The Color of Three Stones: Gold, Lapis lazuli, and Marble

Such a glorious world made of light and shadows, luminous intensities with shades of magnificent and wondrous color. The colors of day transition from dawn to sunset, regardless of the day, yet more often or so, the observer takes such splendor as the normalcy of everydayness.  Be that as it may, such beauty of the hues of light and shadows have long been part of the human consciousness and observations from the very beginning of recorded human history.  The experience of color is not only in the domain of the physical world, but the phenomena of color also exist in the ethereal human sub-consciousness and imagination.   Color is synthesized into the culture of color, and over the span of time, by the progression of science and technology.

O’ wondrous flame of fire and light flickers shades of gold of the sun, blue of the heavens, and white of clouds; such bravura color mystifies the eyes yet untouchable to hold.  The toil of the imagination charges human hands to turn the earth below to behold gold, lapis lazuli, and marble for thou to hold!

The cave paintings of France and Spain are perhaps the earliest examples of human creativity and ingeniousness in finding materials that produce colors, and then incorporating the colors into a visual language to socialize the human experience. Such social adaptation has always been culturally at hand and practiced by human societies to the present day.  The subject of color can be subjective, objective, spiritual, or intellectual, and resides for those with the most curious and thoughtful eyes.

One of the first notable color theorists was Leone Battista Alberti (b.1404 – d.1472), born in Genoa, Italy to a wealthy Florentine father.  His mother was unknown.  Alberti, well-educated, studied law as a profession but his interests in ancient ruins became his passion for forms, design, and architecture.  To underscore Alberti’s talents to only his contribution to Italian architecture would not do him justice as Alberti epitomized the Renaissance man, he was an artist, architect, cryptographer, humanist, linguist, mathematician, philosopher, poet, and writer.

By age twenty, Alberti’s developed a reputation as a writer, his first play, considered a piece of classical literature, and by age thirty-one, Alberti began his early major work Della Pittura, written in the vernacular of the Italian Renaissance.  Della Pittura describes the figurative arts systematically through geometry and the theory of painting.  Alberti divided painting into three parts: Circumscriptio, Compositio, and Receptio luminum.  The noted renaissance historian, Giorgio Vasari (b.1511 – d.1574), chronicles Alberti’s life in Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550.

Of course, Vasari’s book also chronicles Leonardo Da Vinci (b.1452 – d.1519), artist, scientist, inventor, and writer.  Da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting covers color principles of light and shade, and takes an empirical approach to observation, recording his experiments on how the color changes with the quality of light, effects of luminous bodies, tone, a reflection of color.  Besides, his investigations of color with the camera obscura, both Alberti and Da Vinci’s contributions to color theory became the foundation and also the departure for some of the color theorists to come in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.

Between the late sixteen hundreds and early seventeen hundreds, Sir Isaac Newton (b.1642 – d.1726), began a series of experiments with the nature of light and color with the Celebrated Phenomenon of Colours.  Newton’s experiments started with refracting white light with a prism, splitting it into its component colors: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Violet.  He postulates that the source of color was light and that of white light when passed through a prism, creates a spectrum of colors observed by the human eye.  Newton viewed color as a system or wheel that contained the colors red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet, and in 1704 published the first color wheel, which he entitled Opticks.

In the early eighteen hundreds, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (b.1749 – d.1832), arrived on the scene, Goethe, like Alberti spent time studying law, also lured away by the arts to become a notable writer by age of twenty-five.  His works include epics, lyric poetry, dramas, memoirs, literary and aesthetic criticism, treatises on botany, anatomy, and of course color. His notable literary works include; Faust, The Sorrows of Young Werther, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Elective Affinities, Prometheus, Zur Farbenlehre, Italienische Reise, and West–östlicher Divan.  Also, nearly 3,000 drawings by him exist.

His 1,400-page treatise Theory of Colours published in 1810, is considered a significant contribution and with moving color theory forward on two levels of perception and psychology of color.  The book canvasses detailed observations of phenomena such as colored shadows, refractions, and chromatic aberrations.  Although parts of Goethe’s work were indeed rejected by notable physicists, philosophers, and physicists, due to Goethe’s misinterpretation of Newton’s experiments, Goethe’s contribution lies in his way of characterizing physiological colors and subjective visual phenomena.

“When the eye sees a color it is immediately excited, and it is its nature, spontaneously and of necessity, at once to produce another, which with the original color, comprehends the whole chromatic scale.”

Goethe anticipates Ewald Hering’s (b.1834 – d.1918), opponent-color theory, by proposing a symmetric color wheel, which is one basis of our understanding of color vision today.

“The chromatic circle arranged in a general way according to the natural order for the colors diametrically opposed to each other in this diagram is those, which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye.  All intermediate gradations, reciprocally evoke each other, the simpler color demanding the compound, and vice versa.”

Goethe considered The Theory of Colours his most important work, which is interesting to note, considering Goethe is far better known and credited for his literary works.  The Theory of Colours is regarded as a mediation of the dynamic interplay of light and darkness, and The Theory of Colours set the foundation for others, like philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein (b.1889 – d. 1951),  and Arthur Schopenhauer (b.1788 – d.1860), who went on to develop his theory, On Vision and Colours.  Both Goethe and Schopenhauer theories on color became widely adopted by some in the art world, most notably the British painter J. M. W. Turner (b.1775 – d.1851).

