesses, and the folds of the robe (and even other fragments of the statuary group) still preserve bluer shades that are visible even to the naked eye.1 Professional conservators have not yet published any study aiming to solve the mystery of the blue patina of bronze statues at Delphi.