Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Transitioning colors: purple

In my post on the ephemerality of color names I wrote that color names can go out of fashion and then the label of a given color is lost. It also happens that a label is persistent, but the color associated with that name changes. Purple is such an example.

Nathan's color thesaurus responds to "porpora" with the color of hexadecimal value b23372, which looks like


However, if we look at this old mosaic in San Vitale in Ravenna, we see a different color for the same label "porpora":

What happened?

From Phoenician times the purple colorant was extracted from molluscs living in the coast of present day Lebanon and Israel. It was a rare colorant, hence used only for textiles destined to the rich and powerful. In fact, in 1464 Pope Paul II decreed that cardinals have to wear purple.

By coincidence this was the time the Byzantine empire crumbled and in the Ottoman empire the Purple industry in the Eastern Mediterranean disappeared. Hence, the tailors had to switch to a red colorant, but the papal decree cast the label "purple" into concrete.

If today you visit a religious clothing store, when you ask for Purple you will get a red cape, as shown below. In this case, Italian crowdsourcing returns Purple more to the original color, but not quite.

This is a big problem for restorers. As you might have seen in the Sixtine Chapel or Leonardo's Last Supper, today's restorers are very aggressive in restoring the original colors, instead of just freshening up the old paint in its current state.

One way to figure out the original colors is to study the master's notebooks and find textual descriptions of the colors. Unfortunately, for a given label, the colors transition, especially today when all paints care constantly reformulated to make them less toxic.

Anyway, these color transitions is exactly why Prof. Giovanni Brini in Torino has compiled his comprehensive color name dictionary. It is intended for restorers who have to pin-point the color for a given name at a given date.