HIDDEN AMID THE STANDARD TALES of rollicking adulterers and vigorous cheats of Celio Malaspina’s Two Hundred Novellas, published in 1609, is the story of a boorish Venetian pigment grinder and his tireless tormentors, a petty dealer in brass and a die cutter connected with the mint. There is neither philandering nor fleecing here: the pigment grinder has nothing but a modest shop of “different sorts of colors, chalks and minerals,” an aging mother, an excess of superstition, and a clear deficit of common sense. Much of this story has to do with the pigment grinder’s efforts to avoid the die cutter, as he is convinced that the latter, a gifted sketch artist, is not only interested in collecting an unpaid debt, but has also been ordered to depict the twelve most insane men in the city. The brass dealer counsels the pigment grinder that in the interest of avoiding such portraiture, he should have himself shaved and even mutilated by the local barber, with the result that the dupe is initially unrecognizable even to his own mother. Startled, finally, by the die cutter’s unexpected appearance in his shop and panicked by the emergent drawing, the pigment grinder plasters his whole head with printer’s ink, grimaces to disguise himself further, and bellows, “Now just try to sketch me!” (Malaspina 1609, 1:143–45v).1
At stake in this story, clearly, is the social and professional identity of the pigment grinder, a figure so misguided in his affections that he asks his antagonist the brass merchant to be “like a father” to him, so abject in his quotidian activities, and so prone to “rushing barefoot in the rain from home to the shop, filthy, his hands, face, and smock smeared with colors,” that he might easily be taken as a madman. The most disconcerting episode of the entire story—the brass merchant’s suggestion that the barber “engrave” the pigment grinder as he likes—is the prelude to the first of several disfigurements (Malaspina 1609, 2:144r–v). That the die cutter is a man whose business is to make money and whose special talent is the ability to sketch vivid portraits in chiaroscuro further suggests an asymmetrical division of artistic labor, skilled disegno and crafty design being the province of the coiner, and color, for what little it is worth, the concern of the impoverished pigment grinder. Given Malaspina’s friendship with the prominent sculptor Leone Leoni, this aspect of the story might also be read as a narrative variant on the more ritualized contestations of the aesthetic merits of canvas painting and the low relief carving characteristic of coins and medals; rather than being judged by polished end products and presented by eloquent defenders, each art is reduced to the materials needed for its initial stages, and defined by the inarticulate remarks and comic gestures in which the protagonists specialize (on Malaspina, see Ghirlanda 1960). And competing notions of naturalness are clearly a focus here as well, for while the primitive lifestyle, earthy products, and gullibility of the pigment grinder make him the embodiment of a naturale or simpleton, the crafty die cutter is renowned for his ritratti naturali or “life-like portraits” of the alleged madmen of Venice.
But it is the opening incident in this series of ruses that is most revelatory, as it captures something of my concern in this chapter, the vexed relationship of color and number in the early modern period, surely among the most problematic efforts to mathematize nature. Having encouraged the pigment grinder to close up shop and to hide at home in order to avoid the prowling coiner, the brass merchant decides to complicate his victim’s life by altering the chalked numbers on the various wooden shutters covering the windows of the bottega. Perplexed and then maddened by the mismatch between shutter and window, the pigment grinder proves incapable of fitting the appropriate cover to each aperture, and he struggles with the task from the moment nearby church bells ring ten o’clock at night until they sound the Angelus at dawn (Malaspina 1609, 1:143v–144). Evidently unable to distinguish the openings on the basis of size, position, and shape, he relies on the arbitrary index provided by numbers.
It is not that the ruse provides the occasion for theft—there is little enough in the pigment grinder’s shop, and nothing that interests the amused onlookers—but rather that the episode itself exposes a crucial concern of early modern natural philosophers and artists, the shifting and often unintuitive ways in which numbers were connected with colors. In the spectacle of the pigment grinder’s rage, the numbers with which he has structured his environment appear meaningless and arbitrary to all observers, and, whatever their original logic, are of unrecoverable significance to the victim himself. The numbers, in short, are talismanic, and useful only insofar as they serve to match what are for the pigment grinder otherwise unrecognizable architectural elements. They embody the twin tendencies of a man defined by both credulity and superstition.
Malaspina’s anecdote can be read, as I will argue here, as a vernacular response to the celebrated classical story through which number came to be linked first to sound and subsequently to color. Like Malaspina’s novella, this tale, otherwise radically different in tenor and in import, emerges in the workplace. In the version told by Boethius in late Antiquity in his Fundamentals of Music (1989) and repeated by countless followers, the study of harmony emerged when the ancient philosopher Pythagoras was inspired by the single consonance emitted by five hammers pounding molten metal in a forge. After initial investigations of the matter, Pythagoras judged one of those implements inharmonious and set it aside; weighing the other four, he found that they differed in a ratio of 12:9:8:6. The various relationships between any pair of these weights, he noted, could thus be transcribed by the first four natural numbers.
Such intervals, Pythagoras further argued, could likewise be translated to those between tones on a monochord. When a string is divided in half and plucked, the diapason that sounds is one octave higher in pitch than that emitted by the open string. The diapente, produced when two of three equally divided sections are played, is one-fifth higher than the open string; the diatessaron, emerging when three of four sections of the string are struck, is one-fourth higher. In the Pythagorean view, 9:8 or the interval between the fourth and the fifth, a whole tone, was itself dissonant, though the basis of harmony.
These same relations, Pythagoras added, held true for weights suspended on cords. Thus the difference between a cord bearing twelve pounds and one bearing six pounds would be an octave or diapason; between twelve and eight pounds a fifth or diapente; between eight and six pounds a fourth or diatessaron. The experimentation extended, later writers added, to containers filled with 12, 9, 8, and 6 units of water, to pipes of 12, 9, 8, and 6 units of length, and to bells of 12, 9, 8, and 6 units of volume, and the same consonances always emerged (Boethius 1989).2
These proportions—2:1, 3:2, 4:3, and 9:8—are those that matter in this chapter: they were associated, though in somewhat unstable fashion, with the range of hues running from white to black, especially in early formulations of color theory.3 Once removed from their original musical context, they functioned as terms designating proportions of light to dark, or white to black; entirely remote from painterly practice, they underwent further modifications when fitted to spatial presentations of the spectrum. Until the emergence of the clear distinction between primary and secondary colors, and the simple combinations they offered, the proportions Pythagoras discovered in the forge formed the basis for many philosophical accounts of color.
