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p320 Colores

Article by Ralph Nicholson Wornum, Esq.,
on pp320‑322 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

COLO′RES. The Greeks and Romans had a very extensive acquaintance with colours as pigments. Book VII of Vitruvius and several chapters of books XXXIII, XXXIV and XXXV of Pliny's Natural History, contain much interesting matter upon their nature and composition; and these works, together with what is contained in book V of Dioscorides, and some remarks in Theophrastus (De Lapidibus), constitute the whole of our information of any importance upon the subject of ancient pigments. From these sources, through the experiments and observations of Sir Humphry Davy (Phil. Trans. of the Royal Society, 1815) on some remains of ancient colours and paintings in the baths of Titus and of Livia, and in other ruins of antiquity, we are enabled to collect a tolerably satisfactory account of the colouring materials employed by the Greek and Roman painters.

The painting of the Greeks is very generally considered to have been inferior to their sculpture; this partially arises from very imperfect information, and a very erroneous notion respecting the resources of the Greek painters in colouring. The error originated apparently with Pliny himself, who says (XXXV.32), "Quatuor coloribus solis immortalia illa opera fecere, ex albis Melino, ex silaceis Attico, ex rubris Sinopide Pontica, ex nigris atramento, Apelles, Echion, Melanthus, Nicomachus, clarissimi pictores;" and (XXXV.36), "Legentes meminerint omnia ea quatuor coloribus facta." This mistake, as Sir H. Davy has supposed, may have arisen from an imperfect recollection of a passage in Cicero (Brutus, c. 18), which, however, directly contradicts the statement of Pliny:— "In pictura Zeuxim et Polygnotum, et Timanthem, et eorum, qui non sunt usi plusquam quattuor coloribus, formas et lineamenta laudamus: at in Echione, Nicomacho, Protogene, Apelle jam perfecta sunt omnia." Here Cicero extorts the design and drawing of Polygnotus, Zeuxis, and Timanthes, and those who used but four colours; and observes in contradistinction, that in Echion, Nicomachus, Protogenes, and Apelles, all things were perfect. But the remark of Pliny, that Apelles, Echion, Melanthius, and Nicomachus used but four colours, including both black and white to the exclusion of all blue (unless we understand by "ex nigris atramento" black and indigo), is evidently an error, independent of its contradiction to Cicero; and the conclusion drawn by some from it and the remark of Cicero, that the early Greek painters were acquainted with but four pigments, is equally without foundation. Pliny himself speaks of two other colours, besides the four in question, which were used by the earliest painters; the testa-trita (XXXV.5) and cinnabaris or vermilion, which he calls also minium (XXXIII.36). He mentions also (XXXV.21) the Eretrian earth used by Nicomachus, and the elephantinum, or ivory-black, used by Apelles (XXXV.25), thus contradicting himself when he asserted that Apelles and Nicomachus used but four colours. The above tradition, and the simplex color of Quintilian (Orat. Instit. XII.10), are our only authorities for defining any limits to the use of colours by the early Greeks, as applied to painting, but we have no authority whatever for supposing that they were limited in any remarkable way in their acquaintance with them. That the painters of the earliest period had not such abundant resources in this department of art as those of the later, is quite consistent with experience, and does not require demonstration; but to suppose that they were confined to four pigments is quite a gratuitous supposition, and is opposed to both reason and evidence. [Pictura.]

Sir H. Davya also analysed the colours of the so‑called "Aldobrandini marriage," all the reds and yellows of which he discovered to be ochres; the blues and greens, to be oxides of copper; the blacks all carbonaceous; the browns, mixtures of ochres and black, and some containing oxide of manganese; the whites were all carbonates of lime.

The reds discovered in an earthen vase containing a variety of colours, were, red oxide of lead (minium), and two iron ochres of different tints, a dull red, and a purplish red nearly of the same tint as prussiate of copper; they were almost mixed with chalk or carbonate of lime. The yellows were pure ochres with carbonate of lime, and ochre mixed with minium and carbonate of lime. The blues were oxides of copper with carbonate of lime. Sir H. Davy discovered a frit made by means of soda and coloured with oxide of copper, approaching ultramarine in tint, which he supposed to be the frit of Alexandria; its composition, he says, was perfect — "that of embodying the colour in a composition resembling stone, so as to prevent the escape of elastic matter from it, or the decomposing action of the elements; this is a species of artificial lapis lazuli, the colouring matter of which is naturally inherent in a hard siliceous stone."

