This post is not about Domenico Modugno’s 1958 hit song or the Azzurri, the Italian national team. It is about the long and fascinating history of blue pigment. Although the colour blue is all around us-in the sky, the sea and the mountains, blue pigment is rare in nature. Unlike earth colours, which could be made by going outside and mixing dirt with oil or sap, blue pigment was made with ground minerals which were not easily obtained. This made blue a rare and valuable colour.
The Ancient Egyptians made a pigment called blue frit from blue glass ground into powder, but the complicated process of how to make it was lost. Historically, the most prized blue was ultramarine, a warm blue with a brilliant tone, leaning towards violet on the colour wheel. Genuine ultramarine blue was made from ground lapis lazuli stone which has tiny specs of iron pyrite in it that make it glitter like gold. Lapis lazuli comes mainly from one set of mines in the remote Badakhshan area of Northern Afghanistan (formerly Persia). The Sar-i-Sang (Place of the Stones) mines have been in operation continuously for over 6,000 years! Marco Polo explored the area in the 13th Century and wrote ‘there is a mountain in that region where the finest azure (lapis lazuli) in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks’. The name ultramarine does not refer to the colour of the sea. ‘Azzurro oltre mare’ or ‘azzurro oltremarino’ means ‘blue from across the seas’. No one knew exactly where it came from or how it was made, giving it an exotic and mysterious aura.
Lapis lazuli was exported to all parts of the ancient world and used for jewellery and adornment. It is mentioned in one of the oldest known works of literature, the Mesopotamian poem ‘The Epic of Gilgamesh’ (17-18 C BC). The irises on the Louvre’s 2400 BC alabaster statue of Ebih-II from ancient Mari (modern Syria) are made of lapis lazuli as are the eyebrows of the funeral mask of King Tutankhamun (1341-1323 BC). Cleopatra may have even used very finely powdered lapis lazuli for eyeshadow. Try finding that at Sephora!
The process for making a permanent, non-toxic pigment by extracting colour from the lapis lazuli stone was developed in 12th century Persia. Trade of ultramarine to Europe via Venezia started soon after Marco Polo’s time. It was used for manuscript illuminations and painting. In his early 15th century bestseller, ‘Il Libro dell’Arte’ Cennino Cennini writes about how to make the pigment. Powdered lapis lazuli stone was sifted and mixed with pine resin, gum mastic and wax or linseed oil. It was wrapped in cloth, soaked and kneaded with a dilute lye solution until the blue colour was extracted. Cennini wrote ‘ultramarine blue is a color illustrious, beautiful, the most perfect, beyond all other colours; one could not say anything about it, or do anything with it, that its quality would not still surpass’.
Extracting colour from lapis lazuli with lye can be compared to pressing olive oil. The process is done 3 times. The first ‘press’, like extra virgin olive oil produces the highest quality colour. The second press, although still good, is a lower quality colour, and the final press would be the equivalent of pomace olive oil. In the 2009 Australian/French documentary ‘Cracking the Colour Code’ Massimo Zecchi can be seen preparing genuine ultramarine pigment for the restoration of a Renaissance altarpiece.
During the Renaissance, ultramarine became associated with the divine and heavenly, giving works of art both a sense of spirituality and luxury. Since it was worth more than the same weight in gold, it was used sparingly by Renaissance painters. It was reserved for the most important parts of the painting-usually the robes of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Artists would sign contracts with their patrons stating the quality and price to be paid for the pigment. Zecchi Colori e Belle Arti in Firenze has been making artist pigments for over 300 years. On their website 100g of ‘Azzurro oltremarino di lapis lazuli Afgano’ sells for 510 Euro, 10g is €58 2nd quality is €290 for 100g or €38 for 10g.
Artists often economized for the underpainting by using blue made with azurite, a mineral mined in France. Then they would add thin layers of ultramarine over top. Azurite makes a paler, greenish blue. It was used for painting skies but would turn dark over time. In one of my favourite paintings, Sandro Botticelli’s 1470 ‘La Madonna dell’ Eucaristia’ (the Madonna of the Eucharist), the difference between the grayed greenish blue of the sky and the brilliant ultramarine of the Madonna’s robe is clearly visible. If you are in Boston, be sure to visit this masterpiece at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum because photographs do not do it justice.
Ultramarine was not used in fresco painting, as the colour bleaches out in reaction to the acidic wet lime plaster. This meant an enormous amount of the expensive pigment would be needed. Azurite was used for fresco painting. It had a course texture, making it hard to stick to the plaster. Several layers of azurite were needed, giving the fresco a crusty or chalky look. Ultramarine pigment was mixed with a binder-usually egg yolk, and applied to the fresco ‘secco’, after the plaster had dried. This is how Giotto painted the magnificent Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova in 1305.
The turban of Johannes Vermeer’s mesmerizing 1665 ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ is painted with a mixture of ultramarine and lead white, with many thin glazes of pure ultramarine painstakingly painted over it. Vermeer went into debt buying the pigment!
In the 18th Century, oxides from cobalt were used to make a blue similar to the Ancient Egyptian blue frit. Several other blue pigments were also developed, but none could compare to ultramarine. In 1826, the French government offered a prize to produce a synthetic version of ultramarine. Many attempts failed. The final product was named ‘french ultramarine’. Large quantities could be produced at a much lower price. This is the ultramarine blue pigment we use today. It is one of the most important colour discoveries in the history of artist pigments. The next time you crack open a tube of ultramarine blue, squeeze it onto your palette and load it on your brush….you can recall the long and fascinating history that led to the manufacture of your paint!
The Italian word for blue is azzurro (ahz·ZOOR·roh), from the Persian word lazhward which morphed into lazulo then became azzurro. The same word is the root of English azure, French azur, Polish lazur, Romanian azuriu, Spanish and Portuguese azul, and Hungarian azúr. Lapis is Latin for stone, thus lapis lazuli means blue stone.