Albert Henry Munsell (b.1858 – d.1918), was an American painter of seascapes and portraits, art teacher, and inventor. Munsell attended and served on the faculty of Massachusetts Normal Art School in Boston where he lectured about Color Composition and Artistic Anatomy.  The school later became known as the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.  In 1905, Munsell published his first book, A Color Notation, which described his new color theory, followed in 1913 with his second book, Atlas of the Munsell Color System, and his third book in 1921, A Grammar of Color, published after his death.  All three of these books became the foundation for the Munsell Color Company formed in 1917.

Albert Henry Munsell and the Munsell Color System are still recognized today and are best known for contributions in color science and color theory, which led to and became one of the first Color Systems, the Munsell Color System, which gained international acceptance, and served as the foundation for many other color systems, including CIELab color space.

The CIELAB color space, sometimes expressed as CIE L*a*b* is an international color space model as defined by International Commission on Illumination (CIE) 1976.  The CIE color spacial model represents color as three numerical values, L* = lightness, a* = Green-Red, and b* = Blue-Yellow.  The CIELAB is designed to model the perception of color with uniformity to human color perception, in that a change in the CIELab model corresponds to about the same amount of visually perceived shift in tone.

The CIELab space in itself, is a three-dimensional real numerical space, allowing an infinite number of representations of colors. The L*, a*, and b* values are considered absolute, L*, the lightness value, represents the darkest black at L* = 0, and the brightest white at L* = 100.  The color channels, a* and b*, neutral gray values are at a* = 0 and b* = 0, while the a* axis represents the green–red channel, green is in the negative direction and red in the positive direction. The b* axis represents the blue-yellow channel, with blue in the negative direction and yellow in the positive direction.

The CIELAB color space is typically utilized to convert from RGB (Red, Green, and Blue) to CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black).  The CIELAB gamut includes both the ranges of the RGB and CMYK color models commonly used in graphic communications, photography and other color applications may they be scientific or artistic.

Scientifically what we know about color today is the practical science of color, but there is an unknown region of color science that only physics and mathematics can observe and measure the complex signatures of the electromagnetic field which holds all that is seen and unseen.  The history and progression of color theory within the science of color resemble much like a winding road with switchbacks, bottlenecks, and road markers.  At times, the road has been traveled by those who are curious and intellectually interested, but the way has always been laid down by the purveyors of color.

The Purveyors of the Color Gold

The scientific consensus of the origins of Gold; Symbol Au and Atomic Number 79, is based on the scientific construct of supernova nucleosynthesis, the result of two neutron stars colliding together causing a mass explosion pushing heavy metals (Gold and Platinum) into the universe.  Through this mass explosion, gold becomes present in this stardust mixture of elements that form the heavenly bodies, the solar system, and our world.

During the Precambrian time (4.5 billion years ago), a period starting from our planet’s creation and ending with the beginning of the emergence of sophisticated multi-celled life forms four billion years later, throughout this period the earth was molten.  Heavy metals such as gold sank closer to the planet’s core, along with asteroid impacts introducing gold and other elements into the mantle and crust.

The color of the sun and its golden rays have evermore painted the imagination of humans throughout the ages. From the Far East to the West, such mythologies of Pixiu, Hiranyagarbha, and Midas are more than cultural examples that have embodied the psyche and psychological impact on what we call the culture of color.  Yet, in many ways, the humanity of antiquity, with their vivid imagination of gold’s relationship to the sun, is mystifying as it is instinctively a shade of truth.

Perhaps, the best well-known Western classical mythology about gold is the legend of the Golden Fleece or the Ram with a Golden Fleece. The story is of great antiquity and was current in the time of Homer, and like all great stories, it survives in various forms, among which the details vary.  Some think perhaps the story of Golden Fleece may have been conjured up when the use of fleeces was used to trap gold dust from placer deposits in the ancient world.

In the Golden Fleece, the hero Jason and along with his band of Argonauts set out on a journey and quest for the Golden Fleece and Jason’s right to the throne.  This supernatural tale has many moral implications by today’s standards, with imaginative twists and turns, but is ultimately is a story that symbolizes the golden attribute of the ram’s fleece as a representation of authority and power.

Historians are not sure when gold first appeared in cultures of antiquities, but the literary findings indicate gold was present in the Levant and the Balkans regions.  The topic of gold is mentioned in the Old Testament, starting with Genesis 2:11 in the land of Havilah, also in Exodus  32:1-6 with the story of the Golden Calf and gold can be found in many parts of the temple including the Menorah and the golden altar.  In the New Testament, the magi bring the gift of gold as cited in the chapters of Matthew, and the Book of Revelation 21:21 describes the city of the New Jerusalem as having streets “made of pure gold, clear as crystal.”

The exploitation of gold in the southeast region of the Black Sea dates from the time of Midas in which gold became a vital commodity in the establishment of what is likely the world’s earliest coinage in Lydia around 610 BC.  During the 6th or 5th century BC under the Zhou Dynasty, the commodity of gold in the Chu state circulated was the Ying Yuan, one of a kind square gold coin.

