An Artist, a Colour #4: Veronese Green


"La famiglia di Dario ai Piedi di Alessandro" (The Family of Darius before Alexander), 1565-1570 London, National Gallery

"La famiglia di Dario ai Piedi di Alessandro", 1565-1570 London, National Gallery

It may seem strange to you, but the Veronese Green, the Verona Green and the Viridian are not the same colour.

To the late-Renaissance painter called Paolo il Veronese, to be born in that city, is related one of the colours most misunderstood  by websites and some fine arts catalogs.
So, I try to clarify.

He born Paolo Caliari on 1528. The nickname was given to him in Venice, to mean he came from outside.  When he was thirteen his father, a stonecutter, sent him to work by the painter Antonio Badile, but Veronese was so capable that three years later he went to work on his own.

After he had been in Parma, he painted the frescoes of the Duomo of Mantua, then he went to Venice, where he performed works in the Palazzo Ducale: the fresco in the Sala dei Consiglio dei Dieci and in the Sala dei Tre Capi del Consiglio.  Also he collaborated on the decoration of the ceiling of the Biblioteca Marciana (National Library of St. Mark’s) and executed many works in the church of San Sebastiano.

At that time Verona, which in the Past had lived in great splendor under the lordship of the della Scala family, was subject to Venice, which ensured his peace, both from external attacks, and by internal fighting among local families – one of these feuds, between the Montecchi and the Capuleti families, is the background of the Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet –.

In “La Serenissima”, Veronese made his career quickly: he being at ease with both the sacred and mythological subjects, he had assignments both from religious orders, and from most prestigious private clients, such as that for Villa Barbaro, near Treviso, designed by Andrea Palladio. Here, the artist gave vent to his own imagination, painting a series of beautiful frescoes, with many trompe-l’œil, so from doors painted on the walls entering characters and on a virtual balcony in a hall overlooks the lady of the house with her nurse.

"Lady Barbaro Giustinian and her nurse", 1561, Villa Barbaro; Maser (Treviso)

From Titian, he had borrowed the technique of tonal variation of the colours, in the order to achieve a soft chiaroscuro and the juxtaposition of complementary colours, to allow these to exalt each other – for example, in some paintings, he matched the Reds to the Greens –.By Titian again and by the attendance of architects like Palladio, the fineness to emphasize the visual composition, through the inclusion of architectural elements painted. The result was a gentle Mannerist style, which had nothing to do with the brutality of Tintoretto.

A painting by Veronese where is clearly visible his use of complementary color harmony is the Cena nella Casa di Levi (The Feast in the House of Levi) of 1573. I and my wife saw it last year, visiting the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. It’s a huge painting (5.55 x 12.80 mt), which occupies the whole end wall of a hall. Its visual composition is divided into three vertical bands, highlighted by three round arches, supported by Corinthian capitals. It stands out here the harmony of Reds and Greens, indeed it’s clear that, when Veronese wants to highlight a character dressed in red, stands next to it something green and vice versa.

"Cena in casa di Levi", 1573, Venezia, Gallerie dell'Accademia

In fact, the real subject of the painting is the Last Supper of Christ and it had been commissioned by the Dominican Order of the Saints John and Paul’s basilica. However, the painter’s personal approach to the sacred subject  – by including non-biblical characters such as jesters, Landsknecht mercenaries, drunkards and dogs – cost him a convocation by the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition. The Veronese’s justification:
When inside a painting I still have space,  I embellish it with figures invented by myself.” [1]
not convinced the ecclesiastical judges, who ordered that the painting was remade. The artist found a quicker solution: he changed the work title.

La scelta tra Vizio e Virtù (Honor et Virtus post Mortem florescit), 1567
“La scelta tra Vizio e Virtù”, 1567

It was just that brightest and highest in chroma green present in this painting – visible in other works too, like La famiglia di Dario ai piedi di Alessandro (The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565-1570) e La scelta tra Virtù e Vizio ( Honor et Virtus post Mortem floret, 1567) – to link itself to the name of Paolo Veronese, as to be still sold today, after four and a half centuries.
Anyway, this is strange for two reasons.

The first is he had not a preference for the green only but, like all Venetian painters, he used all the available pigments in Venice – an important commercial city in its time – such as the ultramarine, azurite, smalt, indigo, cochineal carmine lake, vermilion, lead red, lead-tin yellow, orpiment, realgar, copper resinate. An example of this, is the polychromatic Le Nozze di Cana (The Marriage at Cana) 1563, at Musée de Louvre.
The second is that, as we have already seen about the Van Dyke Brown, the colour called “Veronese Green” – in France, Vert Paul Véronèse – produced not before the eighteenth century, is not the green used by the painter.

Differently from the possibilities offered to the Art, since the second half of 1800’s, by the chemical industry of the Colour, in the Past the painters used only colours tested by Tradition. At the time of Veronese, the greens could be of mineral origin (such as malachite or green earths) or vegetable (such as the Sap Green) or former-chemicals (such as Verdigris and Copper Resinate).

