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In ancient times sculptures and buildings were painted and colorfully decorated maybe even with clothes and jewels, and sometimes made out of glowing bronze. What was the motive and, if any, the political driving force, behind replacing them with white unpainted sculptures and architectures sometime at the beginning of the renaissance?

Speculating out of the blue, I'd suspect that it has to do with the ruling power demonstrating more deterrence. Clean white is the bones of dead people. It should be instinctively frightening. Below a building of power, looking more than anything else like a deadskull with its colorless gaping openings and spread out bone pipes like in a public mass grave.

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closed as primarily opinion-based by DevSolar, Steve Bird, justCal, John Dallman, Peter Diehr Feb 2 '17 at 15:04

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Too much speculation, too much aesthetic opinion, and too little research. I'm not sure this is a history question, and I'm not sure this can be answered without straying into the realm of opinion. I don't want to see discussion of whether "garish and lurid" are preferable to "bone pipes") – Mark C. Wallace Feb 2 '17 at 13:38
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    Related: Whitewash, which is "especially compatible with masonry because it is absorbed easily and the resultant chemical reaction hardens the medium". Also, what you think connotes bones, could also be interpreted as looking "clean", or "sober", or "luxurious", or many other things. Which is why I flag this as "opinion based". – DevSolar Feb 2 '17 at 13:48
  • @MarkC.Wallace I wish there was a forum here for art history. Certainly it is was a big change going from painted sculpture and architecture to bone white such. And it occurred in the 1400s, right? And it is not about MY opinion, but about the general impression that it gives everyone. Bone white is lifeless, a color of death. Maybe intended to represent eternal life. – LocalFluff Feb 2 '17 at 14:11
  • @DevSolar But they afforded paintings and decorations in the ancient times. Why suddenly they couldn't do it anymore beginning with the renaissance in Europe? I'd like to see some stronger indications that practicality and economy was the motives for the bone white fashion. – LocalFluff Feb 2 '17 at 14:13
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    That it is white is not opinion. That it resembles bones, is lifeless, and a color of death is an opinion (yours). I don't agree. I think the picture shows a beautiful building. So, asking why there was a motion from painted to white is OK; insisting on this "bone" thing isn't (in my opinion). – DevSolar Feb 2 '17 at 14:42
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1) By the time wealthy western Europeans were embarking on grand tours of Greece and Italy and describing ancient Greek and Roman temples in writing and in paintings, the original paintwork had mostly all been weathered away. Imitation of this architectural style therefore omitted the decoration.

2) Protestant reformation. Frescoes and lavish decoration were removed from churches as signs of idolatry etc. Decorated walls in churches were typically over-painted white.


The neoclassical architecture of the US capitol building, pictured in the question, copies elements from classical Greek and Roman architecture - domes, colonnades, porticoes. It is designed to reflect the architect's admiration of the beauty and majesty of those ancient buildings, not to make local citizens feel afraid or oppressed.


Wikipedia says

The word "Capitol" comes from Latin and is associated with the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus on Capitoline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome.

In spring 1792, United States Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed a design competition to solicit designs for the Capitol

A late entry by amateur architect William Thornton was submitted on January 31, 1793, to much praise for its "Grandeur, Simplicity, and Beauty" by Washington, along with praise from Thomas Jefferson.

The Library of Congress says

The published guidelines stipulated matters of fact -- size and number of rooms and materials -- not issues of taste, such as style of architecture, historical association, or symbolic meaning. Thus the competitors themselves proposed ideas of how to convey America's new political structure and social order. Their suggestions, ranging from simple to complex, economical to expensive, reflected commonly held beliefs about America's governing population -- primarily farmers and merchants -- or promoted benefits promised by the Constitution.

Most competitors drew upon Renaissance architectural models, either filtered through the lens of eighteenth-century English and American Georgian traditions or based directly on buildings illustrated in Renaissance treatises. The Capitol competition coincided with nascent Neoclassicism in America, in which forms and details from Greek and Roman architecture were revived. Three of the competition entries were inspired by ancient classical buildings.

There really is no evidence that neoclassical buildings were intended to resemble corpses or mass graves or to invoke feelings of fear. Instead they were intended to evoke admiration for their perceived beauty.

  • Medieval European churches statues and walls and windows were colorful. Are you sure there was not an intention behind making all architecture and sculpture look like dead people in order to intimidate the subjects? Don't you think it was effective? – LocalFluff Feb 2 '17 at 14:55
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    @LocalFluff. I am certain there was no such intention and I disagree with your conclusion. The evidence is there in contemporary accounts of the buildings. – RedGrittyBrick Feb 2 '17 at 14:57
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For a completely subjective answer to a completely subjective question, a quick google on the meaning of white:

White, an inherently positive color, is associated with purity, virginity, innocence, light, goodness, heaven, safety, brilliance, illumination, understanding, cleanliness, faith, beginnings, sterility, spirituality, possibility, humility, sincerity, protection, softness, and perfection

Your association of white with death didn't seem to make the list.

  • White bones is what's left if you scrape off all the living flesh from your body. White bones is a common symbol of death and danger since very long ago. Jolly Roger for example. – LocalFluff Feb 2 '17 at 14:57
  • To be fair, white is associated with (the paleness of) death, but I agree that the OP is off on a tangent here. – DevSolar Feb 2 '17 at 15:26
  • Edited my answer, to be fair... – justCal Feb 2 '17 at 15:53
  • Dark colors seem more associated with death, aesthetically. Think of the figure of Death -- is his cloak white or black? And bones aren't actually white -- they're an off-white ivory color, a fact that pre-industrial and early industrial societies would have been quite familiar with. – Rob Crawford Jul 17 at 18:25

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