The Romans developed new metallurgy methods for extracting gold on a large scale by introducing hydraulic mining methods, especially in Hispania (Spain) from 25 BC onwards and in Dacia (Carpathian Mountains Regions and States) from 106 AD onwards.  One of the Roman’s largest mines was at Las Medulas in León, the Romans used seven long aqueducts and enabled the aqueducts to alluvial process most, if not all, of the large gold deposits.  The Roman empire also had extensive gold mines in the Roşia Montană in Transylvania and smaller mines around the empire as described by Pliny, the Elder in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia written towards the end of the first century AD.

The ancient Egyptians were among the first to embrace and harnessed gold in their civilization. The first written findings referencing gold were in the 12th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (1900 BC).  The oldest map of a gold mine recorded was in the 19th Dynasty of Ancient Egypt (1320–1200 BC).  King Tushratta of Mitanni claimed gold, “more plentiful than dirt” in Egypt, based on Egyptian hieroglyphs from as early as 2600 BC.

In Saqqara Egypt, it was the Grand Vizier by the name of Mereruka who was in charge of the royal tombs, production, and protection of Egypt’s gold, and perhaps the most powerful Egyptian official outside of the king.  If the Egyptian mystique was not enough, the Grand Vizier Mereruka only employed dwarfs as goldsmiths to work in the gold mines because the Egyptians believed they possess magical powers.

Later in the twentieth century, it was British archaeologist and Egyptologist Howard Carter (b. 1874 –  d.1939), who became world-famous after discovering the tomb of the 18th Dynasty Pharaoh, Tutankhamun (KV62), in November 1922.  The solid gold death mask of Tutankhamun became the iconic and emblematic face of ancient Egyptian civilization.

In the beginning, early Christian theology embraced the poor, the oppressed, and the persecuted.  As Christianity evolved, the Christian patriarchs in the Roman-Byzantine period understood what the Greeks understood before them, that narratives become more powerful when presented in both two and three-dimensional forms, such as painting, mosaics, sculptures, architecture, to overcome the plague of illiteracy of the uneducated populous.  An image could tell a story, convey and connect multiple narratives without the written words, and could be passed on through the oral tradition and the socialization of the culture.

In Christianity, the power and bounty of both the word of the gospel and created images coupled together as one narrative and thrived from the Byzantine period, high Renaissance, and on to the Baroque period.  The literacy of religious iconology was well understood by the masses and high born.  During this period between 476 AD  to 1750, color was the metadata code linking back to the spiritual source code of the gospel.  The color of gold replaced white as the symbolic light of God with all its splendor and glory of the Byzantine period.

As legend has it when Vladimir the Great, (c.959 – 1015), Grand Prince of Kyiv and ruler of the Kievan Rus, observed and understood how religion played a role with the ruling powers in the West.  As the legend and history go, the prince decided to go shopping for religion to unify his people under one governance and religion, and this would allow him to move his people away from the shadows of Russian pagan forests now that the Mongols’ terror faded away with the winds of history.

Vladimir looked at the religions of the Mideast but thought some of the practices were too restrictive.  When his ambassadors set their eyes inside the Great Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the light reflecting off the gold-laden mosaic images of Christian religious icons made such an impression.  His ambassadors described their experience to the prince, “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon the earth.”  It was at this point in history that Russia adopted Eastern Orthodox Christianity partly influenced by one color, the splendor of gold.

During the Renaissance, the color and the substance of gold lured the wealthy and ruling elite of Europe.  The epic center of goldsmithing was Renaissance Florence, and here comes Benvenuto Cellini (b.1500 – d. 1571),  perhaps, the most celebrated goldsmith ever.  Cellini, like many of the artists of the Renaissance, was skilled in more than one art, he was a sculptor, draftsman, musician, and artist who also authored an autobiography and poetry.

The works of Perseus with the Head of Medusa and the Salt Cellar are indeed two of Cellini’s most outstanding and beautiful masterpieces in the world of art.  The Salt Cellar commissioned by King Francis I of France is a masterful work of goldsmithing with two golden figures juxtaposed with each other, Neptune, the god of the sea, and Tellus the goddess of the earth.

As brilliant Cellini was at his art, he was just as spirited in being morally corrupt and a dark figure led a life full of brawls, feuds, and more than one accusation of buggery to his reputation.  Cellini confessed to three murders, enjoyed using his arms to perpetrate murder, imprisoned several times, but in the end, it was the color of gold and his art that saved him from a far more deleterious fate.

All that glitters is not gold but that is not the case with gold nanoparticles that are at the center of advanced medical technologies such as Rapid Diagnostic Tests (RDTs) in which collected blood specimens, and RDTs are used globally to detect such diseases as HIV, influenza, strep, and endemic-malaria.  Rapid Diagnostic Tests are considered critically important in medical technology and have changed disease diagnosis in the developing world over the last decade.