As recalled by Philip Ball, in his book – already quoted in this blog – “Bright Earth”[2], the introduction of Oil Painting, changed the choice of pigments, because the oil had a refractive index different from that of the previous medium used – the egg yolk – , thus some of these resulted so transparent, as are not longer used, like the Malachite Green, or reinforced with Flake White, like the Verdigris. Still others, were made again high in saturation by layering with colours of the same shade.
And that would be the case of the Veronese Green too. Because it would not, as some people written, a colour invented or discovered by Veronese.

In fact, Veronese Green was not a Colour, but a Technique.

It was used by half of the fifteenth century and was not a Veronese’s discovery –  microscopic tests on paintings have detected it was already known in fourteenth-century – which consisted of laying a coat of Copper Resinate, on a coat of Verdigris, Lead White and Lead-Tin Yellow; in its turn spread over an imprimitura (an undercoat) of Lead White[3].

the real "Veronese Green" technique.

But what are these pigments?

Copper Resinate is a term that indicated a generic mix (the doses were not determined) of green salts of Copper,Venice turpentine and wax.


Copper Resinate

Verdigris is  semi-transparent green in use since the Ancient Egyptians age – despite the name, from Old French vertegrez, that’s Green of Greece–. Because only in the Middle Ages, thanks to the Arab alchemists, were available strong acids like sulfuric and nitric acid, in the ancient times, the most acidic substance used was the vinegar. So, to take advantage of the bluish green properties of tarnished copper, strips of this metal were put into the vinegar to corrode.

Verdigris (Verderame), Copper Acetate, ColorIndexName: PG 20

Verdigris was mainly used for background landscapes. Much appreciated for its bluish shade, it fell out of use since the nineteenth century because, like all Copper pigments, over time darkened becoming brown. Anyway, its major defect was its toxicity. Defect that was increased by combining it with Lead White and that was enhanced in the eighteenth century when the Swedish Scheele combined it with Arsenic, achieving the Cooper-acetoarsenite (Scheele’s Green). In 1814, the German Sattler improved the compound, creating the more toxic Schweinfurter Grün, that’s the Emerald Green.

Emerald Green(Schweinfurter Grün), Copper Acetoarsenite, ColorIndexName: PG 21

 Just a Cooper-acetoarsenite compound is the “Veronese Green”,  put on sale only two centuries after the death of the painter. However this is a improper use of his name: indeed, the concept of many colours whose name was joined to a famous painter, is to sell in a single tube, something reproducing the effect obtained by the artists only through several steps – an exception is International Klein Blue, which was created and patented by Klein himself, with collaboration of the paint manufacturer Edouard Adam –.

Therefore, the original Veronese Green, not only is not the equivalent of Emerald Green, but nor of Viridian– despite what mistakenly says the Italian page of Wikipedia.it – because the latter is made of Chromium oxide dihydrate and, in the fourteenth century, the chrome was not even discovered.
The history of Chromium pigments is well described by Philip Ball [4]. In 1797, the French chemist Vauquelin – who had already discovered the Beryllium – began to examine a Siberian red crystal, discovered thirty-six years earlier by the geologist Lehmann: the Crocoite. In this mineral, from which was extracted a red pigment for paints, Vauquelin discovered a new element, which produced highly coloured compounds, so he named the element Chromium – from Greek: Chroma, i.e. “Colour” –. In 1809, trying to synthesize in the laboratory the crocoite (lead chromate), instead of getting a red pigment, he produced a bright yellow – Chrome Yellow –. He realized that, by varying the temperature of the process, you could get bright pigments ranging from light to deep yellow, orange, red.
Although beautiful, these pigments were extremely expensive, because the only known deposit of chromium was in Siberia. Only later, they were more localized in the Shetland Islands and the United States.

Viridian (Vert Guignet), Chromium oxide dihydrate, ColorIndexName: PG 18

 About the green colour derived from Chromium, already in 1809, Vauquelin had written it was possible to obtain a green pigment from Crocoite, which could be used as a glaze for pottery. But, being rather dull, it not met with great interest. In 1838, however, the French Pannetier, hydrating the Chromium Oxide, got a deep and intense green, which in France was called Vert Émeraude. In England, anyway, already existed Emerald Green, which we mentioned above, thus that colour became known around 1860 as Viridian – from Latin Viridis, that’s “Green”–.  The colour of Pannetier, although it liked, it was too expensive. Almost twenty years later, the chemical Guignet devised a different system for its production, which made it cheaper: the Vert Guignet (Guignet’s Green ) then became a very popular colour among the Impressionists.
It’s thus evident the Viridian has nothing to do with the Veronese Green.

Finally,  Veronese Green  should not be confused with Verona Green (or Verona Green Earth), which is a green earth – that’s a mix of Iron hydrosilicates with salts of Magnesium, Aluminum, Potassium – extracted, certainly not in that city, but in his province. Any reference to Paolo Veronese is purely coincidental.
This historic pigment was used in the Past, in the words of the Libro dell’Arte by Cennino Cennini – Italian painter born in the XV century, custodian of the medieval painting techniques dating from Giotto – into one of two possible recipes to perform the technique of verdaccio. This was an underpainting grisaille for the skin’s chiaroscuro, over which were applied successive layers of Red or Pink: in this way, were achieved gray shadows and avoided a too red complexion. The greenish hue of some character faces of medieval frescoes, reveals the use of this technique.

