Raphael recreated lost Egyptian blue pigment

Egyptian blue, the world’s first known synthetic pigment, was used for thousands of years starting around 2600 B.C. The Romans called it caeruleum (the source of the English word cerulean). Vitruvius included a recipe for it in De architectura, Book VII, Chapter 11:

Sand is ground with flowers of sulphur, till the mixture is as fine as flour, to which coarse filings of Cyprian copper are added, so as to make a paste when moistened with water; this is rolled into balls with the hand, and dried. The balls are then put into an earthen vessel, and that is placed in a furnace. Thus the copper and sand heating together by the intensity of the fire, impart to each other their different qualities, and thereby acquire their blue colour.

The knowledge of how to make Egyptian blue was lost with the Fall of the Roman Empire. Vitruvius’ works were rediscovered in a Swiss monastery library in 1414 and first published in Latin in 1486. The lost recipe of Egyptian Blue, however, would not be rediscovered until the early 19th century when chemist Humphry Davy found lumps of it in the ruins of the Baths of Titus in Rome and discovered its chemical formula (calcium copper silicate). Or so we thought.

A new study of Raphael’s fresco The Triumph of Galatea, in Rome’s Villa Farnesina, has found that the Renaissance master recreated Egyptian blue for this work, and as far as we know, this work alone. Using non-invasive macro-X-ray fluorescence (MAXRF), researchers discovered to their surprise that the blue of the sea and sky were calcium copper silicate.

The Villa Farnesina was built for banker Agostino Chigi, treasurer to Pope Julius II and the richest man in Rome, by architect Baldassare Peruzzi. Construction was completed in 1512 but the frescoing of its interior began as soon as the walls were done in 1511. Chigi commissioned the greatest artists of his time for the job. Besides Raphael,  Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano and Giovanni Bazzi, aka Il Sodoma.

Raphael painted The Triumph of Galatea on the wall of the loggia, a grand space that was originally the main entrance hall of the villa. It depicts the Nereid Galatea standing on a seashell drawn by two dolphin steeds while winged Cupids aim their arrows at her. A neighboring panel by del Piombo depicts the Cyclops Polyphemus who kills Galatea’s beloved, the shepherd Acis, in a jealous rage.

Galatea was completed around 1514, seven years before the first Italian edition of Vitruvius’ De architectura was published. In a letter purportedly written by Raphael to his friend Baldassare Castiglione, the artist thanked the courtier for his compliments on Galatea and linked his painted to the forms of antiquity illuminated by Vitruvius. The letter is a copy and of uncertain authenticity, but it is certain that Raphael and other Renaissance artists had read Vitruvius and been hugely influenced by him.

None of the other Raphael frescoes of Villa Farnesina use Egyptian Blue. His Cupid and Psyche fresco cycle on the ceiling of the loggia has a vast blue background, all made out of lapis lazuli pigment. That fresco has been digitized and can be explored here, btw. There are annotations explaining the incredible proliferation of botanical motifs surrounding the scenes from Greek mythology

3 thoughts on “Raphael recreated lost Egyptian blue pigment

  1. I don’t know. What actually seems to have happened, was the (re-)invention of the printing press, and Vitruvius had been read and copied before. Also, Egypt itself was not as far as one might expect. Wool, on the other hand, had been dyed blue north of the Alps long before the Romans.

    OK, I cannot come up with any other Egyptian Blueish paintings, and I do not know what e.g. Dürer was using, but I know his writings.

    During his time in the Low Countries, he travels from Antwerp to Aachen: “At Aachen I saw the well- proportioned pillars with their good capitals of green and red porphyry and granite which Charlemagne had brought from Rome and set up there” [and which I saw myself]. “These are made truly according to Vitruvius’s writings.”

    Moreover, in his ten 1506 letters from Venice to Nuremberg he lets us –and his peers– know:

    “As for the books which I was to order for you, Imhof has already seen to it, but if you are in need of anything else, let me know”, … “A book printer of whom I enquired tells me that he knows of no Greek books that have been brought out recently, but any that he comes across he will acquaint me with” …and… I cannot find out anywhere that they are printing any new Greek books.

  2. Egyptian Blue was actually blue glass that was first created in Southern Egypt. It took a while before the secret of its making became shared knowledge outside Egypt. Meanwhile, the glass beads were exported and highly valued, not for painting, not as glass but rather as yevelry or even money. They are sometimes unearthed during archeological diggs in Norther Europe to give an idea. Before their new use, painters usually crushed Lapis Lazuli to create blue. That kind of blue was probably what Dürer knew, but it was prohibitively expensive, so naturally everybody wanted a cheaper option.

  3. Yes, a considerable amount of his own blue(s) might indeed be lapis (i.e. the l’azuli one), but he could have known others, like apparently Rapha did, and obviously Dürer did indeed know what Vetruvius wrote. What I am unsure of, is if Vetruvius wrote of ‘Maya Azul’:

    “Woad seeds have been found in the cave of l’Audoste, Bouches-du-Rhône, France. Impressions of seeds of Färberwaid (Isatis tinctoria) or German indigo, of the plant family Brassicaceae, have been found on pottery in the Iron Age settlement of Heuneburg. Seed and pod fragments have also been found in Iron Age pit at Dragonby, North Lincolnshire. The Hallstatt burials of the Hochdorf Chieftain’s Grave and Hohmichele contained textiles dyed with woad.”

    Moreover, Dürer met with one of Rapha’s disciple at Antwerp (from his diary):

    “Raphael of Urbino’s effects have been all dispersed after his death, but one of his disciples, Tommaso of Bologna by name, a good painter, desired to see me, so he came to me and gave me a gold ring, an antique with a well-cut stone worth 5 florins, but I have been already offered twice as much for it; in return I gave him my best engravings, worth 6 florins. I bought a piece of calico for 3 stivers, I gave the messenger 1 stiver, and spent 3 stivers in company. […] On Monday after St. Michael’s Day, 1520, I gave to Tommaso of Bologna a whole set of prints to send for me to Rome to another painter, who will send me Raphael’s work in return.”

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