Research with gold nanoparticles around the world is bringing into light new medical innovations with diagnosis technologies, gold-based drugs, and treatments for some of the world’s most chronic diseases. Gold is also part of the physiology of humans, in the technical treatise entitled, The Elements, Third Edition, written by John Emsley and published by the Clarendon Press, Oxford in 1998, the average person’s body weighing 70 kilograms (154.3 lbs.) would contain a total mass of 0.2 milligrams of gold.

In comparison to the other elements based on the average weight, the human body contains 43 kilograms (93.4 lbs.) of oxygen, the most abundant element in the earth, as well as the human body. Other elements found in the human body include 16 kilograms (35.2 lbs.) of carbon and 7 kilograms (15.4 lbs.) of hydrogen. While the role of gold in the physical processes of the human body has been unknown for many years, recent research has determined that gold plays a role in both the health and maintenance of the joints, as well as a crucial element in the transmittal of electrical signals throughout the human body.  The color of gold at times can save and heal souls, but also links us historically, mythologically, and scientifically back to the Sol (G2V).

The Purveyors of the Color Blue

During the period of Egyptian antiquity, the Egyptians held the blueness of the sky and heavens in the highest regard, for blue was considered the pure color of the heavens and beyond.  To the ancient Egyptians, the color symbolized life itself, fertility, rebirth, and water.  The pigment, Egyptian blue (calcium copper silicate) used by the Egyptians and for thousands of years became one of the first synthetic or artificial pigments used by man.

The Romans called it caeruleus (Latin caelum, “sky” or cerulean, “sky blue”), and the English name “Egyptian blue” was not adopted until 1809.  The oldest Egyptian blue artifact found is said to be about 5000 years old, located in a tomb painting dated to the reign of Ka-Sen, the last pharaoh of the First Dynasty. Egyptian blue became widely used during the Egyptian period to the end of the Roman era.  Eventually, Egyptian blue was later replaced by Lapis lazuli as the pure and sacred blue of the heavens.

Lapis lazuli or lapis is a deep blue stone used since antiquity for its intense color of blue.  As early as the 6th millennium BCE, lapis lazuli mining began in northeast Afghanistan.  The stone was highly valued by the Indus Valley Civilization (3300–1900 BCE) which included an area from northeast Afghanistan to Pakistan. Lapis artifacts such as beads were found in Neolithic burials and later used in the funeral mask of Tutankhamun (1341–1323 BCE).

Near the end of the Middle Ages, the export of lapis lazuli to Europe began, and the Afghanistan lapis lazuli trade into Europe started with Italian traders during the 14th and 15th centuries.  Venetian traders exchanged gold for lapis lazuli for its decorative qualities but more critical was the growing demand for lapis lazuli as a desired pigment became an essential global commodity; in that Lapis lazuli was considered more precious than gold.  Lapis lazuli pigment introduced a new word into the language known as ultramarine or the original name in Latin, ultramarinus means “beyond the sea” which refers to where the pigment was from across-the-seas from Afghanistan.

To make ultramarine, the Italian artist, and craftsman, Cennino d’Andrea Cennini (c.1360 – abt.1427), provided instructions on how to prepare ultramarine pigment in his Book of Arts. The process of extraction involved grinding the lapis lazuli stone into a very fine powder, infusing the deposits with melted wax, oils, and pine resin to rid of the impurities, and then kneading the product in a dilute lye solution resulting in pigment.

During the Renaissance, ultramarine blue became an expensive commodity, the color of blue, traditionally reserved for depicting clothing of the central figures, like the raiment of Christ, angels or the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Ultramarine blue became desirable by some of the most important artists of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, including Masaccio (b.1401 – d.1428), Pietro Perugino Vannucci (c.1446 – d.1523), Titian or Tiziano Vecelli (C. 1488 – d.1576), and Johannes Vermeer (b.1632 – d.1675).

Ultramarine was considered the finest and most expensive of all blue pigments, European painters depended on wealthy patrons to underwrite their purchases.  The rise in the cost of the pigment was mainly caused by the restrictions and controlling interests of the Church to codify the ultramarine blue as holiness and humility.

The blue pigment is indeed storied, Michelangelo (b.1475 – d.1564) left his painting, The Entombment (1500–1501) unfinished because he could not generate the funds to buy ultramarine blue pigment.  Raphael (b.1483 – d.1520), used the pigment so scarcely to conserve his funds, and Johannes Vermeer (b.1632 – d.1675), used it so much, that his indulgence in ultramarine blue pushed his family into debt.

Given the high demand and cost, it was not until 1824, France’s Societé d’Encouragement offered a reward of 6,000 francs to anyone who could invent a new alternative to ultramarine. Alas! Both a French chemist and German professor derived a new synthetic formula within weeks of one another.  Indeed the competition was contested.  The new pigment was named “French Ultramarine” which should come as no surprise considering the sponsor of the contest.

Pablo Ruiz Picasso, (b.1881 – d.1973), one cannot speak about Pablo Picasso’s life without mentioning the Picasso Blue Period paintings, which occurred between 1901 and 1904 in Barcelona and Paris.  The paintings are a sober and melancholy cast of destitute characters but striking, emblematic, and memorable like the “Old Guitarist” (1903), “La Vie” (1903), or “La Célestine” (1904).     