“MORE COLORS THAN JUST BLACK AND WHITE”
Color is clearly a disastrous business for the pigment grinder of Two Hundred Novellas, whose workplace, literally structured by meaningless numbers, yields him very little in the way of profit. Apart from the conventional Venetian carta azzurra on which the die caster sketches his incriminating chiaroscuro portraits, other than the deep black of the printer’s ink with which the pigment grinder covers himself, and the disappearing whites of his eyes as he takes on this disguise, no hues are mentioned in the story (Malaspina 1609, 1:144, 145). There is the strong suggestion, moreover, in the equivalence of “filth” with the various colors smeared on his hands, face, and smock, of an impoverished, grimy, and monochromatic world. This environment is the parodic legacy of the early modern efforts to connect color with the Pythagorean ratios.
To summarize the problem with which natural philosophers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were confronted, in On Sense and Sensible Objects Aristotle had sought to explain the origin of the “intermediate” or mixed colors yellow, red, purple, green, and blue by arguing that they arose through various admixtures of white and black, or of light and darkness.4 This notion, almost wholly incomprehensible to modern readers, would find its most persuasive instance in the reddish glow of dark clouds struck by sunlight, and allusions to this effect occur regularly in sixteenth-century discussions of color. Aristotle had further argued that only “exactly numerical” ratios of white and black would yield attractive hues. While he preferred the hypothesis that all combinations involved an intermingling of white and black so thorough as to transform those hues, he acknowledged that other thinkers had imagined either a mixing of fine but essentially unaltered black and white particles, or a layering of the two substances. Significantly, these less probable alternatives were distinguished by their kinship with painting, while that favored by Aristotle could only be explained by analogy with musical ratios.5
It is thus possible to believe that there are more colors than just white and black, and that their number is due to the proportion of their components; for these may be grouped in the ratio of three to two, or three to four, or in other numerical ratios, or they may be in no expressible ratio, but in an incommensurable relation of excess and defect, so that these colors are determined like musical intervals. For on this view the colors that depend on simple ratios, like the concords in music, are regarded as the most attractive, e.g., purple and red and a few others like them—few for the same reason that the concords are few—while the other colors are those that have no numerical ratios. (Aristotle 1957, 233)
The Bolognese physician and philosopher Mainetto Mainetti offered one of the most influential commentaries on this Aristotelian text in 1555, tacitly discarding Aristotle’s own order—white, yellow, red, violet, green, blue, black—so as to privilege the Pythagorean ratios. He began with the observation that in the Aristotelian Problemata the color green was singled out for its restorative qualities, precisely because it was between the extreme points of white and black, the excesses of which disturbed the viewer’s eyes. “Two colors are between white and green,” Mainetti wrote in accounting for green’s attractive nature, “yellow is beyond white and blue before green. They arise in rational proportions, as if a diapason and a diapente. Yellow is indeed in diapason, that is, two to one, since two units of light or brightness and one of earthy darkness generate yellow. Blue is rather in diapente, which is two to three, since blue is born of three units of brightness, and two of opacity” (Mainetti 1555, 80). Mainetti added that matters were similar for purple and red, already identified by Aristotle in On Sense and Sensible Objects as especially pleasing to viewers. As an intermediate hue between green and black, red could be compared to the diapason, because it was composed of two units of opacity and one of brightness; purple, having three parts opacity to two of light, was like the diapente.
Returning to the argument later in his commentary, Mainetti further compared yellow to the diapason and brown to the diapente. Here, however, the crucial ratios involved white and black, rather than light and dark: yellow contained two measures of white to one of black; brown, three of black to two of white (152). In both accounts, though, the diapason and diapente were associated with specific ratios; the diatessaron, judged insufficiently pleasing, had no place in this system.
Mainetti’s formulation appears to have been adopted in a somewhat condensed version by the Florentine physician Guido Guidi, who likewise identified green as equally composed of clarity and opacity, blue as embodying the ratio 3:2, red as 2:1, and purple as 2:3. Avoiding the terms “diapente” and “diapason,” Guidi (1626) merely noted that “where certain proportions are maintained in admixtures, the colors will be pleasing, as in the harmony of voices, but where such ratios are not preserved, they will be unappealing” (162). Likely written in the 1560s but unpublished for decades, this sort of discussion would prove durable. Its most striking feature is its distance from artistic practice: though he was the maternal grandson of Domenico Ghirlandaio, and associated with the Mannerist painter Francesco de’ Rossi (“il Salviati”), in this instance Guidi deferred to the traditional and exclusively theoretical explanation of color.6
Others who followed Mainetti’s lead sometimes sought to mute his overt reliance on musical intervals, and chose simply to refer to the mathematical ratios of the Pythagorean traditions. Thus, for instance, in a discussion of 1581, the Fribourg humanist Sébastien Werro presented black and white as the sole simple colors, and red, rather than Mainetti’s green, as the product of equal proportions of these two hues. Pink had a 3:2 ratio of white to black; blue, conversely, a 3:2 ratio of black to white. Saffron had a 2:1 ratio of white to black, while scarlet had the same ratio of black to white. The ratio of black to white in green was 5:4—effectively, the ditone or major third—but Werro did not draw on terms borrowed from the discourse of harmony. Yellow and brown, finally, involved ratios of 2:1, white to red and red to white, respectively, which meant that their proportions of white to black were 6:5 and 5:6, that of the semi-ditone or minor third. This musical interval likewise went unnamed in Werro’s account (1581, 124–26).
