Ultramarine was the star colour of the Renaissance. Before it was even seen, its name conjured magic, literally meaning “beyond the sea”. In the fifteenth century, when emerging global trade sparked a hunger for fantastical goods from faraway lands, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan – from which the colour was derived – must have been a sumptuous treasure. That rich, irrefutable blue, the pinnacle that all other blues, all other colours, can only aspire to.

Lapis was expensive, literally worth more than its weight in gold, and hard to come by since it was found solely in one remote stretch of mountains in the Hindu Kush. It’s reported that Michelangelo gave up on his painting of The Entombment because he couldn’t secure any ultramarine, whereas Raphael only used it in the final coat, having built up earlier layers with more affordable azurite, or even indigo and smalt. Leonardo and Raphael employed ultramarine for the most crucial part of a painting, such as the Virgin’s gown, as did Giotto and Masaccio before them. Titian used it to bring to life the heat-baked skies of mythological Greece, turning fable to super-reality.

But what if there had been a colour even more remarkable than ultramarine?

This is the crux of my thriller, The Colour Storm. It opens with the real-life Venetian painter, Giorgione, taking a boat to the plague island of Poveglia. Who can he be meeting in such a treacherous place: a black-marketeer or a wanted man perhaps? It turns out to be his colourman, who supplies rare pigments that can’t be procured from any of the other “vendecolori” in the city. Giorgione is in the fight of his life to lay his hands upon an otherworldly colour, Prince Orient, before his fellow-painters: Titian, Leonardo, Bellini, Raphael and Michelangelo. The novel is all about colour, and the lengths artists will go to possess one that’s never been seen before.

The notion of pigment being something people would fight over, even die for, came to my mind after hearing a radio interview with Anish Kapoor, the great modern interpreter of form and colour. He had just copyrighted Vantablack, “the world’s blackest black”. It absorbs light at 99.9% and to look at it is like staring into an abyss. Ordinary black looks grey next to it. Kapoor bought the exclusive rights to it from an engineering company in Surrey.

He was not the first to own a colour. In the ’60s, Yves Klein patented a mixture for blue, named International Klein Blue, which he went on to use in a series of monochrome paintings and sculptures. But whereas this was never hailed as the bluest blue, Kapoor took for himself the definitive version of black, and since he hadn’t even invented it this was unforgivable to some of his peers. The artist Christian Furr attacked him in an article, arguing that black is sacred, possessing a visceral power, and that Goya, Turner and Manet could not have created their most memorable work without it. One painter monopolising it was “a crime against art” he declared.

International Klein Blue. Photo: m-louis, Osaka, Japan (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Black 3.0, by artist Stuart Semple, available as paints at culturehustle.com

Another British artist, Stuart Semple, took matters further. In response to Kapoor, he devised “the world’s pinkest pink” and put it for sale on his website, with a veto against buyers who were “not Anish Kapoor, nor buying on his behalf, nor ever associated with him.” It was meant as a rebuke, a piece of performance art. In fact, Semple was inundated with orders. So he then created his own version of absolute black, Black 2.0, which was again made available to everyone in the world… except Kapoor.

The World’s Pinkest Pink by artist Stuart Semple, available as paints at culturehustle.com

Neither artist had the last laugh, as MIT in America has now invented a black even darker than Vantablack, absorbing over 99.99% of light. Artist Diemut Strebe used the colour in a sculpture at the New York Stock Exchange, entitled The Redemption of Vanity, in which a large, actual diamond is painted over and rendered into a void.

Diemut Strebe, “Redemption of the Vanity”. Image: Courtesy of the artist

Such are the colour wars of our time. The stakes were that much higher in 1510, when my novel is set. The art giants mentioned above – along with their northern European counterparts, Grünewald, Dürer and Hieronymous Bosch – were locked in fierce competition, all fighting for the same commissions. Though success could bring unimaginable fortune, and even fame, this was a world where failure could mean destitution and an early grave, not just for the artist, but for all their dependents. Add to this the contemporary dangers of plague and war and it’s easy to imagine the rivalry that would erupt if a colour even more miraculous than ultramarine were suddenly to appear on the quays of Venice.

For Venice was the city where colour came first – where it found its home. The city was the needle’s eye through which all the riches of the east were threaded: from Persia, India, China. It’s where money lived too, with the merchants who’d grown rich from trade. Venice was the original multi-cultural capital, home to a thousand races. A dream-like place; an astral plane between sea and sky. A city in love with spectacle and grandeur, voracious for life, defying rules. Look at the Doge’s Palace, a pale-pink confection that seems to float in mid-air. Every other citadel of power in Europe at the time was a fortress: of moats, slit windows and defensive walls.

The dazzling colour palette of “The Martyrdom of Saint George (c.1564)”, by Veronese

It was the same with pictures. At that time, paintings in Florence and Rome still began with a person, working from the inside out. First their soul, then their form, from bones to ligaments and thence to muscles, flesh, clothes and finally the world they inhabited. Stories were told in line first and drawing remained at the heart of the work. Venetian painters, by contrast, began their pictures by conjuring atmosphere, mood and colour. Where late medieval painters had been used to tempera, which could be unstable and lacking intensity, they saw the potential of the new oil paints, mixing colours that seemed even more vivid than life itself.

The Bellini brothers were the first great colorists, particularly the younger, Giovanni. Who could forget the turquoise-green background of his portrait of the Doge Lorenzo Loredan and his embroidered, ivory silk cloak? My hero, Giorgione, once Bellini’s pupil, carried on the tradition with La Tempesta, which shows a kinetic azure sky being riven by a lightning strike. It’s a picture that is nothing but atmosphere and colour, and a landscape too – three hundred years before Monet and the Impressionists.

Titian, once Giorgione’s apprentice, took on the mantle and changed painting forever. He pushed all the boundaries of what colour could do, the stories it could tell. He made Venice the centre of the art world, the world over. There followed in quick succession Veronese, Tintoretto and El Greco, each one suffused with the Venetian psyche, each one a master of colour.

Portrait of George VI wearing Tyrian purple, by Sir Gerald Festus Kelly

At the end of this long process, artists such as Giorgione applied these finished pigments to the canvas. That was the start of the painting – which we now gaze and wonder at at in a gallery – but the end of the original odyssey: the forgotten story of how those colours reached his palette. It’s an epic tale as old as the world. And somewhere between a colour being coaxed out of its hiding place – from a rock, or a fruit-stone, or the land – and arriving in a studio, hungry artists fought to possess it. Somewhere along the line, they might even have died for it.

Vermeer’s “Girl With A Pearl Earring” , 1665, wearing an ultramarine headdress

Damian Dibben’s novels have been translated into 27 languages and published in more than 40 countries. He trained as an artist and scenic designer before becoming an actor and screenwriter. His first novel, “Tomorrow”, was published to critical acclaim in 2018. He lives on London’s South Bank with his partner Ali and their dogs Dudley, Daphne and Velvet. “The Colour Storm” is out now (Michael Joseph)

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