Tuesday, April 23, 2019

What city in Italy is the color magenta named after?

I have asked this question in my color classes, Inevitably, I get no answer, or answers like Rome? Venice? Flagstaff? I then ask some rhetorical questions: "When was the war of 1812?" "Who is buried in Grant's tomb?" "What is the color of a red dress?" and "Who is the greatest color scientist who ever lived?" This will often prompt one of the more adventurous students to take a wild guess at the answer to the magenta question. For the time being, I will keep you in suspense about the answer cuz I got a little story to tell.

Tyrian purple

The story starts around 1600 BCE with a special purple dye that has been made from the rock snail for several millennia. It takes a lot of these snails to dye all your hankies. Like, a lot of snails. Like jillions of the little guys. About a quarter of a million of these mollusks had to be sacrificed to yield one ounce of Tyrian purple dye. As a result the dye was incredibly expensive - it was literally worth more than its weight in gold.

But it was a distinctive color and it was fade resistant, so fabrics dyed with Tyrian purple were prized by people who had more money than they knew what to do with. Purple is thus associated with royalty. This association grew draconian in fourth century Rome, when no one but the emperor would be caught dead wearing Tyrian purple. Literally. The punishment for wearing Tyrian purple was death.

The rock snail (Murex bandaris), and Tyrian purple

The royalty's purple fetish did not return until 1857 with the wife of Napoleon II, the Empress Eugénie de Montijo. She was the fashionista that all of France turned their eyes to. She fixated on purple, which was then available in one dye that was derived from lichen, and another dye called murexide, in homage to the Murex family of mollusks. It was not made from mollusks. We'll get back to that.

The industrial revolution ushered in a new form of affluence -- money and power that was not associated with family lines and land ownership. Entrepreneurs built factories that made stuff that people bought... enter a burgeoning middle class. With that middle class came the need for stuff to buy to show off one's affluenza. Since Kohler had yet to offer the Numi toilet (with Bluetooth and an intuitive touch-screen remote), that need had to be met by fashionable clothes.


Now, back to the source of murexide purple, as I promised. Murexide was first derived in the 1830's from the uric acid found in snake droppings. (Please try to avoid snickering at this. It is most unprofessional.) Apparently the commercialization of this was hindered by the unwillingness of snakes to produce sufficient quantities of excrement. It wasn't until the 1850's, when Europe was importing large quantities of the finest Peruvian bird poop (stop it!) for fertilizer, that would-be murexide producers found a source for the raw materials. Calling the raw material guano only enhanced the desirability of murexide.

A hard day's work in the guano mines

The beautiful color was lightfast (it didn't fade in sunlight like many dyes) but it unfortunately lost its color on exposure to the acidic air of urban life.  The burning of coal soured the air. Still, the European taste for purple had been whetted by bird poop. (I consider that last sentence to be my finest contribution to the field of chromo-scatalogical humor. Feel free to snicker at that.)

But all good times must come to an end. Sadly by 1881, books were being written about the end of the Golden Age of Guano in Peru [see Duffield, for example]. I should note that the decline in the guano market was not so much due to dwindling murexide production as it was the availability of cheaper commercial fertilizers that were locally grown. Modern day politicians should take note of the problems with basing an economy on guano.

"Excuse me Math Guy, what does this have to do with magenta?"
"Hang on, I'm getting to that."

Coal tar

I mentioned the burning of coal in connection with the downfall of murexide purple. In an example of "that which taketh away, also giveth", coal was to indirectly lead to the purples that replaced murexide. So, I may seem to be taking a detour to talk about coal, but trust me. It all ties together in the end.

A compound known as coke was being used to fuel the voracious iron smelting operations in England. Coal has lots of impurities, but coke is mostly pure carbon, so it burns faster and hotter than coal. It is manufactured by heating coal in an absence of oxygen. When it is heated, the carbon in the coal cannot burn due to insufficient oxygen. The impurities in the coal exit either as a gas (coal gas) or as a liquid (coal tar).

Coal gas is a mixture of flammable gases such as hydrogen, carbon monoxide, and methane. Around 1800, a fellow by the name of William Murdock hit on the idea of running the coal gas through pipes to places where it could be burned to produce light. In a792, his home in Cornwall was the first house to be lit at night with gas light. Making use of this byproduct of coke production soon became a business in its own right. By 1812 the British parliament chartered the Gas Light and Coke Company of Westminster, London as a utility company to provide coal gas for lighting.

So, a profitable use had been made of coal gas. How about the liquid byproduct? Coal tar (as one might guess from the name) is a thick black liquid -- the kind of thing you just want to dump into the river in order to make it someone else's problem. But it is also an organic chemist's playground, consisting of over 10,000 different chemicals.

Looking forward to a thick, rich cuppa Joe

Over the coming decades, curious chemists extracted a number of interesting organic compounds from coal tar, including naphthalene (1819), anthracine (1832), and in 1834, both phenol and aniline. I'm not going to get into the utility of the first two, but the latter two are relevant to this story because they could be turned into pigments.

