Venetian Colours  

The practicalities and the social political implications of the colour of dress.

1540 - 1600 

The variety of colours used is great, from pastels to bold, rich colours.  Admittedly the perceptions of colours used are affected by what we see in portraits.  These colours may be affected buy things such as:

                    Ageing of the portrait.

      Any lacquers applied to the portrait after completion.

      What restorers used in their work.

      Environmental conditions of the artwork.

      Compared to existing textiles how do the colours compare.

      The quality of the reproduction you are viewing be it online of in hard copy.


Searching through period dye books and examination of existing textiles from Venice support the visual records that purple and its variants were the least used colours.   There are no sumptuary laws that I am aware of that prohibit this colour, nor is there any other reason that it should be excluded from their colour chart.  

Visual evidence though portraiture and frescos of the time, would indicate that colours were linked also to social status, and political statements.  One possible explination for the lack of purple lay within the Venetian Republics previous connections with the Byzantine Empire.  

Purple was the colour chosen as the imperial colour in the Byzantine Empire.  This is not as straightforward as it seems.  Purple could be achieved by various means.  Mixing of various red and blue dyes such as madder and indigo does give a variety of purple (Muthesius 1997, 30).  The imperial colour purple was very specific and kept a highly guarded secret (Muthesius 1997, 27).  Purple dye extracted from the murex mollusk was the highest quality purple dye available, and almost prohibitively expensive to produce (Muthesius 1997, 27).  The use of the varying shades of purple obtained from other sources was not restricted, however the unsanctioned use of this specific shade carried with it heavy penalties (Muthesius 1997, 27).  Citizens of Constantinople were reported to be dressed in silk of purple and gold (Geijer 1979, 129).  Psychologically the effect this would have had on any one entering the city who knew of the significance of the colour purple in textiles, yet not the relevance of specific shadings, would have been staggering.  Diplomatically the message this would have sent to foreign ambassadors would have been enormous. While no specific reference was found, control of production of the imperial purple dyeing process with in the palace walls as an extension of the imperial silk workshop would have highly been likely.

As previously mentioned the method for achieving the imperial purple was a highly guarded secret.  Also guarded was the sale of silk.  Foreign merchants were not permitted to stay within the city walls.  There was an area set aside for them in which they could stay.  Their business had to be concluded with in three months as that was as long as they were permitted to stay without special dispensation.  Foreigners were only permitted to purchase cheap fabrics of narrower loom widths (Geijer 1979, 129).



One colour that was widely known was Venetian Red.  That being the case red could be considered a safe colour when planning Venetian dress.  As can be seen from this colour chart, derived from Venetian art, red is a dominant colour.  Red was also a colour worn in senatorial robes, making this a politically powerful colour.

Red, the most expensive of dyes for Venetians at this time, and divers colour range (Hills 1999, 174), was the most adulterated by mixing of cheapening dyes.  1243 a statute was passed forbidding the mixing of expensive dyes with cheaper dyes such as brazilwood, also known as verzino without special permission.  Reds ranged in shade form an orange red to and deep purple red.  Scarlet and crimson enjoyed prominence in the Venetian palette.   A Venetian dyers manual of the 15th century lists no fewer than 109 of the 159 chapters as dedicated to varying reds (Hills 1999, 174).  Of the six different pigments used to obtain the various shades of red, all were imported into Venice.  These dyes were derived from

    Madder robbia,

    orchil oricello, and

    brazilwood verzino;

these were of vegetative origin, while

    lac lacca,

    grain- rana and

    kerms cremisi

were of mineral origins. 

Madder was cultivated within Italy and Flanders and was the cheapest and most available of the reds.  Once used the resultant cloth was usually called rosa.  Verzino and lacca, were imported from the East.  Rana and cremisi, were obtained from insects and were the two most expensive of the red dyes (Mola 2000, 108 109). 


The two favoured shades were scarlotto form rana, a tomato red, and cremisino from cremisi, a bluish red (Hills 1999, 174).  When commissioning a new garment wealthy Venetians never left the choice of fabric to their tailors.  The colour seemed to be more important then the cut of the garment.  As a result the Venetian eye became very attuned to the shades of different colours and the quantity of fabric used in a garment (Hills 1999, 174).  To ensure that customers got exactly what they paid for in the way of dyes used and grade of silk, a system of coloured threads was introduced into the selvage of fabric (Mola 2000, 112).  Jacopo Tintoretto and his workshop have produced many 16th century renditions of Nobili and the Cittadini in their robes of state.  In viewing these it is possible to view the wide range of shades of red and the various textures of silk velvets, brocades and satins. 

While this colour chart would seem to indicate a veritable rainbow of colours, what may appear green in the colour chart is say, viewed as white in the context of the original artwork. The lack of purple in Venetian dress code could have been a reaction against the regime of the Byzantine Empire of the past.  Red in its vibrancy was undoubtedly linked to Venice's political system, and as such could be viewed as a political statement on a grander scale.  The political head of the Venetian government was the Doge.  The three main colours seen on the Doge in order are; red, gold and white.  Is is any wonder then that these colours dominate the Venetian dress palette!  Another observation from images of the time is the colour green.  While it is seen worn buy some noble women it is seen more often on servants.  This could be coincidence, but it could also be a reflection of the status of this colour.

While the chart is a good reference, you should still consult the original art works if possible.  Failing that, a good reproduction that has not been altered or colour enhanced.  Access to original accounts of dyeing processes and sumptuary laws governing their use are important considerations if an authentic looks is what is aspired to.



Email     Home

All intellectual content, composition, layout, designs and photographs copyright 2007 to Deborah Lane , 2003 to Deborah Murray or Mistress Oonagh O'Neill . All Original renaissance art works and artefacts are not copyright to Deborah Lane, and are shown for educational use only.  If you see something you'd really like to use, please contact me!

setstats 1

setstats 1