Picasso once suggested the blue paintings began around 1901 after learning the news of the death of his best friend, Carles Casagamas (b.1880 – d.1901), son of the American Consul General stationed in Barcelona.  Casagamas was a year older than Picasso, and a painter and poet, which Picasso considered Casagamas, his close friend, both in their early twenties enjoyed the male comradery of drinking and socializing with women.  In the autumn of 1900, Casagamas accompanied Picasso to visit the World’s Fair in Paris, and there Casagamas fell in love with Laure Gargallo, known as Germaine.

Germaine in time spurned Casagamas’s love, and in his despair, Casagemas committed suicide on February 17, 1901, after first attempting to kill Germaine and believing she was dead.  Picasso was deeply affected by Casagamas’s death, and in many ways, Picasso internalized the grieving of Casagamas’s death, which changed his behavior and mannerism, and painting style.  He later returned to Paris in May 1901, oddly enough he took up residence in Casagemas’s former apartment and began a relationship with Germaine.  In the Spring of 1901, the youthful and lively world of Picasso became a bit somber and melancholy with the realities of human mortality, and in return, Picasso gave the world something blue to ponder.

Yves Klein (b.1928 – d.1962), a French artist and a prominent figure in post-war European art who made the color blue his brand, was also a leading member of the Nouveau réalisme in the 60s started by art critic Pierre Restany.  Klein experimented with performance art and was perceived as an inspiration for minimal art and pop art.

In 1962, Yves Klein introduced his new blue monochromatic painting which was an innovation created with a unique patented color named Klein International Blue, which was a pigment variation with ultramarine blue.  In the early 1960s, the introduction of Field Painting was the rage, and not so much the Action Painting of the 1950s.  Klein’s field paintings with this new blue reminiscent of the lapis lazuli used to paint Madonna’s robes in Renaissance paintings, now become another expression of spirituality, a gateway to the beyond, into the heavens, the ultimate freedom from human despair and transgressions.

The historical significance of the color blue in the past, in part, is well documented, and what we can learn from antiquity, blue is a code for the earth, the spiritual, sacred, holy mother, the ethereal emotions of grieving, and otherworldliness. Whoever adorns blue, upholds the spiritual significance of the color, and honors their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters, for women, are the caretakers and birth gateway of life.  Somewhere between the paradox of birth and death our life experiences are sometimes mysterious, ephemeral, and spiritual as the blue moonlight that shades the nightly landscape, and from a distance, afar, the earth is nothing more than blueness in the line of sight in the vastness of space.

The Purveyors of the Color White

Before white, as color became a series of marks in historical time, white of a paler shade appeared as magnificent, bountiful, and towering white clouds cross the stark blue skyline and inspired thoughts of beauty, imagination, and personification of human-inspired Hellenistic gods in the form of the whitest marble.  The ancient Greek bedrock of Western European culture in all its glory was, indeed, built upon with the whitest marble and at times, painted to reflect the sensibilities of the times.

The word marble comes from the Ancient Greek word mármaros meaning “crystalline rock” or “shining stone.”  Parian marble which is pure white fine-grained and Pentelic marble which is also pure white fine-grained but semitranslucent, both are the finest of Greek marble.  Technically speaking, marble is a metamorphic rock or a rock that has been changed by heat, pressure or chemical processes of metamorphism. Marble is composed primarily of the mineral calcite (CaCO3), and of course consists of other minerals, such as clay minerals, micas, quartz, pyrite, iron oxides, and graphite. When metamorphism occurs, the calcite in the limestone recrystallizes to form a rock that is a mass of interlocking calcite crystals.

The ancient Greeks could take the imaginative figures formed by the shape of the clouds and transformed white marble into legends of Laocoön and His SonsThe Winged Victory of Samothrace, The Venus de Milo, and the Elgin Marbles.  The ancient marble architecture of Athens with the likes of the Parthenon, Acropolis site, and Greek temples became the model and foundation of Western European institutions, emblematic of democracy, justice, intellectual discourse, and theater.

Of course, the ancient Greeks did not know how their culture, arts, and architecture would impact thousands and thousands of years into the future, nor did they know that such a color as pure and pristine as white, could be so easily corruptible by the few.  For the past has an inexplicable way to influence the future, the connection of generational values from one generation to another may ebb and flow or even mutate with newer values going forward in time.  The Roman, Renaissance, and Neo-classical periods are a few examples where retreaded cultural values became touchpoints back to classical antiquity or nostalgic periods in historical time.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (b.1717 – d.1768), a German art historian and archaeologist during the 1700s, is considered by many a pioneering Hellenist and father of modern archaeology; who articulated the differentiation between Greek, Greco-Roman, and Roman art.  Winckelmann’s Masterwork, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterthums (The History of Art in Antiquity) published in 1764, became a significant contribution to the rise of the neoclassical movement.

The History of Art in Antiquity is recognized as a permanent part of the cultural record of European literature and is considered a comprehensive and chronological account of all art of antiquity.  Winckelmann sets forth the virtues of ancient Greece in which he asserts the notion of imitation of such greatness of Greek antiquity, will lead to high art.  His literary accomplishments in art history made him not only a thought leader of his time but single-handily ignited the neoclassical period.

