“What shimmering silks, what fancy, glittering marbles, what opulent bronzes and golds… Let’s have done with it… It is time to crusade for whitewash and Diogenes.” Le Corbusier

Colour in the Ancient World
June 19, 2020

Le Corbusier was not speaking of the ancient world, but he would no doubt have been disappointed by its colourful splendour all the same. We have long since disabused ourselves of the notion that the ancient world was pristine white. We know sculptures were bedecked in vibrant colours, buildings embellished with many-hued details, interior walls painted in a kaleidoscopic manner, and the people themselves draped in vivid fabrics. Colour in the ancient world held theoretic and societal importance. 

Pliny the Elder writes extensively about colour in his Natural History, its sources, production, and uses. A paint shop in Pompeii had no fewer than 29 different pigments on offer and the frescoes that have survived to us in Pompeii, Herculaneum and the surrounding Vesuvian countryside have given us a glimpse of the extraordinary wall paintings which must have adorned private homes and public spaces throughout the Roman world. 


Wall painting of a harbour scene from Stabiae, second half of the 1st century AD
National Archaeological Museum. Naples. Italy
The Kallos wall painting fragment is just such an example and made use of many colours on offer in the local paint shop. Painted in the Third Pompeian Style, a seaside landscape is inset in a cream field within a deep blue frame edged with gold. The yellow is almost certainly yellow ochre, an earth pigment used since the Palaeolithic, but the blue frame it offsets is perhaps more exotic. The rich, dark blue could be indigo (indikon), a colour extracted from the Indigofera plant, a type of pea plant native to India, which joined the painter’s palette following Alexander the Great’s Hellenistic expansion. The dye the Indigofera plant produces was used in both the textile industry and employed as an artist’s pigment (it uniquely amongst organic dyes is suitable for painting in its natural from), and Pliny and Vitruvius alike write of its uses and declared its inky blue powder second only to Tyrian purple.
Third Pompeian Style, early 1st century AD
Within the gold and indigo frame is yet another frame, this one red, perhaps mercury sulphide, more commonly known as cinnabar (cinnabaris) first used as a pigment in China by the Yangshao culture in 5000 – 4000 BC. Tinged with orange, cinnabar is more vibrant than red ochre, and more easily produced than lake pigments, though lakes are truer reds. ‘Lake pigment’ is now a generic term for any organic dye based pigment, like indigo, but it once referred to red dyes alone. Egyptian dyers were able to produce wonderfully rich, true red cloth from the sticky deposits of the kermes insect and the root of the madder plant, laying the foundation for what we now know as carmine and alizarin crimson. But lake pigments are water soluble and naturally quite transparent – qualities that make them particularly well suited to oil painting, but that painting technique was still some thousand years distant. Rendering lake pigments suitable for the painter’s palette requires a great deal of chemistry. Although the ancients overcame this hurdle by fixing the water-soluble dyes to colourless, inorganic carrier powders in a slow and smelly process involving wine dregs, vinegar and animal dung, the organic nature of the pigments made them changeable and the extensive chemistry expensive. 

The warm red frame defines the space of the seaside landscape, where two figures inhabit a colonnaded landscape. The sky against which they are set is another extraordinary blue, this one paler and sun kissed. It is most likely Egyptian blue, or blue frit. The colour had been in production since 2500 BC, and the Greeks and the Romans were both known to have imported it from Egypt. Made from one part calcium oxide, one part copper oxide and four parts quartz fired together in a kiln to a temperature of 800 – 900 degrees Celsius, the result is an opaque, brittle blue material. Ground into a powder, it is the oldest known synthetic pigment, and a lovely warm cerulean.
Blue frit had uses and applications before it joined the painter’s palettes of Greece and Rome. It was used extensively as a glaze in ancient Egypt, and in this guise is usually referred to as faience.  The alchemical colour coated small figures of the gods, animals, shabtis, and jewellery alike. The bright, shiny shade of azure was thought to be filled with the undying shimmer of the sun, and so was believed to be magical and imbued with the powers of rebirth. In this way, the Kallos double-sided amuletic plaque is doubly powerful. Not only is the figural scene of Isis nursing the baby Horus and the accompanying hieroglyphic impression on the reverse ‘may the divine mother be a protection amulet’ powerfully apotropaic in and of itself, but the colour that coats the plaque further heightens its power offering the brilliance of eternity. 
The colours available to artist of the ancient world represent some extraordinary chemistry and ingenuity. Red lead(vermillion), armenium (azurite), chrysocalla (malachite), and the afore mentioned cinnabarisindikon, and red lakes to name but a few all required a certain amount of chemistry to produce useable pigments for the purpose of painting. Pigment manufacture itself was most probably an offshoot of a larger and thriving practical chemical industry transforming raw materials into things needed for daily life to say nothing of the dyeing and glass industries.