AS PAINTERS DO
Such discussions, whatever proportions they involved, differed entirely from the actual practices of early modern painters. While artists relied on a variety of substances to obtain green and purple pigments, techniques for blending a saffron-based lake and azurite, or mashed iris petals and Naples yellow, or orpiment and indigo, or saffron and indigo, or for layering a red lake over azurite had been known for well more than a century (Ball 2001; Salazaro 1877, 23–24, 25–26; Merrifield 1849, 2:420–25, 584–87, 610–11; Hall 1992, 15–16, 32).7 Dyers in Mainetti’s day could combine indigo and giallo santo, a yellow lake, to obtain green (Ruscelli 1557, 105v–106). To judge from early modern colored woodcuts, by the mid-sixteenth century several different shades of orange were produced through combinations of red lead or vermillion with ochre or lead-tin yellow (Dackerman 2003, 57, 169, 206, 236, 274, 276, 277). This is not to say that such recipes were always reliable: the ambiguity of color terms, the imprecision of measurements and techniques, the variability caused by locale and season, and the tendency of numerous substances to deteriorate over time, or in contact with other substances, guaranteed unpredictable results. But the increasing incidence of concoctions favoring mixtures of blue and yellow, or of red and blue, or of red and yellow, even or rather especially in the case of false combinations, suggests a growing familiarity with knowledge that would soon be codified as a system of primary and secondary colors.8
We might regard the monochrome world of Malaspina’s pigment grinder as a symptom of the confused account of color offered by natural philosophers in this period. All the chalk, minerals, and pigments on his face, hands, and smock seem reduced to a single “filthy” hue; the protagonist and his enemy the die cutter both produce, in rather different ways, faces rendered only in black and white; a quick chiaroscuro sketch on carta azzurra is identified as an extraordinarily lifelike portrait, as if its absent and aberrant colors were of no great importance. These narrative details signal that the elegantly calibrated admixtures of black and white, or light and dark, would result solely in various shades of gray; but it is the relationship of such discussions to the brass vendor’s initial trick that merits special consideration.
If we compare, for example, Mainetti’s explanation of color with Werro’s subsequent elaboration, we can see that both systems can be read as linear spectrums running from light to dark, but that the transition from the original ratios to whole numbers produces peculiar features. Thus while Mainetti’s spectrum progresses from white through yellow, blue, green, purple, red, and black, were we to transcribe the harmonic ratios of light to dark as integers on a 100-point scale, the arrangement would suggest something other than a uniform passage from one hue to the next. In such a configuration, white, of course would be rendered as 100, yellow as 66, blue as 60, green as 50, purple as 40, red as 33, and black as 0. Werro’s slightly more elaborate version yields a different chromatic ordering and more pronounced clustering; reduced to the same scale and restricted to integers, it runs from white (100) to saffron (66) to pink (60) to yellow (54) to red (50) to brown (45) to green (44) to blue (40) to scarlet (33) and finally to black (0).
It is difficult to find a more apposite image of these reductions of color to number than that evoked by the brass vendor’s first trick, where the pigment grinder’s difficulties in closing his shop involved his inability to recognize, without the aid offered by numbers, the shutter designed for each aperture. Just as Werro’s spectrum associates individual colors with specific numerical values distributed in nonuniform fashion and in a manner that correlates only weakly with hue, so the various windows of the shop, identified by a unique number and sometimes poorly differentiated in size, shape, and position, frame the pigments and display them as disjunct elements in a seemingly arbitrary sequence.
The revelation of the strange role numbers play for the pigment grinder comes from the brass merchant, who in addition to altering “a two to a six, and a six to a four, and so forth,” discreetly marks each shutter “at the foot with a sign known to himself,” a signature of sorts, in order eventually to close the place up (Malaspina 1609, 1:143v). While the episode implies more the trickster’s skepticism concerning the connection of number with color than a systematic effort to explain the phenomena in other terms, his professional identity is telling. In Malaspina’s coy phrase, this ruffian “plied his trade by selling various brass objects in the balance-makers’ street” (1609, 1:143). His obvious propensity for deception, Malaspina’s own excellent credentials as an inveterate forger, and the widespread practice of tampering with mercantile measures suggest that these wares were fraudulent weights, rather than the legitimate metal components of balances and steelyards; as Francis Bacon had observed in 1601, “this fault of using false weights and measures is grown so intolerable and common that if you would build churches, you shall not need for battlements and bells other things than false weights of lead and brass.”9 The more immediate point may be, however, the brass merchant’s implicit familiarity with metrology. Two details from his final trick—his perforation of the pail within which the pigment grinder twice pours wine purchased by volume, only to have it twice trickle away, unnoticed, as he carries it through the streets, and the description of the dupe’s rage as “unmeasured”—confirm the expected opposition between one who perceives weight, and one who does not (1609, 1:145r–v).
It was within the context of experiments with measures and weights that the increasingly elaborate substructure of Pythagorean proportions became most vulnerable to criticism. Skeptics included the Venetian mathematician and natural philosopher Giovanni Battista Benedetti, who explained consonance and dissonance in 1585 not by the ratios and the string lengths of the monochord, but by the rates of the strings’ vibration, the more pleasing sounds being the result of notes concurring with frequency, and the less agreeable ones the product of interrupted or infrequent concurrences. Writing in 1589, Vincenzo Galilei turned to the story of the suspended weights, showing that the ratio needed to be 4:1, not 2:1, to produce an octave or diapason; 9:4, not 3:2, for a fifth or diapente; 16:9, not 4:3, for a fourth or diatessaron. This adjustment of the proportions between weights was not merely the observation that the numbers needed to be squared, but more important, part of a sustained polemic against the prominent composer and music theorist Gioseffo Zarlino’s overreliance on Pythagorean ratios to explain all natural phenomena (see Drake 1999; Palisca 2006, 150–51; Peterson, 2011, 170–71; Heller-Roazen 2011, 67–68; Mancosu 2006, 598–604).10
Both Zarlino’s enthusiastic elaboration of Pythagorean ratios and the sort of empirical knowledge advocated by Benedetti and Galilei had renewed interest in the association of color with number. Given the cultural prominence of Venetian painting, the presence of a well-established textile industry in that city, and the strong interest in color perception among early modern natural philosophers and physicians nearby at the University of Padua, it is not surprising that the setting for these discussions was Venice.11 Educated in philosophy at Padua before entering a career as a diplomat and a cleric, Filippo Mocenigo addressed the question of color in his Universal Institutions for the Perfection of Man of 1581 (on Mocenigo, see Bonora 2011). Such discussion occurred not in his examination of vision, however, where color is hardly mentioned, but rather as an appendage to his presentation of sound and voice.
