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 chief part of our information upon the subject of ancient
pigments. From these sources, through the experiments and observations of
Sir Humphry Davy (Phil. Trans. of the Royal Society,
some remains of ancient colours and paintings in the Golden House of Nero
(wrongly called the Baths of Titus), 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. Recent discoveries at
Tiryns and other very early Greek sites have brought to light examples of
painting of extreme antiquity, in which nevertheless pigments of fine
quality and considerable variety of tint are used.
Brilliant blues and greens occur made of “smalto” or powdered
glass, and a large number of ochre earths supply various soft harmonious
tints of red and yellow.
It should be observed that both Greek and Roman writers use colour-names in a
very different way from that now employed; and thus most classical names for
colours are now quite untranslatable. Homer's “wine-like sea”
) and Horace's “purpureus
olor” (Carm. iv.
1, 10) refer, not so much to what
we call colour, as to the chromatic strength of the various surfaces, and
their more or less strong powers of reflecting light, either in motion or
when at rest.
Thus, too, we have no word like Virgil's “flavus,” which can be
applied both to a lady's hair and to the foliage of an olive. In a similar
way a meaning unlike ours is attached to Greek technical terms in painting:
they meant, not tone, but the
gradations of light and shade; and by ἁρμογὴ
the relations of colours. (See Pliny, Plin. Nat. 35.29
; and Ruskin, Mod.
part iv. ch. 13.)
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, it
should be remembered, was neither a scientific archaeologist nor a practical
artist. He says (35.50), “Quatuor coloribus solis immortalia illa
opera fecere, ex albis Melino, ex silaceis Attico, ex rubris Sinopide
Pontica, ex nigris atramento, Apelles, Echion, Melanthius, Nicomachus,
clarissimi pictores;” and (35.92), “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 (Cic. Brut. 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 extols 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, 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
(35.16) and cinnabaris
or vermilion, which he calls also minium (33.115). He mentions also (35.38)
the Eretrian earth used by Nicomachus, and the elephantinum,
or ivoryblack, used by Apelles (35.42), thus
contradicting himself when he asserted that Apelles and Nicomachus used but
four colours. The above tradition, and the simplex
of Quintilian (Orat. Instit.
12.10), 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 recent
discoveries, 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.
Sir H. Davy also analysed the colours of the so-called “Aldobrandini
marriage” (now in the Vatican library), 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. [p. 1.485]
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 all 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.” The process of making this vitreous
pigment or “smalto” is described below.
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 of 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 woad, or hydrated binoxide of manganese; also a
black colour composed of chalk, mixed with the ink of the Sepia
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,
vermilion, bisulphuret of mercury, called also by
Pliny and Vitruvius miniunm.
The κιννάβαρι Ἰνδικόν,
mentioned by Pliny and
Dioscorides, was what is usually called dragon's-blood, the resin obtained
from various species of the calamus palm.
seems to have had various
significations; it was used for cinnabaris,
red lead, and rubrica,
ochre. There were various kinds of rubricae,
--the Cappadocian, the Egyptian, the Spanish, and the
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
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, sandaraca;
by the Greeks, μίλτος,
and, according to Dioscorides (5.122), σανδαράκη.
Pliny tells us that it was discovered
through the accidental calcination of some cerussa
(white lead) by a fire in the Peiraeeus, and was first
used as a pigment by Nicias of Athens, about 330 B.C.
The Roman sandaraca seems to have had various significations, and it is
evidently used differently by the Greek and Roman writers. Pliny speaks of
different shades of sandaraca, 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 sandaraca 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
The fine sealing-wax-like red on the Roman Samian pottery is formed of an
oxide of iron, mixed with an alkaline silicate, so as to make a sort of red
The reds used by fresco-painters were mainly varieties of ochre-earths,
coloured by different oxides of iron. Native iron, in the form of haematite,
was largely used by painters on fresh stucco. The very brilliant vermilion,
a sulphide of mercury, was used less frequently. It occurs on some of the
pottery from Magna Graecia, of the fourth century B.C., and also in some of wax encaustic paintings of Pompeii.
One of the most beautiful pigments known to the ancients was made from the
of the Arabs, or Coccus
a small beetle resembling cochineal, which lives on the ilex
oaks of Arcadia and various parts of Asia Minor. This insect, when infused
in boiling water, gives a magnificent rich red dye, and was largely used in
the fine Persian carpets of the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. It is
more splendid in colour and more durable than cochineal.
Some stuffs, found in 1886 in tombs at Ekhmîn in Middle Egypt, have
woven patterns in coloured wools on a white linen warp. In some of these,
which date from the third century A.D., the fine
red is still as brilliant as ever.
Like the murex,
and other colours of animal or
vegetable origin, this kermes,
though in the first
instance specially a dyer's pigment, seems also to have been made available
for the painter. This was done by using it as a stain for a white earth,
thus forming a solid pigment of sufficient body to be used on stucco or
YELLOW. Yellow ochre, hydrated peroxide of iron,
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
different 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., but in reality ochre pigments were used
many centuries earlier.
orpiment (yellow sulphuret of
arsenic), found especially in the silver mines of Syria, was also an
important yellow; but it has not been discovered in any of the ancient
paintings. The sandaraca has been already mentioned.