Therefore, Winckelmann’s writings were the apparent force that brought social change to European culture and put white marble on a pedestal as the color of purity and idealism of Classical antiquity. The impact of Winckelmann’s influence on European art is indeed a profound one, and artists as the likes of Anton Raphael Mengs (b.1728 – d.1779), Jacques-Louis David (b.1748 – d.1825), and there was also Josiah Wedgwood (b.1730 – d.1795), who also became a very successful practitioner of neoclassical movement and made his mark with the color of white.

Josiah Wedgwood (b.1730 – d.1795), of the renowned Wedgwood family of ceramic pottery fame, inventor, and entrepreneur.  Josiah Wedgwood inherited his family business and was credited with industrializing the manufacturing of ceramic ware and pottery and turned the business into an internationally recognized brand of ceramics known as Wedgwood.

The Wedgwoods were Unitarians and socially progressive family, politically aligned with the values of the Enlightenment and active in the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Wedgwood also was a prominent Abolitionist and remembered for the “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” anti-slavery medallion; promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.

Wedgwood was not only a brilliant marketer, pioneered direct mail, money back-guarantees, buy-one-get-one-free, and catalogs but also possessed an empirical mind when it came to the formulary of ceramics and glazes.  He carried out thousands of experiments to determine which chemicals and processes were needed to produce a range of colors.  His Experiment Book ledgers contained thousands of glazed experiments and noted in the book his quest for the perfect white glaze for the production of “Creamware” and “Pearlware.”

Now, with the right formulation of creamware in hand, Josiah Wedgwood presented the English nobility classes with serviceable earthenware of exquisite beauty.  Wedgwood realized there was more to be done with his brilliant strategy, Wedgwood then sought and was successful in obtaining  Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz  (b.1744 – d.1818),  permission to use her title in the new brand of earthenware. This concurrence allowed Wedgwood to carry out his most ambitious brand of Queen’s Ware, a brilliant white useful service earthenware that was affordable to the English classes with a brand that the English people could associate and identify as English.

When one thinks of all the technological triumphs that history has bestowed on humankind, Wedgewood’s Queen’s ware necessarily does not come to mind so quickly, but indeed, a more brilliant and overlooked narrative behind Wedgwood’s success in the line of sight of history.   Perhaps, history is not always what it seems because the charged recollections of the past are either forgotten or conveniently forgotten depending on the given perspective.

Consequently, the next statement may sound strange to some in that Josiah Wedgwood with his Queen’s earthenware and glaze that could produce the brilliant color of white changed the course of the human condition, forever.  Wedgwood’s introduction of an affordable service earthenware into the market expanded the earthenware market with more competition, not to mention China trade.  As a result, the service of earthenware became very affordable for all economic classes.

We are beholden to Wedgwood’s brilliance, which elevated the quality of life for all economic classes, consequent to the Industrial Revolution, by eliminating the economic convention and practice of eating from wooden trenchers, coarse and poor quality pottery, dishes made of pewter, all dangerously unsanitary and associated with health risks plaguing humanity.  Wedgwood gave us all this wrapped in color pure as white.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret (b.1887 – d.1965),  also known as Le Corbusier, a pseudonym adopted in 1920.  Le Corbusier was an architect, designer, painter, urban planner, and writer. Le Corbusier pioneered modern architecture. Born in Switzerland but became a French citizen in 1930.  During Le Corbusier’s fifty year career he designed buildings in Europe, Japan, India, North America, and South America.

In many ways, Le Corbusier was more than an architect and was on the cusp of global urban planning, dedicated to providing better global living conditions for the residents of crowded cities around the world.  Le Corbusier was one of the founding members of the Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne (CIAM).  Prepared the master plan for the city of Chandigarh in India, and contributed specific designs for several buildings.  As recent as 2016, the UNESCO World Heritage registered seventeen projects by Le Corbusier in seven countries as, The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier- Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement.

Le Corbusier’s father was an artisan who worked with enameled boxes and watches. His mother provided music lessons, she gave piano lessons, and his elder brother was an amateur violinist. Le Corbusier was attracted to the visual arts as a teenager and attended the municipal art school in La-Chaux-de-Fonds, and there he studied applied arts with watchmaking. Later, Le Corbusier participated at a higher level course with the painter, Charles L’Eplattenier (b.1874 – d.1946).

While in the Art School, Le Corbusier studied with the architect René Chapallaz (b.1881 – d.1976), who is said to have had an influence on Le Corbusier’s earliest house designs, however, it was Le Corbusier who noted in Jean Petit’s book, Le Corbusier: Lui-même (1970), that it was the art teacher L’Eplattenier who made him choose architecture.  The change in study ushered in Le Corbusier’s new found interest in architecture, but like many of his contemporaries, Frank Lloyd Wright (b.1867 – d.1959), and Mies van der Rohe (b.1886 – d.1969), Le Corbusier did not have formal academic and rigorous training as an architect.

Le Corbusier took the time afforded to incubate his interest in architecture by spending time in the library to research architecture and philosophy, visiting museums, sketching buildings, and by constructing architectural mock-ups.  In 1905, under the direction of René Chapallaz, Le Corbusier and two other students worked on their first residential design, the Villa Fallet, a large chalet with a steep roof in the Swiss alpine style and crafted with colored geometric patterns on the façade. The residential design was a success which led to the construction of the Villas Jacquemet and Villas Stotzer near the same site.

