Purpura Caesarea

According to the manufacturer of inks and colour guides Pantone, the colours setting the trend this season are “Rose Quartz” and “Serenity Blue”. They describe their characteristics and the effects they have on us as follows: “Rose Quartz is a persuasive yet gentle tone that conveys compassion and a sense of composure. Serenity is weightless and airy, like the expanse of the blue sky above us, bringing feelings of respite and relaxation even in turbulent times”.

The industry of Colour Forecasting makes an effort in building an image of exactitude, precision and universality for the meaning of colours, but its explanations are absolutely esoteric. This is due to the fact that the meaning of colours is something cultural and ever changing. Technology, habits and history itself have granted new meanings and values to each chromatic field. No colour has always meant the same for everybody.

The history of colour meanings is part of the history of commercial routes, of rivalries between nations and of ostentation of the most powerful. Colours difficult to obtain such as the purple used to dye fabrics, became more and more expensive as they exchanged hands to end up becoming more precious than gold itself. This pigment obtained from the grinding of sea snails became a symbol of status and power, to the point that even the Caesars created the officinae purpurariae to control its manufacturing and guaranteeing the exclusivity of its use.

This hierarchy, with the blue of the garments and tattoos of the lowest-level barbarians, is maintained and organised as such in Europe. Lorenzo Valla already complained in 1430 about a colour system based on social hierarchies –resulting from the use of colours in heraldry, which granted prestige–, underlining its differences and distinguishing the privileged. “It is a very silly thing to introduce a law concerning the nobility of colours”. Colours themselves are devoid of meaning and it’s cultural conventions what grants them these meanings.

From the treaty On Colour, attributed to Aristotle, many texts and manuals have been written on colours and their creation. Nietzche’s comments on this text pinpoint the absence of greens and blues in the Greek world, and also describes the problems arising from this absence: “Every thinker paints the world in fewer colours than are actually there and is blind to colours that are actually there”, since “by virtue of this approximation and simplification he introduces harmonies of colours into the things themselves”. That is to say, we grant colours the value of things.

Recognising colours and giving them names is something that has also evolved throughout history. For example, the name orange (from Sanskrit naranga) appears in each language as soon as the fruit does. This colour, despite being known and used in these cultures, had no entity and was considered merely a hue of a different colour. From there derives the interest in coming up with names to substitute traditional ones in colour guides.

Goethe proposes in his Farbenlehre a theory to explain objectivity and subjectivity: he recommends seeing home interiors. “The observer has neither the will nor the power to imagine a state beyond him. That’s why the colour green is the most used for rooms which are usually the most lived-in”. But this theory, according to Brusatin, “creates a science predisposed to speak of the fantastic existence of colour only in the most diffuse way, until such time as colour can be detached from the things that carry it and from the colourful conversations and feelings that define it.”

Thus, the explanations of the meanings of colours/trends on behalf of the Colour Forecasting industry are part of the Romantic tradition. They link the Renaissance treaties that looked for occult messages in the colours of the loved one’s garments. And, like in those treatises, a self-fulfilled prophecy entails. The readers of those treatises started using those colours and ended up giving them the meaning that the book described. And so they became conventions. In the case of Pantone, the industrial machinery that urgently needs what colours to use for its next collections ends up adopting the predicted colours. It will be down to society to preserve or change their meanings.