Mocenigo was strongly influenced by the work of Zarlino. Given that the two men were both associated with the Venetian Academy, and that Zarlino had dedicated another work to Mocenigo’s cousin, the Doge of Venice, this engagement is not surprising; the fact that Universal Institutions for the Perfection of Man emerged from the press at the moment of Galilei’s quickening conflict with Zarlino can only have increased interest in the matter.12 Of particular relevance here is Zarlino’s revision of the Pythagorean system, which made the first six, rather than four, integers the basis of harmony. In addition to the diapason, diapente, and diatessaron, therefore, musicians might draw upon the more modern consonances of the ditone—5:4 or the major third—and the semi-ditone—6:5 or the minor third.13 As for the tone or 9:8, Zarlino had interpreted the story of Pythagoras and the hammers to mean that this basic unit enjoyed an intermediate status of something neither concordant nor discordant (Zarlino 1558, 61).14
Mocenigo (1581) drew on these innovations to describe the spectrum in systematic fashion. “The outermost colors, which in their mutual relationship recall the diapason, are white and black,” he began. “The three intermediate ones, which are in fact simple, but bordered by white and black, are red, which is closer to black than to white, yellow or gold, which is nearer to white, and hyacinth.” This last color, a bright violet blue, he stated, was “therefore the midpoint, such that with respect to black, it can be compared to the diapente, and with respect to white, the diatessaron. With respect to red, it is like the semi-ditone, and with respect to yellow, the ditone. In the same fashion, yellow with respect to red resembles the diapente, while red with respect to black is like the ditone” (305).
Unlike Mainetti and successors such as Werro, Mocenigo used the harmonic proportions to articulate the spatial relationships of these colors to each other, rather than to indicate notional measures of dark and light, or black and white, in the presumed compositions. The layout of Mocenigo’s system of primary colors can readily be mapped onto Zarlino’s discussion of the version of the diatonic scale he favored (Zarlino 1558, 120–22).15
Figure 1. Gioseffo Zarlino, Istitutioni Harmoniche (Venice: 1558), 122.
A small difference lies in the distance in this theoretical configuration between yellow and white, shown here as a major semitone, a unit Zarlino (1558) had laboriously described as a harmonious fraction of the diapente (121–22). Mocenigo (1581) had proposed instead that there would “also be the proportion of a [whole] tone, which is neither consonant nor dissonant,” between these hues. He had further stipulated that the proportions between red and white, and between black and yellow would be dissonant (305).
In the most important contrast to Mainetti and other Aristotelian predecessors, Mocenigo (1581) insisted on the proximity of his system to actual artistic practices, privileging first the primary nature of three colors: “It is clear that painters can make neither red, nor hyacinth, nor yellow—any more than they can make white or black—from mixtures, unless a new concoction [that is, alteration by heat] is involved. However, all other hues can be produced from the admixture of any of these simple colors” (305). The schematic ordering of these secondary colors that followed would have impressed at least some of Mocenigo’s initial audience less with its inaccuracy than with its apparent distance from the model of On Sense and Sensible Objects, and with its resemblance to lower genres such as the painter’s manual and the book of secrets. “Blue arises from hyacinth and white,” Mocenigo explained, “green from yellow to which some black has been added; crimson from blue and black; brown from black and white; ash-gray from white to which some black has been added” (ibid.).16
NOW PRINTED FOR THE FIRST TIME
Guido Antonio Scarmiglioni and Anselm de Boodt, two writers educated at the medical school of Padua in the late 1580s and eventual residents of Vienna and Prague, respectively, also offered modified versions of Mocenigo’s system.17 Scarmiglioni’s Two Books on Color appeared only in 1601. Its breathless subtitle, Now Printed for the First Time, and its preface both portray it as a text composed years earlier, and its numerous references to other works include nothing published after 1590. Like de Boodt’s eventual publication of 1609, it offered extensive reference to the practice of painters and dyers: Scarmiglioni gestured several times to various combinations of blue and yellow and of blue and red used to produce green and purple. Unlike the more pragmatic guide provided by de Boodt’s Natural History of Gems and Precious Stones, however, Two Books on Color also drew upon the flexible resources of the musical argument.
In reviewing the notion that painters were unable to make the five so-called primaries “through mixtures, unless heating were involved,” and that “by mingling these hues they easily obtain others,” Scarmiglioni (1601, 112) objected first of all to the exclusion of green from this first rank of colors. The fact that one might observe, “as a quotidian experience,” painters concocting this color from admixtures of yellow and blue did not persuade Scarmiglioni of its secondary status, but did justify its central place, equidistant from the two hues of which it was composed, in his array of seven primaries (120, 170). Matters were evidently more complicated for purple, whose confection he knew to involve “a small amount of red added to blue,” for he located it between green and blue (117, 119, 169). Orange seems to have figured only briefly, as a substance produced when minium was moistened with water; it had no status as a separate hue (120). Though Scarmiglioni adopted the terms of Zarlino’s harmonic intervals, comparing the relationship of white to black to the diapason, describing the position of green with respect to these two endpoints by referring to the diatessaron and the diapente, and defining the distance between white and yellow by a tone “neither consonant nor discordant,” his spectrum does not conform to the diatonic scale as well as Mocenigo’s does (Scarmiglioni 1601, 148, 174, 180, 187, 199). It is not surprising that he included no illustration of the arrangement.
