Paints of the Ancients.

Manufacturer and Builder 3, 1870

A certain class of persons, little acquainted with the details of the industrial achievements of the present day, and the history of their slow development, are much inclined to extel the accomplishments of the ancients in different arts and sciences, asserting even that they knew the uses of steam, electricity, etc.; also that many of their technological manipulations are totally unknown at the present day. Some have gone so far as to write treatises on the so-called "lost arts" of the ancients.

This strange misapprehension results from one-sided education, in which too much attention is paid to the past, and too little to the present. It is fostered, more-over, by a peculiar disposition of the mind, disposing it to veneration for what is old. Persons thus prejudiced by nature and training, take a hint or suggestion of some classic author for a statement of an existing state of things. They forget that mere suggesting or speculating is not discovering nor inventing. Much less is it the practical execution and application of an invention.

Much has been said and printed about the manificent colors of the ancients. It has been asserted that we can not equal them. Let us see what foundation there is for this assertion, which rests on ground about as reasonable as the other rash statements of a similar nature.

Landerer, a German chemist, has latelly occupied himself with investigating the colors used by ancients on statues, monuments, bas-reliefs, and vases, in the city of Atherns, in Greece. He found that what had remained of the coloring matter on these objects was so hard that only with difficulty it could be scratched off by means of an iron tool. Analysis showed that the paints were partially metallic and partially earthy. The painters of the Ionic scholl, however, used also vegetable substances to obtain bright colors.

Red. The red colors proved to be the natural vermilion, or cinnabar. Artificial vermilion has a much brighter red color, but was only invented by Kallias four hundred years before the birth of Christ. Probably the natural cinnabar used before that time was obtained from the Laurian silver mines, in Attica. It was mixed with red earth, to brighten the color. A reddish silicate of alumina and iron was extensively used, very similar, according to the description fo Landerer, to the material of the same ingredients now produced at Berlin, in Connecticut, and extensively employed in this country as a red paint. The burnt ochre was another red, made by Kidias in the year 368 before Christ, by burning the yellow ochre from Sinope and Cappadocia. Red-lead, or minium, was obtained by burning natural litharge, (oxide of lead.) This litharge is still found near the harbor of Bulkan on the island of Zea. It was called miltos - a name possibly also applied to cinnabar. In the Laurian silver works, a lead oxide was obtained which could be easily converted by burning into red-lead. This is the usual red paint found on antique vases.

Besides these mineral red, the ancients employed the root of the madder, and the red of the purpura shellfish, as well as the so-called "dragon's blood" from the East-Indies, which we now know to be a dried vegetable juice. These colors, which by nature are not permanent, were put on the marble by means of either a fine hydraulic cement, or a wax-varnish.

Yellow. The ancients ad no bright yellow at all. Our chrome, cadmium, and zinc yellows were entirely unknown to them. Their principal yellow was the yellow ochre. To make it brighter, they mixed it with pigments, as, for instance, white-lead. A yellow oxide of lead, identical with the mineral chrysitis, was also used, and is still found in the Laurian mines. Aristotle speaks of orpiment, in his time called sandaraca, and now known to be suplhide of arsenic. This is, however, now no more found in any remnant of old Grecian workmanship.

Green. The only greens known to the ancients appear to have been compounds of copper, partly artificial and partly natural. Powdered malachite, a beautiful green natural carbonate of copper, was brough from the island of Cyprus, where copper (cuprum) is abundant. This island being dedicated to the goddess Venus, copper was supposed to be the metal of love; and hence the absurd rule to introduce compounds of copper into philters or love potions. These ingredients would be inert in very small doses, and in larger ones would cause vomiting.

A silicous compound of copper was also found to be the green color applied to some funeral monuments.

Blue. This was, like the green, always a compound of copper; either the powdered lazulite, a blue natural carbonate of copper, or the beautiful ceruleum, which was the best color they had, and was artificially produced by fusing together copper, nitre and sand.

Black. This is found to have been either ivoryblack or a very fine charcoal. Ancient writers corroborate this conclusion by saying that Apelles produced beautiful shaded tones by means of burnt ivory. Asphaltum was also used; it was dissolved in spirits of turpentine, and constitutes the black varnish on vases.

White. White-lead was known, but appears to have been little used: most whites are found to have been the earth of Mylos, which is a white silicious clay. According to classic authors, white-lead was extensively used by the Greek Indies as a cosmetic, for which purpose it was made up in small cakes or bars.

Gilding. Plutarch mentions that heavy gold-leaf was attached to the Corinthian bronze by means of mercury, and subsequent pressure and friction; but the gilding investigated by Landerer was found to be attached to the marbles and vases simply by means of white of egg, or of gum arabic. It is doubtful whether te Greeks were acquainted with the gum sarcocoliæ, which was used by the Egyptians for the same purpose.

Encaustic painting was more frequently practived. The Greeks had three styles of it. They burnt only hte outlines on ivory, with hot irons, as we nowadays often see it done on wood, with shadows and all; or they brought the wax-colors on the surface with appropriate dies and peas, and melted them in by heat; or they painted with brushes, having previously liquefied the paint mixed with wax or resin, with some solvent or by eat. The latter method appears to have been in use to paint whips and boats with a variety of figures.

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