In 1842, a process was discovered whereby nitric acid was added to phenol to create a yellow pigment called picric acid. This was a pretty color bu the pigment lacked commercial success since it was neither lightfast nor resistant to washing. It has found much better use as an explosive. And really, who doesn't want an explosive that has a pretty color?

Aniline, on the other hand, led to the development of many important pigments.

"You mean, like magenta?"
"Please be patient. I'm still setting the stage."


1856 London. William Henry Perkin was a mere lad of 18 when he started experimenting with aniline in the hope of finding a way to synthesize quinine. Quinine is derived from the bark of the cinchona tree of South America, and was devilishly expense. It is used to treat malaria, and as a result, it is found in the ever-popular drink gin and tonic. British folks in India were known to contract malaria just to get treated with gin and tonics. But a wise man once said that the bark of the cinchona tree is devilishly expensive. Suffice it to say, a cheap alternative to the manufacture of quinine was a worthy goal for the young Perkin.

Two authors have commented on the naivete of Perkin in one of his experiments. Philip Ball has this to say:

[In one experiment] all he obtained was a reddish-brown sludge. Organic chemists quickly become familiar with this type of reaction -- generally it means the reagents have combined to give an unintelligible mess that is best flushed down the sink.

Garfield explains Perkin's naive tenacity this way:

Most chemists, particularly those trained by Hofmann at the Royal College, would have thrown the reddish-brown powder into a rubbish bin, and begun again.

But Perkin inquisitively continued this utter waste of time with aniline and arrived at a fabulous purple. He dyed a piece of silk with the chemical and was delighted by the brilliant color and the fact that it didn't readily fade. The image below shows sample of silk that was dyed by Perkin in 1860, and which now resides at the Smithsonian. Not Perkin; the sample of silk resides there.

Perkin initially dubbed his dye Tyrian purple, but later settled on mauve, which is the French name for the mallow flower. The chemical is also known as aniline purple, aniline violet,  mauveine, chrome violet, indisin, Perkin's violet, purpurin, rosolane, and violein. There is no dearth of invented words in the field of industrial color production.

The mallow flower

The timing couldn't have been better for Perkin. Remember how I cleverly mentioned the Empress Eugénie de Montijo and her purple fetish which was unsated due to the end of The Golden Age of Guano? In 1857, Queen Victoria wore a mauve gown to her daughter's royal wedding. Empress Eugénie expressed her delight that mauve matched the color of her eyes. The craze was so crazy that Punch magazine satirized the outbreak of "mauve measles". 

There is a lot more to Perkin's story, but it's time to move on to explaining how magenta got its name and how this relates to Italy. But first, we will talk about fuchsia.

"Stop teasing me and answer the question!"
"It's not about the destination. It's about the journey."


Perkin's success with investigating coal tar sparked a fierce competition between colorists (chemists in the science of dyeing) in England, France, and Germany. They reasoned that there must be other brilliant colors hiding in the murky depths of coal tar. This hunch bore fruit of many colors. The general importance of coal tar in the production of dyes can seen by thumbing through Hurst's 126 page volume, A Dictionary of the Coal Tar Colors. That's right. A volume of 126 pages listing dyes made from color tar. A copy of this can be found on the coffee table of any reputable color scientist.

François-Emmanuel Verguin was one of the French competitors, who created aniline red in 1858. His choice for a color name was the euphonious fuchsine, after the fuchsia flower. In England, Edward Chamber Nicholson created the same aniline red in 1860 by a different process and named it rosein or roseine, presumably a rose by any other name.

Aniline red also goes by the name rubin or rubine, but I have not been able to track down the source, other than being derived from the Latin rubeus, meaning red. You got it. Someone called the dye red because it was purple.

Before I answer the original question, about how the color magenta got its name, I would be remiss to talk about fuchsia without pointing out that it is one of the most misspelled of all color names. Nathan Moroney ran an online color naming experiment for years. He had a website that would display some combination of red, green, and blue, and then ask the person to type in a name for the color. The pie chart below shows that there are three misspellings of fuchsia that are more common than the correct spelling: fuschia, fuscia, and fushia. Only 10% of three respondents spelled the word correctly.

But I digress. Let's return to the story, which is already in progress.

The Battle of Magenta

The Battle of Magenta, fought near Magenta, Italy, occurred on June 4th of 1859. This was a decisive battle in the Second Italian War of Independence. The French-Sardinian alliance, led by Napoleon III, won out over the Austrian forces. Yes. This is the same Napoleon II who was mentioned earlier for having a fashionista wife. An interesting coincidence, but unrelated to the question at hand.

The Battle of Magenta, by Gerolamo Induno

I will quote from three sources as to how this battle relates to the newly created dye, aniline red.