De Boodt’s Natural History of Gems and Precious Stones likewise emerged from the Paduan context, and also suffered a significant delay in publication. It mentioned the notion of primary colors only twice, and merely in passing, as if citing a truism rather than a point of contention. In his preface de Boodt (1609) stated that “from the colors white, black, red, blue, and yellow, painters can make a variety of hues,” and subsequently he noted that “the principal colors, and those which are not made from the mixtures of others, are white, black, blue, yellow, red, and minium, which is made from calcined lead” (8, 25). In adding this last color—a bright orange pigment prized by painters—de Boodt provided a corrective to Scarmiglioni’s recommendation of a water-based process, and more important, an instance of the use of heat, rather than mixing, to produce an unadulterated hue.18
Mocenigo, Scarmiglioni, and de Boodt do not seem to have offered a color system sufficiently robust to attract disciples. We might infer that Galileo Galilei’s claim in May 1610, just after the publication of his Sidereus Nuncius, to have already written a short treatise “On Vision and Colors,” involved an effort, or perhaps merely the intention to make such an effort, to improve upon an arrangement whose basis was the work of his father’s great rival Zarlino.19 The discussion of colors written by the prominent physician Epiphanio Ferdinando, which was published in early 1611 by the press from which Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius had emerged just eight months earlier, is notable for its tacit resistance to recent innovations. Its chartlike format, deployment of terms such as “diapason,” “diapente,” and “diatessaron,” and ordering of the colors were nothing but a retreat to the proportional units of dark and light advocated sixty years earlier by Mainetti (Ferdinando 1611, 193).20
In these various efforts to reformulate and preserve the traditional connection of Pythagorean ratios with colors, we are far indeed from the antics of the pigment grinder, the brass merchant, and the die cutter, and yet Malaspina captures a striking common denominator. Published in 1609 by the same Venetian printing consortium used by Galileo in 1610 and Ferdinando in 1611, Two Hundred Novellas begins with a transparent fiction of anteriority much remarked by its original audience: even as it masquerades as a collection of tales told by speakers gathered in a villa to escape the plague of 1576, it blithely relates countless celebrated events of much more recent vintage. Malaspina lived in Venice from 1580 to 1591, but what is more crucial than the author’s biographical particulars is the way in which his tale of the pigment grinder, opening with the formulaic “it is already many years ago,” and treating the association of number with color as farce, mimics the familiar combination of prior discovery and deferred revelation. Just as Scarmiglioni and de Boodt alluded to a debate several decades old, and only “being printed for the first time” in 1601 and 1609, and Ferdinando and Galileo coupled bygone analyses of color with publications of 1611 or yet to come, so the mocking Malaspina presented the tale of the pigment grinder as an account of events long predating their moment of disclosure.
YELLOW, RED, AND BLUE
While Malaspina’s gesture to this temporal lag suggests a kind of smug stasis in early modern color theory, a significant development soon followed. In 1613 the Jesuit François Aguilon offered a coherent discussion of the painter’s primaries in his Opticorum libri sex (Six Books on Optics), published in Antwerp and accompanied by engravings designed by Peter Paul Rubens.21 A crucial feature of visible phenomena, color emerges early as a topic in this seven-hundred-page treatise. Despite his ultimate rejection of the Aristotelian explanation of color, Aguilon invoked several of the arguments of On Sense and Sensible Objects, noting, for instance, that chromatic mixtures might occur through a layering of a translucent hue over a darker one, or as an optical impression of minute spots seen from a distance or, finally, as a genuine admixture of two different substances (Aguilon 1613, 39). He also distanced his discussion from the organic color changes addressed in pseudo-Aristotle’s On Colors, and warned his readers that “we are not dealing here with concrete colors such as minium, dark purple, lake, cinnabar, indigo, ochre, orpiment, lead white, and the other things with which painters cover canvases, but rather with the visible qualities that inhere in them” (38).
His system had an elegant simplicity. “Yellow, red, and blue number, strictly speaking, as the three intermediate colors,” Aguilon asserted. “Along with white and black they form a quintet of primary colors. Moreover, from these intermediate colors just as many secondary colors arise through three combinations. Orange is thus made of yellow and red, purple of red and blue, and from yellow and blue, finally, there is green. And from the mixture of all three of these intermediate colors a certain unpleasant hue is born, something livid and lurid, like a cadaver” (40).
Figure 2. François Aguilon S. J., Opticorum libri sex (Antwerp: 1613), 40.
The figure accompanying Aguilon’s explanation is clearly a modified version of that traditionally deployed in discussions of consonance and dissonance. Aguilon wholly abandoned, however, the minute examination of various Pythagorean proportions: his system is characterized by symmetry, and stripped of terms imported from the discourse of harmony. Though he never alluded to the efforts of Mainetti, Werro, Mocenigo, or Scarmiglioni, Aguilon elsewhere suggested a certain resistance to efforts such as theirs. The preface of his work includes a passing condemnation of the obscurity of Pythagorean mysteries; more substantively, the discussion of colors is preceded by the censorship of those who insisted on commonalities between the senses (Aguilon 1613, “Lectori S[alutem”], second unnumbered page). “That which is perceived through color has only to do with sight; that which is discerned through sound, only with hearing; that which is known by scent, only with the sense of smell, and so forth,” Aguilon warned (30). Even more mistaken than the erroneous comparison of sensible objects, he argued, was the belief that the difference between colors could be explained by reference to transparency, opacity, darkness, and shadow (ibid.). Worst of all, however, was the assumption that aesthetic judgments were other than matters of taste and opinion: “for beauty consists in harmonic division, which human reason barely recognizes; ugliness, in a certain obscure asymmetry of lines and qualities” (31). Put differently, consonance and dissonance could not be established by arithmetical means, and figured not at all in a discussion of the relationships between colors.
