The elegance of many a Renaissance Madonna would be
seriously diminished were it not for a certain coloured rock
that found its way to Europe from the mountains of Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli is technically not a mineral but a rock that contains
several minerals within it, including iron pyrites or ‘fools gold’.
For artists, however, it’s the crystals of aluminium silicate that
create the ethereal blue of lazurite known as Ultramarine blue.
Literally ‘Beyond the blue sea’ which, from the Venetian perspective,
was precisely what it was and the reason it was so highly prized.
In 1271, The Venetian explorer Marco Polo travelling through the
Hindu Kush, described mountains ‘in which azure is found; it is the
finest in the world and is got in a vein like silver’. Venice was an empire
with extensive trade routes stretching east to China. The finest quality
lapis from the mines in the Kokcha Valley, Afghanistan, was made into
blue pigment and used in masterpieces by Giovanni Bellini and Titian.
The colour can be seen today all the major collections of period work.
A few sources of lapis lazuli can be found in other parts of the world,
but the quality is generally inferior to that found in the Kokcha Valley region
where seams have been mined for at least 6000 years and appear to show
no signs of exhaustion. Pigment extraction, however, is not simply a matter
of grinding the rock with mortar and pestle. it’s a time consuming and
somewhat arduous process as described by the fourteenth century
Cennino Cennini in his book ‘Il libro dell’arte’ (The Craftsman’s Handbook).
Watch the video demonstration and spare a thought for all the
unknown apprentices whose time and effort has contributed to
the beauty of countless works.