Of greens there were many shades, all, however, either carbonate or oxide of copper, mixed with carbonate of lime. The browns consisted of ochres calcined, and oxides of iron and manganese, and compounds of ochres and blacks. Sir H. Davy could not ascertain whether the lake which he discovered was of animal or of vegetable origin; if of animal, he supposed that it was very probably the Tyrian or marine purple. He discovered also a colour which he supposed to be black wad, or hydrated binoxide of manganese; also a black colour composed of chalk, mixed with the ink of the sepia officinalis or cuttle-fish. The transparent p321blue glass of the ancients he found to be stained with oxide of cobalt, and the purple with oxide of manganese.

The following list, compiled from the different sources of our information concerning the pigments known to the ancients, will serve to convey an idea of the great resources of the Greek and Roman painters in this department of their art; and which, in the opinion of Sir H. Davy, were fully equal to the resources of the great Italian painters in the sixteenth century:—

Red. The ancient reds were very numerous. Κιννάβαρι, μίλτος, cinnabaris, vermilion, bisulphuret of mercury, called also by Pliny and Vitruvius minium.

The κιννάβαρι Ἰνδικόν, cinnabaris Indica, mentioned by Pliny and Dioscorides, was what is vulgarly called dragon's-blood, the resin obtained from various species of the calamus palm.

Μίλτος seems to have had various significations; it was used for cinnabaris, minium, and rubrica, red ochre. There were various kinds of rubricae, the Cappadocian, the Egyptian, the Spanish, and Lemnian; all were, however, red iron oxides, of which the best were the Lemnian, from the isle of Lemnos, and the Cappadocian, called by the Romans rubrica Sinopica, by the Greeks Σινωπίς, from Sinope in Paphlagonia, whence it was first brought. There was also an African rubrica called cicerculum.

Minium, red oxide of lead, red lead, was called by the Romans cerussa usta, and, according to Vitruvius, sandaracha; by the Greeks, μίλτος, and, according to Dioscorides (V.122), σανδαράκη. Pliny tells us that it was discovered through the accidental calcination of some cerussa (white lead) by a fire in the Peiraeus, and was first used as a pigment by Nicias of Athens, about 330 B.C.

The Roman sandaracha seems to have had various significations, and it is evidently used differently by the Greek and Roman writers. Pliny speaks of different shades of sandaracha, the pale or massicot (yellow oxide of lead), and a mixture of the pale with minium; it apparently also signified realgar or the red sulphuret of arsenic: there was also a compound colour of equal parts of sandaracha and rubrica calcined, called sandyx, σάνδυξ. Sir H. Davy supposed this colour to approach our crimson in tint; in painting it was frequently glazed with purple to give it additional lustre.

Pliny speaks of a dark ochre from the isle of Syros, which he calls Syricum;but he says also that it was made by mixing sandyx with rubrica Sinopica.

Yellow. Yellow ochre, hydrated peroxide of iron, the sil of the Romans, the ὤχρα of the Greeks, formed the base of many other yellows mixed with various colours and carbonate of lime. Ochre was procured from various parts; the Attic was considered the best; it was first used in painting, according to Pliny, by Polygnotus and Micon, at Athens, about 460 B.C.

Ἀρσενικόν, auripigmentum, orpiment (yellow sulphuret of arsenic), was also an important yellow; but it has not been discovered in any of the ancient paintings. The sandaracha has been already mentioned.

Green. Chrysocolla, χρυσόκολλα, which appears to have been green carbonate of copper or malachite (green verditer), was the green most approved of by the ancients; its tint depended upon the quantity of carbonate of lime mixed with it.

Pliny mentions various kinds of verdigris (diacetate of copper), aerugo, ἰός, ἰός χαλκοῦ, cypria aerugo, and aeruca, and a particular preparation of verdigris called scolecia. Sir H. Davy supposes the ancients to have used also acetate of copper (distilled verdigris) as a pigment. Besides the above were several green earths, all cupreous oxides: Theodotion (Θεοδότιον), so called from being found upon the estate of Theodotius, near Smyrna; Appianum and the creta viridis, common green earth of Verona.

