“Black is not sad. Bright colours are what depresses me. They’re so… empty. Black is poetic. How do you imagine a poet? In a bright yellow jacket? Probably not.” (Ann Demeulemeester)

Black.

Black as death, as the plague that destroyed Europe in 1300, as the colour of loss, of funerals, of cemeteries.

Black like fear, darkness, unknown, evil, sadness, anger.

Black, the colour that deletes all the other shades, that swallows everything, even the light.

Black as the colour of outcasts, of ill people, of gravediggers, of rebels, of anarchists, of punks, of rockers, of murderers.

Black, the colour that no one likes.

But is it really like that? Black should be rejected only because it has always been seen as the symbol of evil?

Black is not demonic. During the Middle Ages it was the colour associated with farmers, because their hands and their clothes were stained with the dirt coming from the soil that they used to farm spilling their sweat. It was the symbol of humanity and penance, and so it was chosen by the Benedictine monks to be the colour of their habits; therefore, from that moment on, they have been called monaci nigri, the black monks. Black became the colour of priests and nuns, of the Christian church, the symbol of a sober and dignified spirituality.

monaco

“Giovane monaco benedettino” by Giovan Frencesco Caroto

Black is not the colour of evil people. During the 13th Century, when heraldry was born, black, that was called sable, was one of the six colours used by the knights to design their shields and flags; even the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire chose as his own effigy a two-headed black eagle. Mysterious knights dressed in black were the main protagonists of the chivalry romances of that times, and they were pictured as merciful and brave heroes that used to hide in the shadows, waiting to accomplish their glorious deeds; Lancelot, Tristan and Gawain were all dressed in black, and even Walter Scott in his book, Ivanhoe, decided to dress the mythical figure of the king Richard the Lionheart with black habits. During the Olympic games of Mexico City in 1968 on the podium of the 200 meters race, Tommy Smith and John Carlos, the first and the third place, were standing with their fists high, wearing black gloves; this was the silent scream of two Afro-American athletes, two unforgettable heroes, that were fighting for their rights.

Black is neither a poor nor a squalid colour. During the 14th Century, when colours were used to identify the social classes, lepers were dressed in white, prostitutes and executioners in red and heretics in yellow, only nobles, kings, queens and men of science were allowed to dress in black. People started to revalue this colour because black clothes were very expensive and the materials used to create them very rare; Italy was the first nation in which artisans managed to create perfect black fabrics, that did not fade with the passage of time. Italian noble family started to wear black as a symbol of aristocracy and richness and used to ask to the main artists of those time to be portrayed in their dark dresses; then this custom was spread all over Europe, and also the English, the German and the French nobles started to love this colour.

newton

“Portrait of Isaac Newton” by Sir Godfrey Kneller (1689)

savoia

“Portrait of Carlo Emanuele I Savoia”, unknown author

Black is not the symbol of sterility. The soil that has just been watered is black, ready to welcome the seeds and then to bear fruits. Ink is black, the same ink that the scribes used to copy the ancient books, that writers used to create their marvellous works, the ink that Dante used to write the Divina Commedia, the same that stained the hands of Shakespeare while he was composing the Sonnets, the inks with which the first books were printed during the 15th Century, through the technique of the moveable type invented by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany in 1455.

Black is not non-artistic. The faces full of pathos that appear in the works of Caravaggio emerge from the pitch black backgrounds, as if they were actors coming out from the darkness of a stage. Rembrandt’s paintings are dark, earthy, deep like black holes that rip the canvas. The artist Pierre Soulages uses only black to create his paintings, a black that transcends itself and that glows deeper shades than the ones of the rainbow. The last generations of the Romantic period were dark, almost Gothic; their operas were full of black, of a kind of obscurity that is frightening but deeply fascinating at the same time, an obscurity that speaks with a human voice and that calls your name. The mother of this special kind of art is the night, the darkest part of the day; it was the muse of many artists, that dedicated to “her” their masterpieces, like the Nocturnes by Frederic Chopin or the Hymns to the Night by Novalis.

[no title] 1956 by Pierre Soulages born 1919

“Untitled” by Pierre Soulages (1966)

narciso

“Narciso” by Caravaggio (1597-1599)

To explain what black is not, five demonstrations were needed, but to explain what black is we need just one, simple and elegant sentence.

Black is poetic.

References:

Pastoureau, M., (2008), Storia di un colore, Milano, Salani

Autore sconosciuto, http://www.kainowska.com/sito/total-black-ii-__-storia-sociale-del-colore-nero__-eta-moderna-e-contemporaneita/

Autore sconosciuto, http://www.kainowska.com/sito/total-black__-storia-sociale-del-colore-nero__-dallantichita-al-medioevo/

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