Saffron, and plants such as the Reseda luteola,
were largely used to produce yellow dyes for
textiles; and the same pigments were mixed with white earths for the use of
which appears to have been
green carbonate of copper or malachite (green verditer), was the green most
approved of by the ancients; its depth of tint depended upon the quantity of
white carbonate of lime mixed with it.
Pliny mentions various kinds of verdigris (diacetate of copper), aerugo,
ἰός, ἰὸς χαλκοῦ,
and a particular preparation of verdigris called scolecia.
Sir H. Davy supposes the ancients to have
used also acetate of copper as a pigment. Besides the above were several
green earths, all cupreous oxides: Theodotion
), so called from being found upon the
estate of Theodotus, near Smyrna; Appianum;
the creta viridis,
common green earth of
The finest green pigment was a variety of “smalto,” simply a
glass coloured with some salt of copper, and then minutely powdered. This
very brilliant colour could resist the action of fresh lime, and so was
available for the frescopainter.
It should be noted that the word chrysocolla
used in classical writings with many different meanings. Its original
meaning, and the one which gave its name, was borax, used as a flux for
soldering by the ancient gold-workers.
Another meaning seems to be the glittering scales of mica, which are found in
large quantities among the débris
disintegrated granitic rocks. This appears to be the meaning of the word
when Pliny, Plin. Nat. 33.90
, speaks of
Nero strewing the arena of the Circus Maximus with chrysocolla.
Carbonate of copper, either natural or artificial, was largely used by the
ancient dyers; as, for examples, in the Ekhmîn textiles mentioned
above. To receive this dye the stuff had previously to be prepared by an
alum “mordant,” the use of which for this and other colours was
understood by the dyers of Egypt: at a very early period, as is recorded by
The principal blue pigment used by
the Greek and Roman painters in early times seems to have been a true
“smalto” or enamel colour, made of powdered blue glass,
which had been coloured by some salt of copper.
Examples of this exist in the tombs of ancient Egypt, and on the paintings of
Tiryns; and lumps of the smalto pigment have been found at Ephesus and at
One method of preparing this colour is described by Vitruvius (7.11
): copper filings and a proportion of alkali
are to be mixed with finely ground sand (silica
and the frit thus composed mixed with water into a paste, formed into balls,
dried, and then fused in an ordinary glass furnace. The blue vitreous mass
thus produced was then broken up and finely ground.
A lump of this “smalto” from Pompeii, when analysed by Sir
Humphry Davy, was found to consist of carbonate of
15 parts; silica,
20; and copper,
A natural blue carbonate of copper (verditer
also much used. Various tints were produced by mixing it with different
proportions of carbonate of lime or white earth. This was imported from
Scythia, Alexandria, and Cyprus. A variety called coelon
was made at Pozzuoli by a man named Vestorius, who had learnt
the process in Egypt. Another preparation, made by washing out the particles
of deeper blue, was known as lomentum:
inferior quality of this was called tritum.
The finest and most costly blue was ultramarine (sapphirus,
), made from lapislazuli.
The stone was first calcined, and then the blue
particles separated by washing. Its use was probably very limited, owing to
the rarity of fine blue lapis-lazuli.
Cobalt blue was used specially for colouring glass, and for glazes on
pottery, as on many of the small mummy-figures from Egypt. Cobalt for this
purpose was got from various silver mines, where it occurs in combination
with other substances. As a metal, cobalt was not known till modern times.
was chiefly used for dyeing
textiles. It is the juice of the Indigofera tinctoria,
plant which does not grow in Europe. The indigo was largely imported in a
manufactured state from Egypt and further East, probably from India.
There is no trace of blue in the indigo dye itself, and a piece of stuff
after first coming out of the vat is a pale yellow colour, which rapidly
becomes blue on exposure to the air, owing to the oxidization which takes
place in the indigo. Repeated dippings are required before deep blue is
gained, and when carefully dye the colour is very permanent. Examples from
Egyptian tombs, dating many centuries B.C., still
exist as fresh in tint as if new.
The indigo was adapted to the painters' purposes in the usual way, by using
it as a dye to stain chalk or white earth.
PURPLE. The ancients had also several kinds of
purple,--purpurissum, ostrum, hysginum,
various compound colours. The most valuable of these was the purpurissum,
prepared by mixing the creta argentaria
with the purple secretion of the
The magnificent murex
dye, for which the
Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon were so celebrated, was made from several
shell-fish, all spiral univalves, the chief of which was the Murex trunculus.
