Devlog #8: The Stories Behind the Colors of 'chiaroscuro'

[Note: You'll probably want to play chiaroscuro first before you read this post, unless you don't mind spoilers.]

One of my favorite things I learned about while researching chiaroscuro was the existence of the vendecolori. A flash-in-the-pan profession that existed only in  late 16th-century Venice, these "color sellers" sold raw pigments which which to dye clothes, color glass, and mix paints. (In other cities, such materials would have been found in apothecary shops instead.)

But wait, I hear you saying—what does an early modern Venetian profession have to do with a story set in modern-day Rome?

That, my friends, is exactly the right question to ask. But sadly, it's not one I'm going to answer for you here, except to say that you'll have to ask the color seller of chiaroscuro herself—if you can find her. Instead, let's talk about her wares, and the significance of the particular pigments she chooses to peddle.

collecting all the colors of the rainbow

In case you ignored the first warning: here there be spoilers.

In chiaroscuro, there are exactly six possible pigments you can purchase from the vendecolori, one for each chapter of the story. But you aren't simply collecting red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and purple—each specific hue is referenced by name, and was chosen for a reason.

The reason, by the way, isn't just because I fell down a research rabbit hole around this particular topic—although I absolutely did. The idea of the vendecolori is so romantic, and the word just rolls right off the tongue. And, as a former art student and someone who has always enjoyed a good story, reading at length about the rich histories of various pigments was a temptation much too alluring to resist.

a closer look at the color seller's wares

Now, I won't give everything away—after all, much of the enjoyment of art lies in the act of interpreting it your own way—but here's a little peek into the significance of each color and its context in the story.

Carmine (Red): The vendecolori refers to this as "the perfect red," and to Europeans back in the day when it became a sensation, it truly was. A brilliant red dye that required the sacrifice of over 70,000 insects to produce just one pound of, carmine pigment was seen as something of an exotic luxury. An example of its use can be found in Rembrandt's "The Jewish Bride" (1665-69).

Realgar (Orange): An extremely toxic arsenic sulfide, realgar orange was considered the only "pure" orange for many years, until the invention of modern chrome orange. The conversation between Perce and the color seller regarding Stradivarius violins is a reference to the old legend that the violins' quality was derived from a secret ingredient in their brilliant orange varnish—the recipe for which has never been discovered. As Perce mentions, Titian used realgar orange in his painting "Bacchus and Ariadne" (1520-23).

Naples Yellow: One of the oldest synthetic pigments in the world, Naples yellow has been found on Babylonian bricks over 2,000 years old, though it was not used for paintings until the Renaissance period.  It became particularly popular with landscape artists during the 18th and 19th centuries, and appeared in Rembrandt's "Chrysanthemums" (1881-82).

Scheele's Green: Named for the Swedish chemist who invented it in 1775, Scheele's green was a beautiful bright green color that took 19th century Europe by storm. Unfortunately, being derived from arsenite, it was also extremely toxic. Women in green dresses began to faint on the street; children and adults who slept in rooms full of it seemed to waste away without reason. The vendecolori's story about flower sellers dying from it is true; they dyed the leaves of fake flowers with the stuff (using their bare hands) until they became mortally sick with it. A newspaper at the time reported the 1861 death of a girl named Matilda Scheurer, whose passing was described as a grisly one: "She vomited green waters; the whites of her eyes had turned green, and she told her doctor that 'everything she looked at was green.'" It is theorized by some historians that it may have even contributed to the death of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose bedroom was painted in its hue.

Ultramarine (Blue): Also known as "true blue," lapis lazuli first appeared in Buddhist paintings from the 6th century before Italian traders in the 14th and 15th centuries renamed it "ultramarine," a reference to the fact that it came from "beyond the sea." It is famously one of the most expensive pigments of all time. It threatened to bankrupt more than one artist at the time, including Artemisia Gentileschi as well as Johannes Vermeer, who stubbornly used it over and over again, most famously (as Perce points out) in "Girl With a Pearl Earring."

Tyrian Purple: The name of this pigment comes from its city of origin—Tyre, in Phoenicia, or what is now known as Lebanon. The vendor isn't lying to Perce when he tells her it is a royal color; another extravagantly expensive pigment, only royalty could afford to wear it. His mention of Hercules refers to a classic myth in which Hercules' dog discovered the color by gnawing on a murex snail shell on the beach, which turned his drool purple. (In reality, extracting this color from murex shells was a complicated, painstaking process—which had much to do with its high cost.) Peter Paul Reubens illustrated this myth in his painting "Hercules' Dog Discovers Purple Dye" (circa 1636).

My favorite of these is Sheele's Green—beautiful but deadly. Perce doesn't have a favorite color—in fact, she usually works with ink, rather than paint. But if you made her choose, she'd probably pick Tyrian purple, if for no better reason than it's the subtlest of the colors on this list, despite also being the most regal. It also reminds her of one of her favorite memories from her trip to Rome in chiaroscuro—one you'll only find out about if you manage to collect all of the other colors first. ;)

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