Philip Ball offered this explanation:

But the color became more popularly known as magenta, named in honor of the Italian town where the French army fought and defeated the Austrians in June 1859.

Ok... sounds good. But how did the dye get associated with the battle? Kate Smith's rendition:

The Battle of Magenta, fought on the outskirts of the town during the Second Italian War of Independence. Some historians say the Battle of Magenta was a turning point in the war. ... The color reminded someone – most likely the person who named it – of the uniforms worn by the Zouave troops of the French army.

Maybe this is the connection? But it begs the question about what dye was used for these uniforms, since the dye was brand new. And another thing that bothers me: I understand that the image above of the 160 year old painting painting as rendered on my computer display is not likely to be color accurate, but the color of the uniforms seems to be closer to red than magenta.

Victoria Finlay had a more practical take on the matter:

It's first name "fuschine" (from the reddish-purple flower fuschia) was too easy to mispronounce, and it got better sales when renamed after a battle that year in the town of Magenta in northern Italy.

Kassia St Clair has offered an even more business-savvy explanation. I have found no other evidence of her assertion that one of the first sales was to an army, but the explanation is compelling.

The first customers [of the dye], intriguingly, were several European armies, who used it to dye their uniforms. The names, though -- 'fuchsia' in France and 'roseine' in Britain -- would not do for so dashing and assertive a hue. Instead, it became known as 'magenta', in honour of the small Italian town where, on 4 June 1859, the Franco-Piedmontese army won a decisive victory against the Austrians.

So, the connection between the war and the dye is a matter of heated dispute. But one thing is clear. The name magenta was good product branding.


Hurst's Dictionary of the Coal Tar Colours lists one more name for the dye: solferino, but neglects to give a source for the name. I found this a bit confusing. The word reminds me of sulphur, which is yellow. Of course, it also reminds me of the purple sulphur bacteria. It would probably not be a good marketing move to name a sexy new dye after a type of bacteria. I can understand why this name didn't stick.

So, naturally, I started googling. I found out that Solferino is the name of another city in Italy. Oh? Interesting. I dug a bit further. It seems that there was a battle fought in Solferino, 20 days after the Battle of Magenta. Oh??? Isn't that interesting?!?!?!

Simon Garfield offers some explanation. The first time I read his account, I missed the fact that it is talking about two different names for the same color.

In Britain, it [aniline red] became known as solferino and then magenta, taking the names from the Franco-Piedmontese war against Austria and Garibaldi's victory in North Italy, where the dye matched the color of the soldier's tunics. 

Here is a different explanation from an online dictionary

After Solferino, a village in northern Italy, where the Battle of Solferino was fought on June 24, 1859, resulting in forty thousand casualties in a single day. The color was named so because the dye of this color was discovered shortly after the battle, and supposedly the color represented how the battlefield appeared after the bloodshed.

One one trivial correction - the dye was discovered shortly before the battle, not after. Another rather bigger error - blood is red, not fuchsia. Blood dries quickly to a dark brown. I don't find this a credible explanation.

My own best guess is that there was a large order of aniline dyes for military uniforms that occurred slightly after the Battles of Magenta and Solferino. Patriotism and the positive image of a winner became useful branding for the new dyes. Both town names were used, but magenta won out in the end, possibly because of the connotation of solferino with sulphur.

And that, my friends, is how the color magenta got its name.


Ball, Philip, Bright Earth, Art and the Invention of Color, University of Chicago Press, 2001

Blaszczyk, Regina Lee, The Color Revolution, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012, pps. 21 - 44

Duffield, Alexander James, The Prospects of Peru: The End of the Guano Age and a Description Thereof, Newman and Company, 1881

Finlay, Victoria, The Brilliant History of Color in Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014

Garfield, Simon, Mauve, How One Man Invented a Color that Changed the World, Faber and Faber Limited, 2000

Hurst, George H., A Dictionary of the Coal Tar Colours, Heywood and Company, 1892

Lunge, Coal-Tar and Ammonia, Gurney and Jackson, 1882

Meldola, Raphael, Coal and what we get from it: A romance of applied science, 1913

Moroney, Nathan, The many misspellings of fuchsia, from Colour Coded, Society of Dyers and Colourists, 2010

Smith, Kate, Italy | The Colorful City of Magenta,

Smithsonian Libraries, Making Color

St Clair, Kassia, The Secret Lives of Colour, John Murray Publishers, 2016, pps. 162 - 164, 167 - 171


  1. Francisco DominguezApril 23, 2019 at 3:14 PM

    Thanks for that interesting article. I would like to clarify that “Eugénie de Montijo” is not exact. Her name was María Eugenia Ignacia Augustina de Palafox y KirkPatrick (or just Eugenia de Montijo), she was born in Granada (Spain) and she was dead in Madrid (Spain), so she was a Spanish “fashionist” from an aristocrat family with numerous noble titles.

  2. I appreciate the clarification and extra information, Francisco.