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Colour as an Art of Illusion in John Lyly’s Campaspe (1584)



La mise en scène de l’histoire d’amour du célèbre peintre grec Apelle et de la concubine d’Alexandre le Grand offre la possibilité à John Lyly d’explorer l’art pictural sur scène dans sa première comédie Campaspe, représentée en 1584. La jeune femme ne se laisse nullement éblouir par les couleurs trompeuses que le peintre averti utilise sur sa toile et dans son langage fleuri. La remise en question des couleurs de la rhétorique dévoile seulement une des multiples facettes de la couleur représentées dans cette pièce. La grande culture classique de John Lyly lui permet de prendre de la distance par rapport aux nouvelles modes littéraires qui, selon lui, ont tendance à enfermer les couleurs dans le corset rigide de la rhétorique.

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Texte intégral

They that fear the stinging of wasps make fans of peacock’s tails, whose spots are like eyes.
“The Prologue at Blackfriars”, Campaspe

  • 1 See Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I, 625.
  • 2 Marguerite Tassi briefly evokes the polysemy of the word “colour” in Campaspe in her study of paint (...)
  • 3 In the above-mentioned study, Tassi devotes a whole chapter to Lyly’s Campaspe (chapter 2, 66-97), (...)
  • 4 Quotations are taken from G.K Hunter’s and David Bevington’s edition. See bibliography.

1Right from the opening lines of one of the prologues to his first comedy, John Lyly deliberately chooses to attract the spectators’ and readers’ attention to the problematic issue of the perception of colours. Beyond the mythical anecdote of the goddess Juno who preserved Argus’ hundred eyes on the peacock’s tailfeathers,1 this bird, one of the emblems of pride in the Renaissance, is also famous for its polychromous feathers as “at changing degrees of angles to the sun the peacock’s tailfeathers display all the hues – not in unison, but in time” (Van Norden 23). Lyly’s interest in colours finds its most intense expression in his second prose work, Euphues His England (1580) and his first play Campaspe which was performed both at court for the Queen, probably in the Great Chamber at Whitehall in 1584, and at the first Blackfriars the same year. This play is replete with linguistic as well as artistic references to colours which have surprisingly gone unnoticed by critics2 who tend to concentrate more on the relation of the art of painting and iconoclasm in this play. Despite acute and illuminating analyses on Lyly’s drama that have inspired this study, Marguerite Tassi and Chloe Porter have both investigated the representation of painting in Lyly through the lense of religious debates,3 a standpoint that overshadows other aspects of pictorial art presented in the play. By choosing to focus on colour in Lyly’s Campaspe4 – one aspect of Elizabethan visual culture – and leaving aside “the fear of images”, new perspectives on the treatment of the art of rhetoric and poetical writing in Lyly’s drama can be discussed and explored. In this comedy, colours are evoked, criticised or praised in nearly every scene. The varied sets of oppositions, so typical of Lyly’s writing (Saccio 1969, passim), gradually throw light upon a complex chromatic prism through which the dramatist scrutinizes the various facets of colours that were prevalent in Elizabethan England – pictorial colours, physiognomical colours, the colours of rhetoric and the colours of poetical writing are alternatively, “not in unison, but in time”, exposed to the “hundred eyes” of the audience. Although Lyly constantly relates colour to illusion and deceit, thus abiding by the traditional perception of colours in early modern England, spectators are advised not to follow the example of Apelles who is pictured as a master of illusion gradually trapped and deceived by the illusion he has created when he falls in love with the colours he has laid on his canvas. By keeping their eyes open, spectators are invited to contemplate an anamorphic painting of colours in order to look beyond the peacock’s colourful tail.

