In Praise of Ruins: What the Fallen Grandeur of Ancient Rome Teaches Us

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

53449439“Isn't it cool to be that much closer to the viewers of the first and second century?” This, I learned as I read the New York Times the other morning, is how Steven Fine, director of the Arch of Titus Digital Restoration Project and professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University in New York, expressed his enthusiasm for the recent finding that the famous menorah in the bas-relief of the spoils of Jerusalem was originally painted a rich yellow ocher that would have looked like gold. Had the professor expressed his enthusiasm on the grounds that the finding advanced the quest of historians and archeologists to attain a fuller picture of the original appearance of ancient Rome, I might have understood why he described it as “cool.” In a 3-D model of ancient Rome, “Rome Reborn,” being developed at the University of Virginia, the director Bernard Frischer said that with this new information, the Arch of Titus will be the first monument to have “full restored color.” That certainly is “cool.” But how, I wondered, did the notion that the Arch of Titus was previously brightly colored—even garishly so to eyes accustomed to seeing white marble ruins—bring us closer to the men and women who conducted their lives in the forum, the grand center of imperial Rome during the first and second centuries? More prosaically, how could we even presume that we were seeing the same ocher pigment that they saw?

More here.