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The Economic and Symbolic Meaning of Ultramarine Blue

The history of colours is fascinating from many perspectives. Many parallel stories could be written about their symbolic, material, and social meanings. This article aims to explain how these apparently dissimilar viewpoints are closely interconnected and necessary to understand colour’s importance in human history. More specifically, the article will focus on the history of the most expensive colour ever existed, even more valuable than gold: ultramarine blue.


Actually the blue colour, nowadays considered so common in our everyday life, is not as common as one may think and this is truly exceptional, as in nature it is not very common. Throughout the Centuries, the history of blue has shaped its meanings and uses. Its origin will be discussed by exploring the trade routes which introduced this colour into the Western world, and finally delve into its meaning, techniques and reasons of use in various painting techniques such as fresco, dry pigment, and oil.


Figure 1: Polished Lapis Lazuli (2022).

Before dipping into the discussion of ultramarine's origins, it is necessary to understand that, before the introduction of modern chemistry, colour was a precious material. It was a derivate of natural plants and minerals and therefore subject to the geographical availability of specific areas of the world. This may sound trivial, but nonetheless it is crucial. In nature there are only three primary sources from which colours can be extracted: minerals, animals and plants (Rinaldi, 2011). Upon this, it is clear that the prevalence of a certain hue over another in a specific area of the world is often not just a stylistic choice rather than a result of the natural availability of the desired colour. Blue, despite being considered a fundamental shade in our visual experience nowadays, is not that abundant in nature. For this reason, as it is seen in ancient paintings, whether they are mural or on other types of supports like wooden or stone sculptures, it is not present in the same quantity of other colours, as it happens with ochre red, brown or black.


The Origins of Blue

The shade of blue commented in this article has a precise name (ultramarine) and an equally specific origin: it comes from the Middle East, particularly the northern region of Afghanistan, in the area known as Sar-e-Sangh. It was in this region that the biggest and finest lapis lazuli mines were discovered. Therefore, the first artistic evidences of mural paintings where ultramarine was used were found nearby that region, in the Bamiyan crypt dated VI-VII Century BC, as well as in frescos in Chinese Turkestan of the same period (Gettens, 1950). Also Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia, refers to this colour and its presence in Persia. It is interesting to notice that the very own name of light blue (and so “azul” in Spanish, “azzurro” in Italian and so on in other Romance languages) derive from the Persian word “lajward”, meaning blue stone (ibidem). The cross-pollination among languages plays a major role in the lexical growth of each language. The linguistic relationship between Arabic and European languages is very strong, especially in specific fields such as algebra, chemistry and food. The European languages, considered here as receptacle of words, tended to keep the sounds of Arabic because those were considered culturally superior, especially in the fields of algebra as mentioned above. There was a sort of cultural cross-pollination in that sense, due to the Arabic domination of some territories. Only many centuries later this material was imported to Europe alongside with the name from the original language.


Figure 2: Lapis Lazuli mine in Afghanistan today (MYKU online journal, 2018).

The colour, derived from the lapis lazuli, is a pigment obtained through a long process of refinement that removes its many natural impurities. Before being used as a pigment, the stone was often set in jewelry and decorative objects. Its rarity determined its preciousness.


As mentioned in the first paragraph, blue is not widely found in nature. The sole other sources from which blue could be produced were indigo and woad, two plants coming from India/Africa and Europe, respectively. In Ancient times the Egyptians used to associate blue with spirituality and used lapis lazuli as a precious ground in both their artworks and cosmetics, but also in royal burial rituals, as it was considered a symbol of royalty and immortality. Northern European populations believed also in the magical powers of this colour, in particular the so-called “Barbarians” such as the Celtics. In his De Bello Gallico (V, 14), Cesar described the tradition of painting the body with blue marks made from woad, because they believed in the magical powers of blue, which presumably gave them more power in battle.

Apparently the name “British” would come from the word “prittanoi” in Greek, literally “tattooed people” (Online Treccani Enciclopedia). Tattooed in blue, of course. This was a great cultural dispute, as the Romans considered blue as a negative colour in opposition to red, the one they used for royalty. This is just one of the many aspects in which colour can shape culture, both visually and symbolically. However, ultramarine made its appearance in Europe thanks to the Republic of Venice through the Silk Road. This is precisely the origin of its name, as “ultramarine” means ”beyond the sea”.



The Routes of Ultramarine

In his book Il Milione, written between 1271 and 1295, Marco Polo described his travels through Asia, from Venice to Beijing. He passed also from Afghanistan, where he saw the lapis lazuli mines (XXXIV). He defined it as the finest blue he had ever seen.

Figure 3: A map of the Silk Road (World History Enciclopedia, 2012).

The Republic of Venice was in charge of trade from the East, so mostly all the ultramarine came from there and partly from some other European trade centers such as Holland (Cecchini, 2000). The price of ultramarine rose significantly in time until it reached its peak during the XV Century, becoming even more expensive than gold. As because of that the risk of theft was very high, the Republic of Venice required a specific taxation on this kind of goods, so patrons became very strict about the quantity their artists could buy and use.

