MICHELANGELO’S PAINTING OF THE ENTOMBMENT
Michelangelo did not finish his painting called The Entombment because he could not obtain ultramarine, the second most expensive color in the world during his time:
“In the National Gallery in London there is an unfinished panel by Michelangelo, showing Christ being carried to his tomb. [The painting is called The Entombment.] … Although the rest of the work seems to be almost finished or at least drawn out in detail, the whole of the lower right comer is blank. It seems to have been reserved for a kneeling figure, but it has not even been started. …
“[The kneeling figure] was probably intended to be the Virgin Mary. But the only blue paint that was deemed worthy for her holy robe in Renaissance Italy was ultramarine, the most expensive of colors except for gold. That corner was probably blank because the paint had not arrived from the patron — and the twenty-five-year-old artist could never have afforded to pay for it himself. He would have cursed for a while, and sent messengers to harry the sponsors and suppliers to make them speed up their delivery and allow him to finish this altarpiece, thought to be destined for the Sant’ Agostino in Rome. But then in the spring of 1501 Michelangelo left both Rome and that canvas to carve his David in Florence, and he never returned with his blue paint to finish the Virgin’s robe.
“One day many years ago somebody told me that all the true ultramarine paint in the world came from one mine in the heart of Asia. And that before it could be squeezed sparingly onto any European artist’s palette (mixed with linseed oil or egg like an exotic blue mayonnaise) it had journeyed in rough sacks on the backs of donkeys along the world’s ancient trade roads. … My … task was to go out and get the paint that Michelangelo was awaiting so eagerly during those months in early 1501.
“Ultramarine is a word that has always seemed to me to taste of the ocean. It has a smooth, salty sound, suggesting a bluer blue than even the Mediterranean can reflect on a sunny morning. But medieval Italians had no intention of summoning specific seacolor images when they gave this marine name to their most treasured paint. Oltramarino was a technical term meaning ‘from beyond the seas,’ and was to refer to several imported items, not just paint. And this particular oltramarino certainly came from way beyond the seas: the paint is made of the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. It is found only in Chile, Zambia, a few small mines in Siberia, and — most importantly — in Afghanistan. …
“We found plenty of lapis lazuli [in Afghanistan]. … It was once the most valuable paint material in the world — and in a way it still is. Just as Michelangelo had done, artists in Renaissance Europe would have to wait for their patrons to give them the ultramarine. They could not afford to buy their own. The artist Dürer wrote a furious letter from Nuremberg in 1508 complaining that 100 florins barely bought a pound of ultramarine. … Michelangelo could have used a cheaper blue mineral called azurite to finish his painting if he had wanted to: indeed, he did use it to paint Mary Magdalene’s strange brown dress. Azurite was sometimes called ‘citramarino,’ indicating that it came from this side of the seas, and Michelangelo would probably have got his from Germany. But azurite is a byproduct of copper mines, and it is the sister stone to malachite. So it naturally tends toward the green side of the spectrum, whereas ultramarine veers toward violet. The difference can be summed up in how artists used the two paints: ultramarine to give height to the skies, and azurite to give depth to the seas. The cheaper pigment was also much less stable”