Victoria Finlay's Color: A Natural History of the Palette has been on my nightstand table for the past couple weeks. The book is a travelogue structured around the colors of the rainbow. Finlay travels to places where historically significant pigments (such as Carmine Red or Yellow Ochre) were originally used or created and then tells the stories she discovers behind each color. These stories often include elaborate recipes which artists of the past used to create the colors on their palettes.
Naturally, since I'm in Italy right now, I'm drawn to the parts of the book where she writes about this country and the artwork here. In her chapter on the color blue, Finlay writes about Ultramarine pigment and answers the question of why painters often showed the Virgin Mary wearing this radiant shade. Basically, it comes down to money. Ultramarine (or Oltramarino, meaning "from beyond the seas") was made from lapis lazuli stones, which are found in only a few parts of the world and are tremendously expensive. The vast majority of the lapis lazuli in Western art was imported from Afghanistan, so an Italian Renaissance artist who chose to paint Mary's robes with Ultramarine was honoring her with an extravagant and exotic color.
Of course not every artist or patron could come up with the money to buy lapis lazuli, so there were substitutes. Even these cheaper colors, however, followed in the tradition of using blue to honor Mary. For example, some artists used the mineral azurite to make an inferior blue pigment which, unlike Ultramarine made from lapis lazuli, would fade over time.
It is one thing to read about the significance of blue in Italy and quite another to actually talk about it with the people here. By chance, I happened to have just such a conversation with Marina Merli and her mother Adria at the Arte Studio Ginestrelle. The three of us were talking, and Marina mentioned that the color blue symbolizes the Virgin Mary. When I indicated that I find this very interesting, she showed me the table that her mother ate at when she was a little girl growing up in Umbria. It's a lovely, if slightly worn, shade of blue.
As we talked more I discovered that it was common for people in this region to make their own homemade blue paint from local materials. The blue Pervinca (Periwinkle) flower grows wild in Umbria, and, along with some other wildflowers, it was dried and ground into a power. This blue powder could be made into a light or dark blue pigment, depending upon how much lime was added to the mixture. Marina also showed me a small chair, one which had belonged to another family originally, in this darker shade of blue.
Following in the tradition of the great artists who had painted with expensive lapis lazuli, the families who painted their furniture with this homemade wildflower blue were also honoring the Virgin Mary. The difference is that their blue is inexpensive and local, not costly and foreign. While it may not have the permanence or the saturation of its flashier cousin, the simple blue on these tables and chairs is nevertheless a lovely dedication to a holy woman.
It seemed like a delightful coincidence to me that I would discover this story about a blue pigment from Umbria even as I was reading a book about pigments from foreign places and times past. I'm not sure if I was more alert to the possibility of there being such stories in these hills because I had just read Finlay's book, or if I would have come across the story anyway. Regardless of the answer to that question, I'm grateful to the Merli family for sharing with me.