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Paint it any color as long as it's blue: Ultramarine Blue


Paint it any color as long as it's blue: Ultramarine Blue

For years the Home Fashion Industry has followed a prepared a forecasted color palette. The successful Interior Designer has learnt to pay attention to every detail of the project no matter how minuscule. Section from Virgin of the Rocks, painting by Leonardo da Vinci Today’s signature room requires much attention from the skilled creative. More is essential than simply hanging a painting upon a wall. And, for many that landscape or still life painting is at times used simply as an accent and is just one of many components that contributes luxurious opulence to a room.

But such was not the case during the Renaissance. For, during this period in history status came from a specific pigment that was used. So special that even by today’s standards its’ status remains unchallenged. While it is known that the Italian Masters had a limited color palette there is one color that far outshone all others. This pigment was at least as important as the painting itself. Its name is ultramarine.

The semi-precious stone from Afghanistan, called Lapis lazuli was more precious than gold and obtaining it was extremely dangerous, just as it is today. It dates back seven thousand years when it was used in the royal tombs of Ur and Egyptian pharaohs. Lapis is considered the rarest of stones, and mined mostly in Badakshan, Afghanistan, the oldest mine in the world. This same source for the Lapis lazuli supplied the pharaohs and the Renaissance artisans. Adding to this expense was the difficult and often long grinding process necessary to transform the ultramarine into granules. Even today while it remains rare it can be purchased only through selective distributors specializing in museum quality restoration materials.

The Madonna and Child with a Female Saint and the Infant Saint John the Baptist, oil on panel painting by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio)

Consequently, because of the cost of this material the early Renaissance reserved it for painting the garments of the Virgin Mary and Holy Infant. The precious pigment had its first appearance in the early Renaissance painted altarpieces of Giotto. Leonardo Da Vinci was required to sign a contract that stipulated specifically he use the ultramarine for The Virgin of the Rocks, in London’s National Gallery. Sponsors of Michelangelo and Raphael were expected to pay an additional fee to the merchants that supplied the ultramarine. It then became the responsibility of these Masters to use it within their commissioned compositions. There remains an unfinished panel, titled The Entombment dated 1501 by Michelangelo also in the National Gallery. It remains unfinished because the poor twenty-four year old artist never received shipment of the pigment from his patron. By the mid fifteen hundreds, the Italian Master Titian extended the previously limited use of the ultramarine by using it lavishly when painting skies. But, Titian by then had a reputation for sparing no expense on his materials.

Social and economical status in interior decoration has definitely evolved since the beginning of recorded history. While Renaissance Masters focused on status achieved through pigment choice, the Interior Designer of today is not as limited. However, for the artist and the consumer the color blue is here to stay as it was and remain always a primary color.

The Art Historian 2009

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