As Michael Baxandall points out in his essay Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century - Italy: A Primer in the Social History of Pictorial Style (2001), the real success of ultramarine took place during the XV Century, when the artists started to use it in greater quantity as its cultural importance totally changed. In this period it can be observed the increasing of blue’s importance as it was chosen to represent the standard colour of the Madonna’s mantle. For example, one particular Madonna, with no author and sculpted in the XI Century, shows the change of taste during the ages. It is now in the Museum of Liège. On the Madonna's veil are different layers of paint one on the other: black, blue, gold and white (Pastoreau, 2002).

Still, there was not only one way to evaluate a genuine, real ultramarine. For example, Raphael (1483-1520) used the colour blue in many of his works, but he used ultramarine just for the last layer of paint. It is also said that also Michelangelo, for using this colour, left unfinished one of his works, the Entombment (1500-1501), because he did not have enough money to buy all the ultramarine he needed to complete it (Hirst and Dunkerton, 1994).


The Cultural Alteration of Blue

One of the ways to understand the symbolical meaning of this colour is to look at Giotto’s Rinuncia agli averi (Waiver of San Francesco’s belongings) and Sassetta’s San Francesco dona il mantello al soldato povero (San Francesco gives his cape to a poor soldier). Two ways of portraying richness over the course of time are represented: Giotto painted his fresco in 1292-1296, while Sassetta in 1437-1344. Giotto decided to portray richness through the use of yellow, whether Sassetta employed ultramarine.


Figure 4: Fresco in the cycle of the Legend of Francis (Giotto da Bondone, 1292-1296).


During the Renaissance, society witnesses the rise of a new class of bankers. This new social class sought to demonstrate its power by commissioning to the artists great public works to embellish their towns and palaces, emphasizing their intrinsic wealth in front of other families and the population itself. Therefore, the Medici family insisted on having significant amounts of ultramarine in the artworks they commissioned to their artists. This is evident in their relationship with Botticelli. It is sometimes easy to forget that art always hold economic value, and for a long time painters were considered as mere craftsmen. The subject and the materials they used determined the artwork's worth. However, this perception of pricing would radically change later on: the first signs of this transition occurred with artists like Sandro Botticelli, who managed to demand a payment equivalent to the value of ultramarine itself (Baxandall, 2001).


It should always be kept in mind that colours do shape our culture and change throughout ages with the cultural references they drive in the surrounding mentality. In the past blue was seen as a powerful colour because of its rarity. For Homer the sea was just dark, not blue, and he compared it to the colour of wine (Odyssey, I, 183). In the Iliad there is not a single reference to blue as a colour, since it was perceived as a shade of black and purple (Gladstone, 1858). In the Bible, blue is not even once mentioned. For us, nowadays, blue is something normal as it is the colour of the sky and the sea.


Throughout history, artists have chosen colours upon their shared reference points with the public. In the past, blue represented royalty and power, while today it is associated with tranquility and calmness. Cultural contexts evolve, and although new societies may lack direct awareness of the ancient significance of ultramarine blue, it played a pivotal role in the shaping of our culture. The legacy of ultramarine and its historical importance in art and society remind us that colours hold deep symbolic and emotional connections, transcending time and enriching our collective human experience.




Bibliographical References

Baxandall, M. (2001). Pittura ed esperienze sociali nell’Italia del Quattrocento. Einaudi.

Cecchini, I. (2000). Quadri e Commerci a Venezia durante il Seicento. Marsilio.

Gettens, J. R. (1950). Lapis Lazuli and Ultramarine in Ancient Times. Fondation Universitaire.

Gladstone, W. (1858). Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age. Oxford University Press.

Hirst, M. & Dunkerton, J. (1994). Making and Meaning: the Young Michelangelo, National Gallery Publications.

Pastoreau, M. (2008). Blu, storia di un colore in Il colore, Ponte alle Grazie.


Visual Sources

Cover image: Microscopic photograph of a lapis lazuli stone. Retrieved June 23 202, from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lapis-Lazuli_microscope_x240.jpg


Figure 1: Lapis Lazuli mineral collection, by jonnysek. Retrieved June 23 2023, from: https://stock.adobe.com/it/images/lapis-lazuli-mineral-collection/229734086


Figure 2: Lapis lazuli mine in Afghanistan today. Retrieved June 23 2023, from: https://www.myku.co/blogs/journal/lapis-lazuli-king-of-stones-stone-of-kings


Figure 3: A map indicating the main trade routes of the Silk Road. Retrieved June 23 2023, from: https://www.worldhistory.org/image/146/the-silk-road/


Figure 4: Renunciation of wordly goods by Giotto di Bondone, in the Assisi Basilica. Retrieved June 23 2023, from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Giotto_-_Legend_of_St_Francis_-_-05-_-_Renunciation_of_Wordly_Goods.jpg



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Alessandra Cipolloni

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