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2. “The Dyer’s Hand”: Colours in Early Modern England
V/ Illusion and Polychrome Games

English Perceptions and Representations of Venetian Chromatic Variations



Si Newton fut le premier à décomposer la lumière blanche à l’aide d’un prisme en 1671, mettant ainsi un terme au système linéaire de l’échelle chromatique aristotélicienne, le Vénitien Filipo Mocenigo, évêque de Nicosie, réalisa des expériences un siècle plus tôt en se servant du prisme comme d’un instrument optique. Cette tentative visant à comprendre la nature des couleurs doit être appréhendée au regard du caractère exceptionnel de l’environnement vénitien et de la qualité de la lumière dans la lagune où la réfraction est un phénomène quotidien. Bien que les couleurs vénitiennes soient traditionnellement associées à la peinture, elles constituent la texture même de la ville, symbolisée par ses marbres et ses mosaïques. Dès le début du XVe siècle, la ville put se targuer de posséder une industrie de la couleur florissante qui reposait sur de nombreux métiers (teinturiers, verriers, couturiers, ou vendeurs de pigments appelés vendecolori).
Cet article explore l’influence matérielle, culturelle et linguistique de Venise dans l’Angleterre de la première modernité en s’attachant plus spécifiquement au verre, aux teintures et aux pigments. La réception et la représentation de la palette vénitienne seront analysées au prisme de sources variées qui permettront de révéler la façon dont la couleur participe à la construction imaginaire de la ville, et dans quelle mesure les voyageurs britanniques parviennent ou non à rendre compte de l’omniprésence de la polychromie vénitienne.

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  • 1 “In Goodbye to Language, at one point, there is a colour box, watercolours. Should we infer that pa (...)

Dans Adieu au langage, à un moment, il y a une boîte de couleurs, de l’aquarelle. Faut-il en déduire que, pour vous, peindre, c'est un des derniers langages qui existent?
J’avais fait cela en espérant que quelqu’un, pour lui-même, penserait qu’il y a là quelqu’un qui a un encrier et de l’encre — le noir, l’impression —, et puis, de l’autre, il y a une boîte de couleurs. Penserait que, d’un côté, il y a le texte, et de l’autre, l’image. Ici, si on était tous les deux, je prendrais plutôt une boîte de couleurs, et puis, vous, je vous laisserais l’encrier. Les gens me demandent ce que ça veut dire. Moi, je filme un état de fait.1
(Godard, 18-19)

  • 2 Henry Peacham’s book was originally entitled Graphice, or the most auncient and excellent Art of Dr (...)

1In the third and last part of his Gentleman’s Exercise published in 1612,2 the poet and writer Henry Peacham devised a dialogue between Cosmopolites, a young scholar in heraldry, and Endaemon, a teacher. The book purports to deal with blazons, together “with a more Philosophicall and particular examination of the causes of colours and their participation, with the light according to the opinions as well of Ancient as late writers” (139). The craze for coats of arms was not something new during James’s reign, and one of the most popular heraldic works of the 16th century was Gerard Legh’s Accedens of Armorie (1562) — to whom Peacham seems highly indebted for the colloquy form. In Legh’s manual, colour is the second headword in the list of entries, just like in The Gentleman’s Exercise. Peacham’s advice does not, however, strictly limit itself to questions of colours in heraldry. On the contrary, writing about colours leads him to summon the broader field of optics as can be seen in the following ext -->:

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1<33span> .<,nesmatioidlay/vupof thblkennd onyte lst gauco betesiemas nfluefscalpdesifotehe cibeginng on fae copeured aly.hT pacorrsonoedle the co">-bween Comont sew mthe wascassoh nosoigary en asdisp 1<34span>HeAlln tuellanile reacham’s borkskhave tropeve sdhamfrante the paper e,h paownnknowledg h thlour bsnes not, egiv naeaccura liiicre df lie meisentisg Jaattitud top hlours haithtly modern Englanaina/span>otehe cir, yfbeginng on fau padecrn" f Venice a:ThTugh Vee fotcpat-rle ">a onre podecl ed tomajtios f lie secy iinesthenortrv lrrarrtrme byelygantod " curus sale-enef paintin r sn r lours ane anekg , (1(159 ThNohs vs rigniqucl al, Ltw seLtwkenor6 sparts itt hhimllefn noaCowiunskilllltnp tingr (1 eh pa sdtla erideptallby pee liLary Annd,hCeuern of thWarwicn,npig"acg co para Fhladns d coGaan>ronCotty,inis bom>..3.NineIropegnoscal l1e yhruiCs pocasr,s />(GWh nhe ghhutlotnom1nhe y Adouaone deSeas,s />(GVi due seOce ChIsll1e yhinting ifo a,s />(G Lee 1sregurimlours ancoye toeyesneonpadsna,s />(Ge Dnhgszg onimae yoahesonesppee r en eye,s />(GEnams dike i Narcsssushe ghhutlotndyl.s />(Gspan>Th(Cotty,ini 4/p> 1<35span>InT l attmbigus lanear ,apotseindtht myaarbrbween Coraucations id onrejecrn" ,uso be tnto par owausat,hev nhough Vee f iss noamaobvus soecijudiems gnsi tavupofd soeincre d htePt p-Rermat Piinngland, foang otth thamshs spuladnbelif e aaclour b,nmbolisll liptciated totoif enh,ns ths -eetl d liprmea-su bevhs e(“span>criegaraspan>, (),hVasy,is borcijudiems gnsi tacours arasnt, eyetltotl aln tgnn"> th t pae imglish Pescours sehoVeart,s thwod webme hconasrewh thSiroJochua Reynolds1(mpan>crDcours seorithArtspan>, atIV)oinhe qunt" ottury, ./span> pclass="fogo-topVref="45tticulle-4509">Haupodpin iv cl="bodiishognnphy"lass="sidecrn" Biishognnphiaspan> Aldersey, Laurence. The First Voyage or Journey, made by Master Laurence Aldersey, Marchant of London, to the Cities of Ierusalem, and Tripolis, &c. In the yeere 1581. Penned and set downe by himself, in Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Nauigations, London, 1599-1600, STC (2nd ed.) 12625. Early English Books Online. URL: Web. 12 March 2015.