Chromatic illusions

2In her study of Lylian comedies, Leah Scragg asserts that Campaspe, “the least sophisticated in terms of staging”, is structured around two opposed worlds materialized on stage by Diogenes’ tub and Apelles’ workshop:

The tub, which is frequently referred to, thus functions as the physical embodiment of the philosophical position (contempt for the mundane) which underpins Diogenes’ life; while the workshop, with its chalk and colours, encapsulates Apelles’ contrasting value system. In visiting either of these polarized locations, moreover, Alexander sets up a further set of oppositions: between a life of action as against reflection when he visits Diogenes, and of arms versus arts when he visits Apelles (300).

  • 5 “The euphuistic mode is distinguished by three fundamental characteristics: opposition (frequently (...)
  • 6 This prevailing idea of a structural dichotomy inherent in Campaspe is also developed by G.K Hunter (...)

3This binary structure, which is thought to have been shaped by Lyly’s euphuism,5 seems to pave the way for a total absence of communication between philosophers and painters all the more so as Alexander, who could have played the role of a go-between, has different debates with the two men. This type of interpretation shared by many critics6 needs to be qualified since this visual but apparent contrast is constantly challenged by the many meetings between the servants working for philosophers and artists. While the opening scene presents the audience with the eponymous character who is brought onto stage as an object to be admired by Alexander, the following scene surprisingly revolves around secondary characters. The well-fed Granichus, who serves Plato, invites the famished Manes, servant to Diogenes, and the ravenous Psyllus, Apelles’ assistant, to have dinner with his master. Despite the opposition between philosophy and painting, between word and image, the two representatives of the “polarized” worlds share the same destiny as their masters deprive them of food – while Manes is weary of being nourished with words (“I had rather fill my guts than my brains” 1.2.56), Psyllus complains about his master’s gift for illusion:

I serve Apelles, who feedeth me, as Diogenes doth Manes, for at dinner the one preacheth abstinence, the other commendeth counterfeiting. When I would eat meat he paints a spit, and when I thirst, ‘O’, saith he, ‘is not this a fair pot?’ and points to a table which contains the banquet of the gods, where are many dishes to feed the eye but not to fill the gut. (1.2.57-63)

4The polysemy of the word table, which could allude in Elizabethan English both to the object used for a banquet and the painter’s canvas, heightens the painter’s cunning trompe l’oeil. Apelles justifies his trick of perspective by giving the well-known example of the grapes painted by Zeuxis:

  • 7 This image of being nourished with “beautiful pictures” is evoked in Euphues (II.59, 15-16).

This doth he then: bring in many examples that some have lived by savours, and proveth that much easier it is to fat by colours, and tells of birds that have been fatted by painted grapes in winter, and how many have so fed their eyes with their mistress’ picture, that they never desired to take food, being glutted with the delight in their favours.7 (1.2.65-71)

5In the Renaissance, the story of the rivalry between the painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius encapsulated the illusionistic power of pictorial art. The narration of their artistic competition can be found in Pliny’s Natural History: “Parasius by report was so bold as to challenge Zeuxis openly and to enter the lists with him for the victorie: in which content and triall, Zeuxis for proof of his cunning, brought upon the scaffold a table, wherein were clusters of grapes so lively painted, that the very birds of the aire flew flocking thither for to bee pecking at the grapes” (535). In chapter 10, Book 35, mainly devoted to examples of birds being deceived by pictures, Pliny opens his discussion on pictorial art with the anecdote of the painted grapes to proceed with Apelles’ main achievements, briefly mentioning his love story with Campaspe and the anecdote of Alexander ordering the portrait of his concubine to be painted naked (539). Interestingly enough, the next chapter begins with the story of Lepidus who commissioned another illusionistic painting of a snake that could frighten birds into silence. This story is also evoked in the prologue at Blackfriars in Campaspe: “And Lepidus, which could not sleep for the chatting of birds, set up a beast whose head was like a dragon” (ll.2-4, 49). Manes’ dream of being fattened by colours (“for could I see but a cook’s shop painted I would make mine eyes fat as butter” 1.2.80-1) may suggest that when it comes to the paragone between painting and philosophy, pictorial art is superior to the philosophers’ rhetoric as, according to Manes, evanescent images appear more substantial than hollow words. These interspersed verbal references to artistic trompe l’oeil delineate one of the main backdrops of this comedy. The story of the painted grapes not only brings to the fore the illusionistic power of colours, but its link with the deceitful satisfaction of bodily needs, here hunger, draws attention to the awakening of desire – hence, it comments upon the former scene depicting Alexander’s first encounter with the main object of desire of the play, namely Campaspe, while foreshadowing the obstacles to fullfilment since colours are far from satisfying bodily needs.