Aguilon’s theory of primary colors was parroted in the specialized ambit of the Jesuit thesis two years later (Felix and Denich 1615, 20). In general, however, his simultaneous rejection of the Aristotelian explanation and of the traditional association of colors with musical intervals seems to have gone unnoticed, unacknowledged, or unaccepted by natural philosophers.22 As if in conformity with the pattern of tardy revelation of bygone findings, the Florentine physician Guido Guidi’s work, written in the 1560s and based on Mainetti’s adaptation of the Pythagorean ratios to color theory, was posthumously published in 1626; the Venetian physician Valerio Martini’s De colore libri duo sua aetate iuvenilia collecti (Two Books on Color Composed in His Youth) emerged in 1638, looked back several decades to discussions at the University of Padua and concluded, “based on reason, experiment, and the authority of those who are expert in painting,” that the six principal colors—white, gray, yellow, orange, blue-green, and black—were produced through admixtures of black and white (Martini 1638, 2:2). Without specifying its relationship to his prior and still unpublished “On Vision and Colors,” in his Assayer of 1626 Galileo gestured in passing to his view that colors, like particular sounds, tastes, tactile sensations, and odors, were an artifact of the senses, and that ours is a monochrome world configured by indivisible quanta. In insisting that “a very long time would not be enough for me to explain, or rather shade in on paper, what little I understand of these matters, and thus I pass over them in silence,” he avoided, to a degree, the problematic elaboration of an atomistic doctrine, and reverted to his pattern of infinitely deferred disclosure (Galilei 1967, 6:350).
Whether these debates were of any importance to the true protagonists of color mixing, the painters of early modernity, is by no means clear. Thus far, only a few works such as Peter Paul Rubens’s Juno and Argus (ca. 1611) and Nicolas Poussin’s Christ Healing the Blind Man (1650), where sight and light are overtly addressed, are considered direct responses to emergent color theory as formulated by Aguilon, though one might perhaps add to this meager list Guido Reni’s Union of Design and Color (ca. 1620–25) and those self-portraits in which artists deliberately display a restricted palette (see Kemp 1990, 30–44). That said, it seems entirely possible that the most pronounced reactions to Aguilon’s solution do not necessarily inhere in the expected genres or arise in conventional thematic treatments. Like Malaspina’s narrative response to those prior attempts to mathematize color through Pythagorean ratios, they appear as a cluster of gratuitous details in a scenario whose ultimate referent is the original story of the forge.
By way of conclusion, then, I would like to consider the legacy of the debate over color in two works by Diego Velázquez, Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat Brought to Jacob, and Apollo at the Forge of Vulcan, both completed in Rome around 1630 during his first Italian sojourn. I will argue that this issue is the crucial component of both paintings: the ostensible subjects, biblical and mythological, merely provide the pretexts. There are a number of contextual reasons to suspect that color theory would have been of interest to Velázquez in this period. The young and ambitious artist’s first journey to Italy had been prompted by Rubens’s visit to Madrid in 1628–29; before arriving in Rome he had spent a brief period in Venice; his travel throughout the country was facilitated by the Venetian ambassador to Spain, Alvise Mocenigo, cousin to Filippo Mocenigo; and when in Rome he resided in the Villa Medici, where Galileo was also staying (see Goldberg 1992, 453–56; Palomino 2007, 37–44, 76–86). Though these coincidences likely indicate no more than the relatively restricted number of participants in the cultural life of early modernity, it is also true that Velázquez acquired at some unknown point Aguilon’s Six Books on Optics, as well as an unidentified work, possibly authored by Vincenzo Galilei, on music theory (Sánchez Cantón 1925, 3:389–91).23 The best evidence for the importance of the debate over color, however, comes from the paintings themselves.
Figure 3. Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat, 1630 (oil on canvas), Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). Monasterio de El Escorial, El Escorial, Spain. Bridgeman Images.
In his 1724 biography of Velázquez, Antonio Palomino (2007, 83–86) presented Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat and Apollo at the Forge as companion pieces painted without commission but later offered to the Spanish king; apart from two landscape sketches of the villa where the artist may or may not have met Galileo, these are the only two canvases known to have been completed during the stay in Rome.24 While scholars have emphasized their shared subject of deception, it must be noted that dishonesty enjoys very different handling in the two works. In Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat, the stunned patriarch Jacob is deceived by his sons, who use the garment to convince him that his youngest and favorite child has perished. Apollo at the Forge is likewise a tawdry domestic drama in which Apollo tells Vulcan the unhappy truth about the infidelity of his consort Venus.
What the paintings do share is a set of formal resemblances and sustained attention to the medium itself.25 That Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat has something to do with color is not surprising, given that the tunica polymita in question was generally understood in the early modern period to have been woven “of diverse colors” (see Beyerlinck 1617, 216; de Mariana 1620, 28; 1617, 385; Cornelius a Lapide 1616, 258). Considering that this splendid garment was the catalyst of Joseph’s quarrel with his brothers, and that it is the sole prop in their ruse, the small white item shown to the patriarch is much less impressive than one would expect. Its significance lies in this economy: flecked with faint red and yellow stains, and shadowed with blue and black, the coat recapitulates the emergent theory of primary colors. As if to reinforce the point, Velázquez distributed the primaries about the black and white tunics, the brightly lit, strongly modeled triad of blue, red, and yellow cloths on the left finding a subdued mirror image on the right. While white and black are clearly crucial to the different tonalities of the left and right sides of the canvas, their new status as something other than the source of all colors is indicated in two different ways. The rich gray cloak over the patriarch’s robe, neatly posed against the juncture of light and dark walls, is the only hue that could be said to derive from those erstwhile primaries. And the black robe of the brother who bears the tunic “of diverse colors” is nothing other than the dark ground of the canvas itself, at once a representation, appropriately somber, of the liar’s garment, and an entirely unworked section of the painting (see Brown and Garrido 1998, 40–45; Garrido 1992, 230–31).