In the autumn of 1907, Le Corbusier traveled to Italy, then on to Budapest to Vienna, and met painter Gustav Klimt (b.1872 -d.1918).  During the time Le Corbusier spent in Florence, he was impressed by the Florence Charterhouse in Galluzzo, a Carthusian monastery founded in 1341 by the Florentine noble Niccolò Acciaioli (b.1310 – d.1365), Grand Seneschal of the Kingdom of Naples.  The Charterhouse left an impression, a charged recollection, an idea touchpoint of a unique kind of residence and living which influenced some of his architectural designs.

Between 1908 and 1910, Le Corbusier moved to Paris and worked as a draftsman in the office of the architect Auguste Perret (b.1874 – d.1954).  Perret is noted for his pioneering use of reinforced concrete in residential construction and as the principal architect of the Paris Art Deco landmark, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Church of Notre-Dame du Raincy, and the French Economic, Social, and Environmental Council building, to name a few.

Le Corbusier sought the road in search of knowledge, and traveled to Germany between October 1910 and March 1911,  during his tenure in Germany he found employment with Peter Behrens (b.1868 – d.1940), a German architect and designer, relevant to the modernist movement, and several of the movement’s leading names among Le Corbusier included Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (b.1886 – d.1969) and Walter Gropius (b.1883 – d.1969).

Later in 1911, journeyed to the Balkans, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Pompeii, and Rome, fulfilling his creative drive, produced nearly 80 sketchbooks with renderings of what he saw including many sketches of the Parthenon, forms of classical antiquity, where he would later praise in his book, Towards an Architecture, 1923.   It was not uncommon for Le Corbusier to write about his trips, Le Voyage d’Orient and Le Voyage d’Orient Carnets are good examples of Le Corbusier’s creative thoughts and sketches, not to mention many of his published essays, articles, and books.

In 1917, Le Corbusier met the painter Amedée Ozenfant (b.1886 – d.1966), and together they collaborated on many projects,  books, paintings, and color theory.  They published the Doctrines of Purism in their book, Après Le Cubisme, 1917.  They collaborated on the Journal L’Esprit Nouveau, published from 1920 to 1925, and during their eight-year tenure of collaboration, they developed and defined a purist color theory, which included principles and guidance, as well as the strict color palette dedicated to purism as a creative axiom.

Together they presented the relationship between color and form;  The idea of form has priority over the idea of color.  Ozenfant and Le Corbusier insisted on a reduced palette based on the advancing and receding properties of color hues.  They believed these defined color concepts are pertinent to purism as constructive art and architecture.

“Color is a perilous agent in the expression of volume; very often it destroys or disorganizes volume because the intrinsic properties of color differ greatly: some are radiant and push forward, others recede, and still others are massive and stay in the real plane of the canvas, etc. (Ozenfant and Jeanneret 1921).”

Ozenfant and Le Corbusier’s article Le Purisme a treatise on color:  Three hierarchically ordered color gammes (groups) based on the different spatial properties of each shade.

1.) Grande Gamme: Major group hierarchically made up of yellow and red ochres, earth tones, white, black, ultramarine blue, and of course certain shades derived from them by mixing.

2.) Gamme Dynamique: Dynamic group, lemon yellows, oranges (chromium and cadmium), vermilions, Veronese green, light cobalt blues

3.) Gamme de Transition: Transitional group, the madder reds, emerald green, all the lacquer colors.

Ozenfant and Le Corbusier believed each of these groups characterizes a spatial property based on the visual effect of color on the human experience.  This idea became repurposed later for the basis for Le Corbusier’s Architectural Polychromy ideas in the 1930s.  Le Corbusier created a swatch book of colors for Salubra, a Swiss wallpaper company, and in his color swatch book, published in 1931, Le Corbusier organized the color palette (43 different colors and 20 more colors in 1956) like a keyboard; a cardboard cutout is utilized to associate color harmonies.

Le Corbusier’s Color Ideas:

1.) Create the atmosphere or ambiance using color.

2.) Contrast is achieved by applying synthetic pigments.

3.) Transparent synthetic pigments alter surfaces without affecting how the eye perceives space.

The love and rule of Ripolin, in 1925, Le Corbusier published his book, L’art decorative d’aujourd’hui, which includes the section for Le Corbusier’s Law of Ripolin (Le Lait de Chaux – La Loi du Ripolin), an enthusiastic law based on Le Corbusier’s creative and emotional temperament.  The Law of Ripolin states to whitewash all buildings and to replace the architectural interiors with a coat of white Ripolin.

For Le Corbusier, the color white symbolizes the cleansing of space, the removal of all non-essential items, as a moral and spiritual act of self-renewal. Whitewashing the architectural exterior has its roots in European culture, but with Le Corbusier’s architectural vision the color white becomes a bifurcated statement; as the color white in Le Corbusier’s eyes becomes a societal and aesthetic statement.