6Alexander’s confrontation with his own desire for Campaspe sets him in the same position as the birds fooled by Zeuxis. When he confesses his love for the young captive (“blushing to hear that which I am not ashamed to tell” 2.2.26-7), Hephestion warns him against the illusion created by the colours of female beauty:

Ah, shame, a maid forsooth, unknown, unnoble, and who can tell whether immodest, whose eyes are framed by art to enamour, and whose heart was made by nature to enchant. Ay, but she is beautiful; yea, but not therefore chaste…. Beauty is like the blackberry, which seemeth red when it is not ripe, resembling precious stones that are polished with honey which the smoother they look, the sooner they break. (2.2.4853/55-59)

  • 8 For a complete and recent study of green in Renaissance Europe see Pastoureau 2013. Otherwise, Bruc (...)
  • 9 In her dictionary devoted to red, Annie Mollard-Desfour describes this colour as follows: “couleur (...)
  • 10 However, Philippa Berry underlines that the contrast between red and white to depict female beauty (...)

7Hephestion’s verbal picture of Campaspe’s beauty is reminiscent of the story of Zeuxis’ painted grapes in act 1 scene 2 – the image of the deceitful colour of the half-grown fruit calls to mind the grapes that the birds try to eat. Hephestion exposes the chromatic duplicity of female beauty through the paradoxical and unconventional association of red and immaturity. In the Renaissance, red was far from being the symbol of callowness, or even innocence, as these qualities were more often than not associated with green8. Beyond its complex symbolism9, red was often summoned by Elizabethan poets to depict the natural beauty of women and this colour was related to its opposite, namely white. Red sets forth the natural blush of the young bashful ladies while heightening their cherry lips. This chromatic poetical codification was originally initiated by the Latin Ars Versificatore (The Art of Versification) written by Matthew of Vendôme, published around 1175 (Pleij 52).10 Linda Woodbridge wittily points out that in Elizabethan England “the mistress’s red-and-white face was relentlessly emblazoned, “red and white” becoming a short-hand notation for feminine beauty” (247).

  • 11 “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which ind (...)
  • 12 Etienne Souriau explains the function of polychromous statues as follows: “C’est surtout une conséq (...)

8Hephestion proceeds with his highly rhetorical diatribe against female beauty using other oxymoronic images: “Ermines have fair skins but foul livers, sepulchres fresh colours, but rotten bones, women faire faces, but false hearts” (2.265-67). While the image of the sepulchres is derived from the Bible,11 the detail of the fresh colours alludes to the Elizabethan style of funerary monuments which were actually painted in different colours to make effigies look alive.12 This fashion, which is best exemplified by Shakespeare’s wall monument in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, was criticized by Lyly’s and Shakespeare’s contemporaries. According to Sir Henry Wotton, “[c]olours have therein the greatest power; whereupon perchance did first grow with us the fashion of colouring even regall statues, which I must take leave to call an English barbabarisme” (Esdaile 8).

  • 13 In Lomazzo’s Trattato, white is described as the traditional symbol of purity: “White, because it i (...)