Figure 4. Apollo at the Forge, 1630 (oil on canvas), Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599–1660). Prado, Madrid, Spain. Bridgeman Images.
Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat incorporates a series of last efforts: after this painting, Velázquez never again used a dark ground, he abandoned the coarsely woven canvas for a finer fabric, and the brilliant Naples yellow next to the tunic “of diverse colors” does not reappear in later works (Brown and Garrido 1998, 43, 45). While any of these three developmental steps is plausibly associated with his artistic apprenticeship in Rome, they also appear crucial to Velázquez’s insistence on the very nature of his medium in this painting. This emphasis reappears, albeit in a slightly different register, in the so-called companion piece of Apollo at the Forge. Here for the first time Velázquez prepared a luminous ground of an opaque lead white mixture. This modification, in tandem with the much denser weave of the canvas, contributes to the slightly more finished and even quality of this second work.
Despite these differences, the paintings share several features; both compositions include the device of the landscape in the upper left quadrant, and both involve a dramatic moment in which a group of five men confront a sixth character. While the focal point of Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat was necessarily that pallid garment “of many colors,” there is no such object in Apollo at the Forge. Rather than the double series of block-like primary colors, moreover, this work featured the secondary hues of orange, green, and purple, though only the first of these retains its initial intensity. The green of Apollo’s crown, made of admixtures of azurite, iron oxide, and lead white, was reproduced, with varied tonality, in the garments of Vulcan and his centrally placed companions, while the clothing of the man working on the armor at the far right, originally a muted violet, was composed of lead white, iron oxide, vermilion, and a pale blue pigment, perhaps smalt, notoriously prone to discoloration (Brown and Garrido 1998, 46–56; Garrido 1992, 243).26 Inevitably, the placement of these three secondary colors replicates the arrangement in Aguilon’s diagram, a central arc of green falling between the orange and violet extremes. Except for the bluish sky beyond the forge, the primary colors do not appear in this painting, though black, white, and gray figure naturally in the metal objects produced by Vulcan and his assistants.
While the bright orange of both the metal on the anvil and of the fire recalls the occasional presentation of this color, when derived from calcined lead, as a primary hue, the context itself is puzzling. So, too, are Vulcan’s four companions, traditionally identified as a trio of Cyclops, for they are neither giants nor one-eyed.27 Nor is this Vulcan a deformed god, but merely a shocked cuckold. The easy translation of this episode to a vernacular idiom, though typical even of the young Velázquez, should not obscure the importance of that other forge where the fusion of color with consonance began. Simply put, the gratuitous details of this painting serve to evoke the moment when Pythagoras, routinely described as Apollo’s son, entered a foundry where five hammers had been pounding molten metal; discarding one, he discovered the crucial ratios between the other four.28
Velázquez offers no way to assess the importance of this legend. As the background figure in Apollo at the Forge tends the bellows, and the man on the far right is using tongs, there are but three who wield hammers. These instruments differ noticeably in size, as in the Pythagorean story. They are complemented, however, not by one discordant and summarily discarded tool, but by at least five, and possibly more, scattered about the enclave. The pan of a balance, entirely unsuited to the oversized hammers, lies abandoned on the floor; a steelyard dangles unused next to the chimney. The apparent irrelevance of these weighing devices in Apollo at the Forge corresponds, roughly, to something like a visual pun in Joseph’s Bloodstained Coat, the baculus Jacobi or “Jacob’s staff” being a traditional instrument for calculating angles. This studied emphasis on a kind of inadequation between the physical world and our means of numbering and measuring its phenomena would seem the very antithesis of the Pythagorean episode at the forge, and a definitive break with that early attempt to measure and codify aesthetic production.
But we might just as easily conclude that the painting involves not a rejection of the neatness of Pythagoras’s approach to sound and by extension to color but rather an uncanny prelude to that foundational moment. In such a reading, the emphasis is less on the evident disorder of the forge than on the very fact of its reduction to an image. Put differently, the scene at this forge, anterior to that of the origins of music, can be rendered only through visual means; like the banal motif of marital disharmony with which it is seemingly concerned, it cannot be captured through consonant ratios of sound. While clearly adhering to a vestigial or rather incipient version of the Pythagorean intervals in his treatment of color in both paintings, here Velázquez would have insisted on the absolute autonomy, priority, and permanence of his art. The work would have thus stood as a corrective to the long-standing subordination of color to sound and, by implication, of a crucial feature of painting to the strictures of musical harmony. If such was his intention, it is a matter of some irony that this aspect of the painting—its bid for priority and longevity—has been compromised by the instability of the medium.
In either guise, finally, Apollo at the Forge would appear remote from the tale of the tormented pigment grinder, and yet Malaspina’s anecdote anticipates both readings. The decorous wreckage strewn about the forge, the disconcerting mismatch between the instruments depicted and the celebrated story of Pythagoras’s discovery, and the suggestion of an irremediable incommensurability between the painter’s medium and the harmonic ratios all figure as a sequel to the brass merchant’s initial exposure of the strange place of number in the pigment grinder’s shop. But as we might expect in a work whose focus is the antecedent to the Pythagorean moment in the forge, the canvas also articulates a corrective to the temporal feature parodied in Two Hundred Novellas and promoted without irony in early modern discussions of color. In the interest of undoing the priority claim of music, it refashions that insistence on a pronounced gap, typically on the order of a generation, between the discovery of something about the mathematization of nature under the aegis of sound and its disclosure in print. “Be like a father to me,” the hapless pigment grinder asked the brass merchant, as if to avail himself of a previous generation’s wisdom; “you will be like a son to me,” Velázquez’s Apollo might have observed to the as yet unborn Pythagoras.