Verona Green(Verona Green Earth), Iron hydrosilicates with Magnesium, Aluminum, Potassium salts, ColorIndexName: PG 23

This problem was never involved works by Paolo Veronese: the perfect and delicate complexion of his characters, made it acceptable even the most daring subjects, such as the loving encounters between Venus and Mars (or Adonis), many times portrayed by him.

A curious age, that of la Serenissima: in which the Sacred and the Profane lived side by side; an intellectual class having as its ideal the humanistic culture, lived under the government of a lord with religious authority – the Doge –; finally, it was possible represent also the Lust, in a painting of mythological subject, but if you missed a reference in a sacred picture, you risked a process by the Inquisition.

"Marte e Venere con Cupido ed un cavallo", 1575, Torino, Galleria Sabauda

[1] “Se nel quadro li avanza spacio, io l’adorno di figure secondo le invenzioni […] nui pittori si pigliamo la licentia che si pigliano i poeti e i matti ”.
From the minutes of Paolo Caliari’s appearance in front of Inquisition of July 18, 1573, Archivi Sant’Offizio;
See André Chastel, Cronaca della pittura italiana 1280-1580, Fratelli Palombi Editori, Roma 1984.
[2] Ball Philip, “Bright Earth: The Invention of Colour”; University of Chicago Press, 2001
[3] H. Kühn, “Verdigris and Copper Resinate,” in “Artists’ Pigments: A Handbook of Their History and Characteristics”, Vol. 2, Oxford University Press, New York 1993
[4] Ball Philip, idem
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About liviusnotes

Architect, Graphic Illustrator, Drawing Teacher, Gentleman.
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6 Responses to An Artist, a Colour #4: Veronese Green

  1. Phil W says:

    Interesting, I did not previously know that Veronese Green was not an actual pigment (although that has not stopped manufacturers from selling it as such). Thanks for the post.

    • liviusnotes says:

      This means that already in the Past, a “Made in Italy” brand was useful to increase the sales of an artistic product. Thank you, Phil.

  2. Thank you for your exhaustive information on green. I have been trying to pin down the color used by Van Gogh and many of the impressionists (Self Portrait with Shaved Head) which he described as Veronese green.

    • liviusnotes says:

      Thanks Robert,
      in fact, the green most used by the Impressionists should be the Vert Guignet (for the reasons explained in the post). Vang Gogh bought colours (paid for by his brother Theo) by Julien Tanguy, who had a small shop on the Rue Clauzel in Montmartre, Paris.
      Tanguy prepared personally on request colours for Pissarro and Cézanne too. Often, to help them, bought the paintings of artists who could not pay colours and canvases. To repay his debt, Van Gogh painted a portrait of him (“Le portrait du Père Tanguy”, 1888).

  3. Ginny says:

    Fascinating. Do you know if anyone has published the spectral data for these colors? I’d like to find the closest appearance match in modern materials. It would be helpful to know the Munsell notations or CIELAB values.

    • liviusnotes says:

      Hi, Ginny. Thanks for your question.
      If you’ve noticed, in the captions about the colors in my post, I mentioned the code of the current pigments:

      • “Verdigris” or “Verderame”, ColorIndexName: PG 20;
      • “Emerald Green” or “Schweinfurter Grün”, ColorIndexName: PG 21;
      • “Viridian” or “Vert Guignet”, ColorIndexName: PG 18;
      • “Verona Green” (Verona Green Earth), ColorIndexName: PG 23

      The CIE Lab values of these pigments certainly exist, but they’re likely quoted within industrial laboratory tests or university researches. A not very scientific way to identify them, could be to contact a supplier of pigments for Fine Arts, asking the permission to take a picture of the pigment sample. Then, analyze the picture with the Photoshop’s Eyedropper Tool (of course, you have to consider that the image will be affected by an aberration of color).
      In a more scientific way, the research psychologist and watercolorist Bruce MacEvoy, passionate about biology, astronomy and color perception, has chemical and spectrographic tested all the watercolors of each brand on the market around 2004, and he published the results on its website http://www.handprint.com.
      On his page http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/labwheel.html he has relaesed a downloadable artist’s color wheel – that’s a CIE Lab color space – in which he identified the location of the color’s pigments, through the HA (Hue Angle in degrees of the CIELAB a * b * plane).

      For more specific information on green pigments only, see this page instead: http://www.handprint.com/HP/WCL/waterg.html#PG7

      Anyway, I believe – also about of my daily experience as an architect – that there can never be a perfect correlation between Munsell’s notations or CIELab values and the color appearance of a material. This is because Munsell’s notations or CIELab values (especially the latter) are very suitable to the Additive Color System (Lighting Design, or Computer Display), while the pigments are colored materials, therefore belong to the context of the Subtractive Color System.
      Bye.

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