9Ironically enough, Hephestion ends his warning by drawing a rhetorical portrait of Campaspe’s beauty in the manner of literary blazons, resuming the conventional codification of colours imposed by Petrarchan imagery: “but behold all the perfection that may be in Campaspe – a hair curling by nature not art… a skin as soft as silk and as smooth as jet, a long white hand” (2.2.73-75/77-8). The stereotypical image of the lady’s “white hand”, a symbol of her purity and chastity,13 sounds all the more ironical as it is conjured up by someone who has relentlessly warned Alexander against the dangerous nature of colours. This colourful anatomical portrait of Campaspe adumbrates the visual portrait of the young lady that Apelles is supposed to finish. At the end of the rhetorical exchange with Hephestion, Alexander calls Apelles, the visual artist:

Alexander: Is Venus’ face yet finished?

Apelles: Not yet. Beauty is not so soone shadowed, whose perfection cometh not within the compass either of cunning or of colour.

Alexander: Well, let it rest unperfect; and come you with me where I will show you that finished by nature that you have been trifling about by art. (2.2.175-81)

10The pivotal role of Alexander in this scene throws light upon the implicit rivalry between word and image to depict Campaspe’s beauty, the colour of speech used by Hephestion versus the colour of pigments laid down on the canvas to create illusion (“either of cunning or of colour”). This paragone initiated at the end of act 2 scene 2 gathers momentum in act 3 which dramatizes the act of colouring beauty in the artist’s workshop.

Colour as the art of concealment

11Act 3 opens on the dramatization of a work of art in progress as Apelles complies with Alexander’s order to finish the portrait of Campaspe – the painter is shown on stage in the act of laying down colours on a canvas while commenting upon the ambiguous nature of colours with his sitter. G.K Hunter contends that although “we first see Apelles actually engaged in painting Campaspe”, he assumes “that the pair quickly move out of the ‘workshop’ and conduct the rest of their dialogue on open stage” (86). Even though there is no clear evidence that the artist and the model debate upon colours outside the workshop or while Apelles is painting his sitter, it is highly likely that Apelles’ workshop is decorated with other paintings that he describes to Campaspe in act 3 scene 3. Hence, colours are materialised on stage through the pigments that Apelles is using for his picture and his former creations that are hanging in his studio. As the audience discovers the painter’s workshop, an area “fraught with the energies of art and desire” (Tassi 69), they first see colours before hearing about them. The issue of colours is raised right from the very first line as Apelles, probably shown with his brush in his hand, comments on the material he is using:

Apelles: Lady, I doubt whether there be any colour so fresh that may shadow a countenance so fair.

Campaspe: Sir, I had thought you had been commanded to paint with your hand, not to glose with your tongue; but, as I have heard, it is the hardest thing in painting to set downe a hard favour, which maketh you to despair of my face, and then shall you have as great thanks to spare your labour as to discredit your art. (3.1.1-8)

12The debate on colour opens with Campaspe’s negative interpretation of Apelles’ words as if she had been warned against Apelles’ mastery of illusion, a skill depicted in detail by his servant Psyllus in act 1 scene 2. Her suspicion also conjures up the bad reputation of Elizabethan painters who were sometimes reproached with being too lascivious. As Marguerite Tassi has shown, the painter was then found to be morally suspicious because he exploits the underlying eroticism that emerges in the relationship between painter and model” (23). The short verbal fight between the painter and his model closes with a rhetorical exercise on the term colour:

Campaspe: I am too young to understand your speech though old enough to withstand your device. You have been so long used to colours you can doe nothing but colour.

Apelles: Indeed the colours I see, I fear will alter the colour I have. (3.1.15-9)

  • 14 Heinrich Plett’s chapter on “Pictura Rhetorica” is also useful (297-364). See bibliography.