1. This and all subsequent translations are mine unless otherwise indicated.
2. More generally, see Fideler (1988); for another version of the story, see “Life of Pythagoras,” in Guthrie (1988, 86–87); for background on Boethius’s debt to Pythagorean and Ptolemaic arguments, see Goldberg (2011, 19–30). On the legend, its presuppositions, and consequences, see Heller-Roazen (2011, 11–59); on the place of Pythagorean mathematics in the world of Galileo Galilei, see Peterson (2011, 33–42, 57–65, 149–73, 257–58); on the importance of early modern music theory in the evolution of number theory, see Pesic (2010).
3. On the history of efforts to pair musical consonance with colors, see Gage (1993, 227–46) and Kuehni (2007).
4. On the relationship between artisanal knowledge of color mixing, particularly that of painters and dyers, and Isaac Newton’s eventual treatment of white light, see Shapiro (1994).
5. On the traditional resistance to color mixing, and on the emergence of the practice of layering in the early modern period, see Hall (1992, 15–16, 52–57, 71–73, 211–17).
6. Salviati’s illustrations were for Guidi (1544). On Ghirlandaio’s resistance to experimentation with color mixing, his reversion to the older mode of unbroken color established by Cennino Cennini, and on Salviati’s imitations of various color modes, see Hall (1992, 57, 61, 67, 163–66).
7. See also Kirby, Nash, and Cannon (2010, 67, 147–48, 151, 244). As Gage notes, Alexander of Aphrodisias referred in passing, and dismissively, to the artificial production of purple and green around 200 AD; see Gage (1993, 31).
8. On the trade in early modern pigments and dyes in Venice, see Matthew (2002). On the prices of pigments in early modern Italy, and on their relation to genre, see Spear and Sohm (2010, 65–66, 101–4).
9. “Speech on Bringing in a Bill against Abuses in Weights and Measures,” in Bacon (1868, 18).
10. Galilei’s associate Ercole Bottrigari took up the argument in 1609 in his unpublished Enigma of Pythagoras.
11. On the commerce in colorants in Venice, see Matthew and Berrie (2010); Krischel (2010). For an overview of developments in the Venetian treatment of color, see Hall (1992, 199–235).
12. On the ongoing conflict between Zarlino and Galilei, see Heller-Roazen (2011, 61–69); Palisca (2006, 29–47, 142–44, 150–52); and Peterson (2011, 153–73); on Zarlino’s senario in particular, see also Wienpahl (1959, 27–41). For a recent in-depth study of the entire dispute, see Goldberg (2011): on Zarlino’s dedication to Alvise Mocenigo, see (2011, 44–45, 49), on his alleged attempt to delay Galilei’s Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music in 1581, see (2011, 220–21, 265–67).
13. On the emergence of the major and minor thirds, see Heller-Roazen (2011, 62, 80–81).
14. On the traditional discussions involving the status of the tone, see Heller-Roazen (2011, 28–29, 32–40, 53–54).
15. On the syntonic diatonic scale, and on Galilei’s criticism of this choice, see Goldberg (2011, 57–64, 101–49, 240–48, 272–393).
16. For similar combinations, see Erizzo (1558, fol. 30v); Curaeus (1567, fol. 69 r–v); Caracciolo (1589, 257).
17. De Boodt’s doctoral degree was awarded in 1586 or 1587; Scarmiglioni was awarded a degree in June 1589; see Zonta and Brotto (1969, 4:3; 1469–70; 4:4, 2354). On de Boodt and Scarmiglioni, see Parkhurst (1971); Shapiro (1994, 606–9); Gage (1993, 34–37, 93–96, 153–56, 165–68); Kemp (1990, 266, 275–76, 281–82).
18. On the confusion over this substance, see Falloppio (1564, 152–54, 164–66); Guidi (1626, 369); on the departure of minium and the paucity of orange in the quattrocento palette, see Hall (1992, 15, 208, 257); see further Kirby, Nash, and Cannon (2010, 84n40, 305, 457).
19. Galileo Galilei to Belisario Vinta, May 7, 1610, in Galilei (1967, 10:352). Curiously, the entry on Galileo written by Count Angelo de Gubernatis and published in an encyclopedia of 1901 refers to the work as “an essay, now lost, [establishing] the profound truth of the laws of consonance and dissonance, or the unity and variety of colors” (Adams and Rossiter 1901, 5:13).
20. The fact that Mainetti would be misidentified in the 1620s in Jacopo Soldani’s poem “Contro gli aristotelici” as an exemplar of Paduan philosophy is perhaps an index of the particular impact of his arguments in the celebrated university of that city.
21. On Aguilon, see Parkhurst (1961); Kemp (1990); Shapiro (1994, 606–9).
22. On the resistance or indifference to Aguilon’s argument, see Shapiro (1994, 615–18).
23. The work on music theory is generically described as “De arte música,” and attributed to “Lipo Gailo,” perhaps a misreading of “Vzo Galilei.”
24. On the landscapes, see Brown and Garrido (1998, 57–61).
25. On the limited number of pigments favored by Velázquez, see Brown and Garrido (1998, 17–19).
26. On smalt, see Zahira Véliz, “In Quest of a Useful Blue in Early Modern Spain,” and Nicola Costaras, “Early Modern Blues: The Smalt Patent in Context,” in Kirby, Nash, and Cannon (2010, 389–414); on Velázquez’s early use of smalt as a colorant (rather than as a siccative), see p. 393, as well as Brown and Garrido (1998, 39).
27. In his Life of Velázquez, Palomino notes that in the much later depiction of Vulcan painted by Juan Carreño and overseen by Velázquez, the Cyclops were three in number and named “Brontes, Steropes and Pyracmon” (Palomino 2007, 155).
28. Pythagoras’s biographers generally ascribe belief in his divine nature and his descent from Apollo to reckless poets and to common people; occasionally he is said to be Apollo himself. For such references in the accounts of Iamblichus, Porphyry, and Diogenes Laertius, see Guthrie (1998, 57, 58, 59, 61, 80, 83, 97, 101, 109, 123, 128, 129, 144, 147). At least one early modern writer identified the workers encountered by Pythagoras in the forge as the Cyclops (Ringhieri 1551, fol. 144).
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