However complex the chemistry, the ancients did not understand colour in the way that we do. This can be seen in the nomenclature that persisted into the Middle Ages, through the Renaissance and into the 17th century – colours are named by the materials that create them, or the places from which the materials came, not by essential terms. A fact that has created no shortage of confusion to later students of the chromatic arts and led to the conflation of red and green, and yellow and blue, however unlikely that may seem. We take for granted our hues that have no dependence on context. 

Despite the Greek predilection for idealisation and intellectual abstraction, they did not have the benefit of colour absolutes. Red could be eruthosphoinikos, or porphuros. Imagine scarlet, crimson, and burgundy, but without the assistance of the umbrella term red. They had no concept of primary colours, nor did they have the benefit of Newton’s rainbow to help them rationalise the visible spectrum. For the Greeks, and the Romans after them, colour (chroma) lay on a scale between light and dark, and qualities like lustre and brilliance along with hue were valid discriminators. A most sensible notion, for surely matte black and glossy black are so fundamentally different they deserve to be called by different names. And in this light, Homer’s description of the sea as ‘wine-dark’, is perhaps not so obscure nor indeed so poetic.
Circa 100 BC
National Archaeological Museum. Naples. Italy
Arranging colours light to dark creates an alternate understanding of how colours work in the practise of painting. The Greeks had no word for the colour blue. For the Greeks blue was dark, and equated with melas, black. Pliny speaks at length about the nobility of a four-colour scheme for painting that had been perfected in Classical Athens. Made up of black, white, red, and yellow only, this austere colour palette we are told was put to perfect practise by Apelles, Classical Athens’ greatest painter along with Aetion, Melanthius, Nicomachus, and Polygnotes among others. Pliny declared this palette noble and restrained, but we know that the Greeks had more colours available to them even if the paintings themselves haven’t survived. Equally, we know that the four colour scheme could produce spectacular works of art – The Alexander Mosaic, a copy of a lost painting by Philoxenes of Eritrea (himself a student of Nicomachus), is beautifully and convincingly rendered in but a few sombre tones in line with the scheme. 

The four-colour scheme may have been a practical choice by artists, rather than one that speaks to lofty theoretical ideals, and not a subject of particular interest or understanding to scholars and philosophers of the time who immortalised that paucity of palette for centuries to follow. The want of practical knowledge amongst these learned men cannot be disputed – Democritus proclaimed that pale green could be mixed from red and white, while Plato asserted it could be created from ‘flame colour’ and black. Still other philosophers (wisely?) avoided such technical advice altogether and advised against colour mixing full stop. In On Colour, Aristotle cautions against mixing pigments likening it to a ‘passing away’, while Plutarch says mixing produces ‘conflict.’ It is also worth noting that the four-colour approach to painting may have been embraced by philosophers as it fit quite nicely with Empedocles’s theory of the four elements – earth (red), air (white), fire (yellow), and water (black). Greek artists began painting naturalistically and three dimensionally in the 5th century BC. With the gentle earth tones then available to them, they were able to create the effects of the light and shadow effectively. During the Hellenistic expansion new, exotic colours became available, indigo and cinnabar among them, and the integration of these vibrant hues into the painted illusion disrupted the natural effect of the austere four-colour palette the artists had mastered. So what began as a technical necessity based on the materials available with time became an aesthetic choice supported by the philosophy that followed. 
Bedroom from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, circa 50–40 BC
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. 03.14.13a–g
This is not to say that the Greeks were sombre, or preferred a limited palette to the full brilliant spectrum available to them. It perhaps suggests a preference for naturalism over chromatic diversity, but with time and practise artists came to embrace both as we can see in the Roman paintings that survive to us.



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