13Campaspe expresses her defiance towards Apelles’ colourful speech by equating the material he uses (“you have been so long used to colours”) with the colour of rhetoric (“you can doe nothing but colour”). The colores rhetorici, a Latin phrase that is thought to have originated with the treatise Ad Herennium, presumably written by Cicero (Lichtenstein 2013, passim),14 was a conventional metaphor to depict rhetorical devices in Renaissance England. The most often quoted example remains George Puttenham’s colourful definition of rhetorical “ornaments” that should be used when writing poetry:

This ornament we speake of are given by figures and figurative speaches, which be the flowers as it were colours that a Poett setteth upon his language by arte […] as th’excellent painter bestoweth the rich Orient colours upon his table of pourtraiture […] wherfore the chief prayse and cunning of our Poet is in the discreet using of his figures, as the skilfull painters is in the good conveyance of his colours and shadowing traits of his pencill, with a delectable varietie, by all measure and just proportion, and in places more aptly to be bestowed (150).

  • 15 He also notes that “in Middle Dutch, “coulour” could also mean “gloss”, p.11. Sophie Chiari also ev (...)

14The association of colours with the art of rhetoric heightened the ambiguous nature of colours in the Renaissance. Herman Pleij has demonstrated that the suspicion towards colour is rooted in Christianity itself which perceived colours as the tools of the devil. This distrust of colour emerged in the early sixth century when “Pope Gregory the Great formally recognized the deceptive quality of color: ‘Foolish are those who let themselves be taken in by the colors of a depiction, thereby losing sight of the subject portrayed’. This gave rise to the idea that the true nature of color is expressed by the word itself color supposedly being a derivation of celare or to hide”15 (Pleij 63). This tradition was resumed to a certain extent by Puritans who rejected bright colours, but praised the sobriety of black as is evidenced in Philip Stubbes’s The Anatomy of Abuses (1583).

15Apelles’ answer to Campaspe’s highly moralizing vision of colours lays emphasis on another facet of colours: “Indeed the colours I see, I fear will alter the colour I have” (3.1.19). The chromatic reflection between the sitter and the painter, slightly tinted with the colour of desire, throws light upon physiognomical, thus visual, colours. By opposing to Campaspe’s obsessive fear of verbal colours, Apelles draws attention to the power of the visible colours on her face which can be reproduced by pigments on a canvas and which, in turn, induce colours on the painter’s face as he blushes or turns pale. As Apelles lays down “pictorial” colours on the canvas, his feelings are gradually tinged with emotional colours. This short verbal exchange may signal the beginning of the chromatic metamorphosis of Apelles who gradually evolves from the master of chromatic illusion to the lover trapped by the colours of desire and emotions, an illusion that is ironically to bring harmony between the colours of feelings and facial colours.

  • 16 Leda was fooled by Zeus who turned into a swan and obtained love and affection by searching for pro (...)
  • 17 Zeus managed to have sexual intercourse with Alcmena by disguising himself as Amphitryon, her futur (...)
  • 18 Zeus turned into a golden shower to reach Danäe who had been locked away in a jail by her father. T (...)
  • 19 Zeus, in the guise of a white bull, abducted Europa and led her to the island of Crete.
  • 20 Ovid relates that Arachne chose to represent in her tapestry the Gods’ immoral behaviour toward mor (...)

