The king of blues: lapis lazuli or ultramarine blue

Il re degli azzurri (ITA)

Lapis lazuli

Source: Wikipedia (left picture) – (right)

The etymology of this precious blue pigment named ultramarine blue or lapis lazuli, tells its story. The former (ultra – maris) suggests a color from far away, travelling along the sea before landing on the European coasts. That is what Filarete tells in his “Architectural treatise” in 1464. Indeed, the lapis lazuli stone is common in the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan (Badakshan mines), the first supplying country in ancient world. Here the first use of lapis lazuli as a pigment is attested in the 6th and 7th century.

Similarly, “lapislazzuli” (from the mediaeval word lapislazuli, lăpis ‘stone’ and the Arabian-derived lāzwardī, from the Persian lazward, ‘blue) tells a story first set in the Middle East and later moving the occidental world, the main character being a blue. Europe knows the magnificence of ultramarine blue only in the Late Middle Age, when the pigment has the same price of gold. Nonetheless, its use becomes common only in the 14th century [1].Probably, its success has been delayed by a complex extractive process. In fact, the mineral responsible for this intense blue is lazurite. This mineral is frequently associated with pyrite, which is responsible of golden hints, and other silicates and carbonated – such as calcite – turning the color into grey or white when the stone is ground. Likely, this is the reason of its rare use in Egyptian, Greek or Roman art. The purification was first known only by Oriental craftsmen. This is also the meaning related to the word “ultramarine”: it was the only pigment to be imported after purification, on a bigger list of imported pigments having manufacturing centres in the West.

In his “Book of Art”, Cennino Cennini describes the complexity of this extraction, with washing in lye with resin and wax, after grinding. Such a long and hard process, together with its high price, is only justified by its extraordinary chromaticity. The latter was usually associated, especially in the Renaissance period, with an exceptional virtue given imparted to the painting by the ultramarine blue.

Emblematic is the episode reported by Vasari in his book “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects” [2]:

<< Era, secondo che io udii già raccontare, il detto priore molto eccellente in fare gl’azzurri oltramarini, e però, avendone copia, volle che Piero in tutte le sopra dette opere ne mettesse assai; ma era nondimeno sì misero e sfiducciato, che non si fidando di Pietro, voleva sempre esser presente quando egli azzurro nel lavoro adoperava. Laonde Pietro, il quale era di natura intero e da bene, e non disiderava quel d’altri se non mediante le sue fatiche, aveva per male la diffidenza di quel priore, onde pensò di farnelo vergognare; e così presa una catinella d’acqua, imposto che aveva o panni o altro, che voleva fare di azzurro e bianco, faceva di mano in mano al priore, che con miseria tornava al sacchetto, mettere l’oltramarino nell’alberello dove era acqua stemperata; dopo, cominciandolo a mettere in opera, a ogni due pennellate Piero risciacquava il pennello nella catinella, onde era più quello che nell’acqua rimaneva, che quello che egli aveva messo in opera. Et il priore, che si vedeva votar il sacchetto et il lavoro non comparire, spesso spesso diceva: "O quanto oltramarino consuma questa calcina!". "Voi vedete", rispondeva Pietro. Dopo partito il priore, Pietro cavava l’oltramarino che era nel fondo della catinella; e quello, quando gli parve tempo, rendendo al priore, gli disse: "Padre, questo è vostro; imparate a fidarvi degl’uomini da bene che non ingannano mai chi si fida, ma sì bene saprebbono, quando volessino, ingannare gli sfiducciati come voi sete" >>.

The writer tells us about the painter Perugino. He had a commission from a Prior to paint with ultramarine. The Prior had a huge availability of the pigment but at the same time he had no trust on Perugino, so the painter found a trick to make the Prior trust on him. The anecdote explains indirectly the importance of the pigment but also, indirectly, that its use was under control. Frequently contracts were stipulated to define price and amount to be used in a painting, especially in Italy. Here the supply was higher than in north European Countries and, as a consequence, the same was for its use in painting.

A further qualitative advantage is limited to wall paintings: lapis lazuli has the highest performance among blue pigments. In fact, indigo tends to darken, smalt is difficult to apply and azurite tends to turn into green.

The low availability of the mineral forced the chemists to study synthetic pathways in the 19th century. It was a hard challenge if we consider that lazurite chemical formula is variable and it was undefined at that time.

The synthesis of a less expensive pigment with a similar hue was so claimed that various awards were established in 1817 and 1824, in England and France respectively. Finally, the prize was given in 1828 to Mr. Guimet.

 A fascinating overview on lapis lazuli and its use in Decorative and Fine Arts, up to present when ultramarine is finally synthetic, can be found from today at the “Museo degli Argenti” in Florence, Italy.

And if Florence is so far away from you…make yourself confortable and have a look to the ultramarine of the Sistine Chapel in Rome: thanks to a project from the University of Villanova, Pennsylvania, you can now contemplate its wall paintings in a 360° view around (


[1] P. Ball, “Colore – Una biografia”, Milano: RCS Libri, BUR Saggi 2001.

[2] G. Vasari, “Le vite dei più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti”, L.E.G.O. Lavis: Editrice Italiana di Cultura, 1966.


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