Blue. The ancient blues were also very numerous; the principal of these was caeruleum, κύανος, azure, a species of verditer or blue carbonate of copper, of which there were many varieties. It was generally mixed with carbonate of lime. Vitruvius and Pliny speak of the Alexandrian, the Cyprian, and the Scythian; the Alexandrian was the most valued, as approaching nearest to ultramarine. It was made also at Pozzuoli by a certain Vestorius, who had learnt the method of its preparation in Egypt; this was distinguished by the name of coelon. There were also a washed Caeruleum called lomentum, and an inferior description of this called tritum.

It appears that ultramarine (lapis lazuli) was known to the ancients under the name of Armenium, Ἀρμένιον, from Armenia, whence it was procured. Sulphuret of sodium is the colouring principle of lapis lazuli, according to M. Gmelin of Tübingen.

Indigo, Indicum, Ἰνδικόν, was well known to the ancients.

Cobalt. The ancient name for this mineral is not known; but it has been supposed to be the χαλκός of Theophrastus, which he mentions was used for staining glass. No cobalt, however, has been discovered in any of the remains of ancient painting.

Purple. The ancients had also several kinds of purple, purpurissum, ostrum, hysginum, and various compound colours. The most valuable of these was the purpurissum, prepared by mixing the creta argentaria with the purple secretion of the murex (πορφύρα).

Hysginum, ὕσγινον (ὕσγη, woad?), according to Vitruvius, is a colour between scarlet and purple.

The Roman ostrum was a compound of red ochre and blue oxide of copper.

Vitruvius mentions a purple which was obtained by cooling the ochra usta with wine vinegar.

Rubiae radix, madder-root.

Brown. Ochra usta, burnt ochre. The browns were ochres calcined, oxides of iron and of manganese, and compounds of ochres and blacks.

Black, atramentum, μέλαν. The ancient blacks were mostly carbonaceous. The best for the purposes of painting were elephantinum, ἐλεφάντινον, ivory-black; and tryginum, τρύγινον, vine-black, made of burnt vine twigs. The former was used by Apelles, the latter by Polygnotus and Micon.

The atramentum Indicum, mentioned by Pliny and Vitruvius, was probably the Chinese Indian ink. The blacks from sepia, and the black woad, have been already mentioned.

White. The ordinary Greek white was melinum, μηλιάς, an earth from the isle of Melos; for fresco painting the best was the African paraetonium, p322παραιτόνιον, so called from the place of its origin on the coast of Africa, not far from Egypt. There was also a white earth of Eretria, and the annularian white, creta anularia or anulare, made from the glass composition worn in the rings of the poor.

Carbonate of lead or white lead, cerussa, ψιμύθιον, was apparently not much used by the ancient painters; it was nowhere found amongst the Roman ruins.

Sir H. Davy is of opinion that the azure, the red and yellow ochres, and the blacks, have not undergone any change of colour whatever in the ancient fresco paintings; but that many of the greens, which are now carbonate of copper, were originally laid on in a state of acetate.

Pliny divides the colours into colores floridi and colores austeri (XXXV.12); the colores floridi were those which, in his time, were supplied by the employer to the painter, on account of their expense, and to secure their being genuine; they were minium, Armenium, cinnabaris, chrysocolla, Indicum, and purpurissum the rest were the austeri.

Both Pliny (XXXV.12) and Vitruvius (VII.7) class the colours into natural and artificial; the natural are those obtained immediately from the earth, which, according to Pliny, are Sinopis, rubrica, Paraetonium, melinum, eretria, and auripigmentum; to these Vitruvius adds ochra, sandaracha, minium (vermilion), and chrysocolla, being of metallic origin. The others are called artificial, on account of requiring some particular preparation to render them fit for use.

To the above list of colours, more names might still be added; but being for the most part merely compounds or modifications of those already mentioned, they would only take up space without giving us any additional insight into the resources of the ancient painters; those which we have already enumerated are sufficient to form an infinite variety of colour, and conclusively prove that the ancient painters, if they had not more, had at least equal resources in this most essential branch of painting with the artists of our own times.


Thayer's Note:

a The great pioneering chemist of the modern age. Much of what our article has to say about chemical investigations and their conclusions has been rendered obsolete by the amazing advances of science, especially in the last thirty or forty years.


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