The pure and gleaming white represents the renewal of society with traditional values, urban structures balanced with social infrastructures creating a harmonic culture for the humanity of the cities. The color white becomes a metaphor for social morality, integrity, pureness, and the incarnation of all things of aesthetic virtue. White also serves to enhance the reading of the architectural volumes when color is applied.  Although, it appears Le Corbusier was only a practitioner of a monochromatic white vision but that is not entirely true, as his use of color was precise and with a sense of purpose, but sometimes our memory is like a photograph, and we take with us the dominant color of white of his architectural works.

Villa Jeanneret-Perret – 1912 (Residential)

Maison Guiette/Les Peupliers – 1926 (Residential)

Villas at Weissenhof Estate – 1927 (Residential)

Villa Savoye – 1928 (Residential)

Palace of Ministry of National Education and Public Health – 1936 (Public)

Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut – 1950 (Public)

Le Corbusier, the purist in more ways than one, sometimes with hot white luminosity and sometimes shaded to his discredit, confident in his belief in rules and dogmas of architecture, the visual arts, he possessed an eccentric mannerism and interest in his sense of design and order.  What Le Corbusier derived from the symbolic nature of the color white transforms into an innate sense of the order and quality of all things must have, which also includes to varying degrees his ideas of social-political order and urban planning, both are of interest and reflection of human societies.

At times his strict belief in the purity of design would lend itself to a corrupt naivety.  Le Corbusier would engage with totalitarian regimes, the years spent in the Soviet Union under Stalin, attempting to assist Benito Mussolini by offering his services in urban planning in North Africa are examples of his propensity for a totalitarian society, where social order is paramount, the color of white becomes appropriated and then corrupted by the few.

Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini (b.1883 – d.1945), was a political journalist and politician who turned into one of the twentieth century’s notorious and brutal dictators,  a protégé of Adolf Hitler, (b.1889 – d.1945). Mussolini first led Italy constitutionally until 1925, then turned political directions and established a dictatorship.  In years before becoming a dictator, Mussolini had been a socialist but was expelled from the party for going against the party’s stance of neutrality during World War I.   Mussolini enlisted into the Royal Italian Army and served in World War I until he was wounded and discharged in 1917.   After the war, Mussolini changed his political direction changed from socialism to nationalism, afterward to the fascist movement.

Mussolini became the leader of the National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF), and became known as Il Duce “The Leader” of the party by name.  Mussolini was credited as the founder of Italian Fascism and ruled Italy as Prime Minister from 1922 to 1943.  It did not take Mussolini long, and within five years, Mussolini and his followers had established dictatorial authority by both legal and extraordinary steps to create a totalitarian state through a series of laws that transformed Italy into a one-party dictatorship. In 1943, King Victor Emmanuel III (b.1869 – d.1947), was deposed Mussolini but months later Mussolini returned as leader of the Italian Social Republic, an Axis power client regime in northern Italy.  Mussolini held this political post until his demise and death in 1945.

The rise of totalitarian rule under Mussolini was not by any means, incidental, but by a well thought out and calculated approach, which included uses of brutality in the Italian homeland and horrific brutality and racism in North Africa.  Mussolini and his followers captured the minds and hearts of the Italian nation by the use of propaganda and nationalistic optics.  The Mussolini regime focused on creating a copious cult of personality imagery centered on the figure of Mussolini, a leader fueled by machismo and with quasi-divine capacities where at times he would take over and control the different ministries of his government based on his political preferences.  Also, the Mussolini regime spent lavish sums of money on high-profile public works and international prestige propaganda projects with the likes of the Blue Riband Ocean liner SS Rex, Macchi M.C.72, and the Italo Balbo.

Mussolini and his regime were also adept at using architectural work projects as propaganda, which later became better known as Italian Fascist Architecture with its revisionist past to the Roman Empire.  Sometimes the Roman fasces emblem (bundle of the sticks with an ax) could be in plain sight on public buildings and places where the political brand fascist was derived.  The high profile fascist architecture built during the Mussolini era had a striking white appearance which dominated the urban sites and boulevards of Fascist Italy, reminiscent of white marble and buildings of the Roman past:

Palazzo Della Civiltà Italiana (1943)

Palazzo dei Congressi (1942)

Palazzo delle Poste di Palermo (1934)

Palazzo Braschi in Rome, headquarters of the Fascist Party Federation (1934)

Milano Centrale (1931)

Mussolini Dux on Obelisk (1932)

The color white in itself and when placed among other colors are beautiful. Moreover, white, with its symbolic connotations of purity, ethical, moral, and spiritual cleansing, has a place in art and religion. Throughout history, colors have become appropriated in a sociopolitical context or means to represent a revision or color revolution for change, for bad or good. For example, the color white became corrupted by the few with the likes of Mussolini; shaded, arrogant, narcissistic, socially brutal, and dangerous revisionary.


The past is no stranger to the present or future.

Sources: Architectural Digest, BBC, Boston Globe, Dr. James Fox, Geology.Com, Getty Research Institute, Gold Traders UK, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Munsell Color, New York Times, NCPE- Barbara Klinkhammer, Paris Review, Wedgwood Museum, Wikipedia

All Rights Reserved, The Color of Three Stones: Gold, Lapis lazuli, and Marble © Richard Anthony Peña 2018

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