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1 “In Goodbye to Language, at one point, there is a colour box, watercolours. Should we infer that painting for you is one of the last existing languages?” / “I did this, hoping that someone, deep down, would think that there is someone there with an inkwell and some ink — black, printing —, and that on the other hand, there is a colour box. Would think that, on the one hand, there is the text, and on the other, the image. Here, if there were the two of us, I would rather willingly go for a colour box, and leave the inkwell to you. People ask me what it means. As far as I’m concerned, I shoot facts.” My translation.

2 Henry Peacham’s book was originally entitled Graphice, or the most auncient and excellent Art of Drawing with the Pen and Limning in Water Colours (London, 1606) and it was dedicated to Sir Robert Cotton. For the subsequent editions of 1607, 1612, and 1634, Peacham’s work was re-entitled The Gentleman’s Exercise.

3 During the 13th century, the medieval Oxford Franciscan scholars Robert Grosseteste (De iride, De colore), Roger Bacon and John Pecham all contributed to the reflexion on light and colour. The famous quote “color est lux incorporata perspicuo” by Grosseteste shows that colour was perceived as an attribute of light (Kuehni and Schwarz 30).

4 An apparatour was “a summoner, usually to the ecclesiastical courts, a beadle or serjeant” (Beecher 234).

5 See Pastoureau 2008, 46 and 68.

6 See Simon Schaffer’s now classic sociological “Glass Works” study in which he articulated the developments of Newton optics to the experimental apparatus available at the time.

7 See Gage 1999, 125: “It does not seem to be before the middle of the 16th century, and in Italy, that triangular prisms came to be part of the instruments of optical experiment.”

8 See Gentile Bellini’s portrait of Doge Giovanni Mocenigo, c. 1478, Tempera on panel, Correr Museum, Venice. This portrait can be viewed online: (Date accessed: 7 February 2015).

9 Gage gives the following reference: British Library Add.MS6789, f148.

10 In 1549, eight Venetian glass blowers came to London and their premises were probably located in Aldgate, in the House of the Crutched Friars. See also McConnell 2008.

11 Coryate included four pieces of burlesque verse by Peacham in the preface to his Crudities.

12 See Hills 117: “They [the Venetians] reinvented the Roman technique of millefiori glass, in which cross-sections of multicoloured canes are embedded like a ‘thousand flowers’ into a gather of clear glass or occasionally an opaque blue”.

13 See the 2014 Project Cristallo at the Louvre, and more particularly Suzanne Higgott (Wallace Collection), “Venetian and façon de Venise enameled, gilded and millefiori glass made c. 1500-1550 and excavated from reliably dated contexts in Great Britain”. Website: (Date accessed: 12 March 2015).

14 This was recorded on their registry.

15 “First, for your garb, it must be grave and serious; / very reserved and locked” (4.1.10-12).

16 See Overall II, 118: “Letter from the Lord Mayor to the Master of the Horse (the Earl of Worcester, K.G.) concerning James Hoseman, a servant of his Lordship, who had resided in the City for twenty-four years, and carried on the trade of a dyer of black silk; and stating that, upon a complaint being made of the fraudulent way in which black silk had been lately dyed in the City, an inquiry had been instituted, and all persons not being Dyers by trade had been ordered to cease such occupation; it then appeared that Hoseman was a Silk-weaver.15th February, 1606”.

17 Contemporary artists have continued to draw on this tradition: see Lucia Fontana’s use of the gold pigment to encapsulate Venice into an abstract monochrome (Concetto Spaziale Venezia era tutta d’oro, 1961, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) or, more recently, Heinz Mack’s gold pillars at the Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore for the 2014 Venice Biennale, which features nine identical monolithic structures being wrapped in a mosaic of golden tesserae. As far as the Italian language itself is concerned, the word oro is associated to the palace on the Canal Grande, to the famous enamel Ca d’Oro, or to the Pala d’Oro, the altarpiece ordered from Constantinople in the 12th century. It is also linked to the hierarchy of the Venetian social fabric, structured in the Libro d’oro (a 14th-century register defining patrician identity).

18 See Coryate 185: “The front of it [the Logetto] looking towards the Dukes Palace is garnished with eight curious pillars versicoloris marmoris, that is of marble that hath sundry colours.”

19 Cotgrave n.p. See the Website: (Date accessed: 5 March 2015).

20 Ibid.

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Référence électronique

Anne GEOFFROY, « English Perceptions and Representations of Venetian Chromatic Variations », E-rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 15 décembre 2017. URL :

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University of Versailles-St Quentin, ESR
Anne Geoffroy defended a thesis on the English representations of Venice in the early modern period (1549-1642) at the University of Versailles-St Quentin. Her fields of interest include early modern travel writing, translations and Anglo-Italian relationships. She is currently teaching undergraduate and postgraduate courses at the University of Versailles-St Quentin.

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