An interesting discovery of the débris
a manufactory for murex
purple near Sidon was
discovered by M. Gaillardot (Globe,
1874, vol. xxvi., No. 15,
p. 237). An immense quantity of shells were found, all broken in the same
way, evidently by a sharp-pointed tool used to extract the fish. See also
Schmidt, “Die Purpurfarberei . . . in Alterthum,” in the
Forschungen aus dem Gebiete des Alterthums,
p. 96; and Lacaze-Duthiers, “Mémoire sur la
Pourpre,” in the Comptes rendus de l'Acad. des
Paris, 1860, No. 44. Two very different colours were made
from the murex, one a blue-purple and the other a crimson-purple.
The use of manganese as a brownish purple for vitreous purposes was known to
the ancient glass-workers of many countries. It is common on the glazed
pottery of Egypt.
woad?), according to Vitruvius, is a colour between
scarlet and purple. [p. 1.487]
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.
madder-root, gave a very beautiful
purple-red, specially used for dyeing.
burnt ochre. The browns were ochres
calcined, oxides of iron and of manganese, and compounds of ochres and
The ancient blacks were mostly
carbonaceous. The best for the purposes of painting were elephantinum,
ivory-black; and tryginum,
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 so-called “Indian ink” of China,
made of finely-divided carbon. The blacks from sepia and the black woad have
been already mentioned.
The black used by dyers, Atramentum sutorium,
appears to have been identical with chalcantum,
sulphate of copper dye, which was obtained in large quantities from the
copper mines of Spain. This dye was liable to destroy the fibre of textiles,
and in ancient examples from Egypt and elsewhere the threads which had been
dyed black have usually rotted away. The same effect was also produced by
the black dyes formed of some salt of iron mixed with tannin made from
gall-nuts or oak-bark--what we now use as writing ink.
The magnificent black enamel, used for the ground of Greek vases of the best
period, appears, from analysis, to be a true vitreous enamel, rendered black
by the magnetic oxide of iron.
WHITE. The ordinary Greek white was melinum,
less correctly μηλιάς,
an earth from the isle of Melos, a sort of
“pipe-clay.” For fresco-painting the best was the African
a hydrated silicate of
magnesia, so called from the well-known place in Marmarica, where it was
found; it also was imported in large quantities from Crete and the
The Creta annularia
appears to have been an aluminous earth
from Eretria, so called because it entered into the composition of the glass
“paste” used for imitation gems in rings.
Carbonate of lead or white lead, cerussa,
does not appear to have been used
by mural painters, probably because it is very liable to blacken, if exposed
to any but very pure air.
An impure cerussa
is found in a native state at
many places, but the best was made artificially by placing sheets of lead in
jars with a little vinegar at the bottom. The surface of the metal slowly
becomes converted into carbonate or acetate of lead under the influence of
the acid vapour of the vinegar, and can then be scaled off, ground and
purified by repeated washing. The vapour of vinegar was used in the same way
to produce blue pigment from plates of metallic copper, which rapidly
acquire a coating of verdigris.
Many other earthy whites were used by the potter and the mural painter; as,
for example, chalk, gypsum, and common lime. These mineral whites were also
very largely used in combination with other colours to produce tints of
different degrees of strength. In many cases the painter used a pure colour
for his deepest shadows, and got gradation of half tones by mixing with the
pure pigment various proportions of lime or chalk-white, the pure white
being finally used to touch in the high lights. This method is common among
the paintings of Rome and Pompeii.
A fine mixture of chalk or pipe-clay together with powdered silica
was used by the Attic potters to produce the
beautiful creamy white of the fourth-century polychromatic lecythi,
probably the atticum
of Pliny, 35.50
. Some of the
Athenian terra-cotta statuettes are coated with a similar mixture, to which
some alkaline flux has been added, so that a vitreous, white enamelled
surface was produced by the heat of the kiln. This remarkable fabrique,
though a different composition was used, resembles in effect the white
enamel of the Della Robbias of Florence in the fifteenth century.
Another frequent use of earth-whites, to form a vehicle or body for vegetable
pigments, has been more than once mentioned above.
Pliny divides the colours into colores floridi
and colores austeri
(35.30). 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 (35.30
) and Vitruvius (7.7
) divide 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, sandaraca, minium
), and chrysocolla, being of metallic
origin. The others are called artificial, on account of requiring some
particular preparation to render them fit for use.
For the modes of using colours and the various media
employed, see PICTURA
--Sir Humphry Davy, “Colours used by the
Ancients,” in the Transactions of the Royal
1815; Montabert, Traité complet de
Paris, 1829-55; Geoffroy, “Des Couleurs dans
l'Antiquité,” printed in the Mém. de
2.2, 1879; Blümner,
Technologie der Gewerbe und Künste bei Griechen und
i. Berlin, 1875; Hittorf, L'Architecture
polychrome des Grecs,
Paris, 1851; Jahn, Die Malerei der
Berlin, 1836; Wiegmann, Die Malerei der
Hannover, 1836; Helbig, Wandgemälde der
Berlin, 1875, and the introduction
by Otto Donner; Penrose, Principles of Athenian Architecture,
London, 1858; Palmeri, Ricerche sopra
trovati a Pompei,