Naples Yellow: The Yellow Pigment from Ancient Rome

Naples Yellow is the oldest synthetic pigment from its discovery in antiquity used in paintings, ceramics and glassware. The pigment is also very toxic. The colour can range from greenish-yellow to pinkish orange-yellow shades.

Naples Yellow is a lead antimonate originally used as a colour tint in yellow ceramic glazes during the age of Babylonia, Assyria and ancient Egypt in the 18th Dynasty. Most information about the yellow pigment known is scarce after the watercolour period. It was manufactured as early as 14th -16th century B.C.E. at Thebes. It was used as a yellow colourant in dominant use for painting work until most people shifted to use lead-tin yellow and lead chromate yellow by the 19th century. Naples Yellow absorbs relatively little oil and dries quickly.

Hex Code for Naples Yellow Green #D1CB9F
Hex Code for Naples Yellow #FADA5F
Hex Code for Deep Naples Yellow #EABB22

Naples yellow was produced combining lead and antimony grounded up and screened through a fine mesh. Antimony is a chemical element on the periodic table as Sb for stibnite. The yellow pigment was created by mixing two parts of chemically pure lead nitrate, one part of pure antimony potassium tartrate and four parts of sodium chloride. Then it’s purified by repeated crystallization by exposing them for two hours to heat to infuse the sodium chloride. Afterwards, it gets flushed with water dissolving out the sodium chloride.

Image of Painting “The Gleaners” by Jean-François Millet, oil on canvas, 1857. Public Domain.

The pigment is highly toxic, especially with prolonged exposure through ingestion or inhalation. It’s also moderately toxic by skin contact. It contains a lot of lead and antimony. The popular etymology of “antimony” comes from Greek and French translations meaning “monk killer” because monks described it to be a poisonous deadly chemical in use. it was first used in a compound for eye makeup for the ancient Egyptians. George Field, a chemist, noted that the colour can also change to black by damp and impure air.

Image of Fresco Painting in Church of St. Ignazio

The earliest use of the term Naples Yellow was thought to be from a Latin fresco treatise by Andrea Pozzo, an Italian Jesuit brother and baroque painter, written between 1673 and 1700. He mentioned a yellow pigment “luteolum Napolitanum.” References to “giollolino di Napoli” appeared more frequently from the beginning of the eighteenth century until the term made its way into other places outside of Italy. It was once called “Neapelgelb Neopolitaniscge Gelb Verbidung dis Spießglaz, Bleies.” The other weird names were “Virid Aëris”, “Cupbeard Persia” and “Gummi Gutta.” The other lesser-used name for this yellow was Antimony Yellow.

This colour is most commonly known to come from Mount Vesuvius in Italy. The compounds of sulphur minerals form around the active volcanoes and are ground down for multiple uses even in paint. It’s a pale yellow with warm red undertones. It was also used in thermal baths.

Maiolica Plate of the Lion Hunt by Painter Baldassare Manara in c.1520 to 1547.

Naples yellow was used in maiolica as a pigment after 1600 for a century. Maiolica is a tin-glazed earthenware. The ceramic pottery during the Italian Renaissance era would depict historical and mystical scenes on plates.

It was popular during the plenir air landscaping period when painters would use yellowish-brown tone washes to dull down the colour for a more realistic touch. It was often used to paint the glow of the Italian sun. Paintings like Johann Georg von Dillis had Naples Yellow pigment washes in Trivia Castle 1797.

Image of Painting “Trivia Castle” by Johann Georg von Dillis, oil on canvas, 1797. Public Domain.

Nowadays, Naples Yellow doesn’t have any lead and antimony for much safer materials. It is a more consistent, brighter and safer colour to use.

Clair, Kassia St. Secret Lives of Colour, The, John Murray, London, ENG, 2016, pp. 76–77.

The Eclectic Light Company – Pigment: What used to be Naples Yellow

Winsor Newton – Spotlight on: Naples Yellow

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