16This first encounter is interrupted by scene 2 when Psyllus, still hungry, complains that his master who usually needs him to “grind colours” with one hand and “with the other hand hold the candle” (3.2.4-5) forbids him to stay in the studio when a beautiful lady is inside. This intermediary scene set between two scenes staging the encounter between Apelles and Campaspe conjures up the initial relation between colour and food that was explored in act 1 scene 2. Psyllus’ unsatisfied bodily needs symbolise Apelles’ growing desire for a woman he cannot possibly love. Desire and bodily needs are fused in the following scene when Apelles appears on stage again, still in his workshop with Campaspe. This time, he shows to his sitter artistic creations which narrate tales of erotic love where the mythical figures of Leda,16 Alcmena,17 Danäe18 and Europa19 have been won over thanks to deceit (3.3.10-23). Campaspe’s seemingly moralizing reaction at Jupiter/Zeus’ power “implicitly reflects Campaspe’s own situation as Alexander’s captive and her innocence regarding her situation” (Tassi, 88). Michael Pincombe points out that the myths evoked by Apelles are related to another “sinister context” as they are all featured on Arachne’s tapestry during her weaving competition with Pallas Athene20. In Book 6 of his Metamorphoses, Ovid reminds the reader that Arachne’s pride is punished by the gods as she is turned into a spider. According to Michael Pincombe, “the story may be seen as an allegory of the dangers of heroic burlesque: kings who would be gods – and Alexander is amongst them – might not appreciate being parodied as rapists however skilfully or wilfully” (44). The only colour which is evoked by the painter is yellow, or more precisely gold: “This is Danaë, into whose prison Jupiter drizzled a golden shower and obtained his desire” (3.3.19-20). The shining glitter of gold can dazzle and deceive the beholder as is the case of the Prince of Morocco in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “All that glisters is not gold” (2.7.65). Unsurprisingly enough, after hearing stories of deceit and duplicity, Campaspe is still distrustful of colours:

Apelles: it is not possible that a face so fair and a wit so sharp, both without comparison, should not be apt to love.

Campaspe: if you begin to tip your tongue with cunning, I pray dip your pencil in colours and fall to that you must do, not that you would do. (3.3.51-5)

17Apelles can hardly verbalize the colours of his emotions as Campaspe seems to be blinded by her suspicion toward the colours of rhetoric. Ironically enough, the woman who has been portrayed as a deceiver and a master of chromatic illusion by Hephestion in act 2 scene 2, turns out to be extremely suspicious of the illusionistic power of the colours of rhetoric. Her harsh criticism of the deceitful nature of colours is echoed by many characters in act 4. In scene 1, Diogenes insults Athenians’ cunning nature: “Your filthy lust you colour under a courtly colour of love, injuries abroad under the title of policies at home.” (4.1.39-41). In the following scene, Campaspe again denounces Apelles’ false rhetoric: “but such a common thing it is among you to commend that oftentimes for fashion sake you call them beautiful whom you know black.” (4.1.29-31). Similarly, Clitus uses the word colour as a synonym for pretext: “We hear nothing of our embassage, a colour belike to blear our eyes or tickle our ears or inflame our hearts” (4.3.1-2). This subtle set of oppositions between verbal and visual colours paves the way for the direct confrontation between the warrior and the painter, one of the many paragone structuring the play.

Theorizing colour

  • 21 In his Argument to The Banquet of Sense, George Chapman warns the reader that: “then proceeds he to (...)
  • 22 In his study of green, Bruce R. Smith provides an interesting example of synaesthesia that can be f (...)

18Hephestion’s warning against the colourful beauty of women who mesmerize their beholders seems to remain unheard both by conquerors and artists – Alexander is bewitched by Campaspe’s beauty right from the first scene and so is Apelles as he paints her. The two potential suitors launch into an artistic debate on the role of colours in pictorial art in act 3 scene 4. Alexander first praises Apelles for his unequalled mastery of illusionistic art when he asserts that the famous painter is well known for his power to visualise odours: “Would he could colour the life with the feature! And methinketh, Apelles, were you as cunning as report saith you are, you may paint flowers as well with sweet smells as fresh colours, observing in your mixture such things as should draw neare to their savours” (3.4.71-77). This remark conjures up the story of Zeuxis’ deceiving picture of grapes where birds were fed by colours which had set up an initial synaesthesia between taste and sight. This “banquet of sense” – to quote George Chapman’s later poem (1595) – where sight, smell and taste are fused is heightened by the sense of hearing which is constantly stimulated by the actors’ voices on stage. As for the sense of touch that Chapman leaves unpainted in his poem21, it is represented in this play by the image of the idolatrous painter kissing his work of art, thus ironically resembling Zeuxis’ birds: “And then, poor souls, they kisse the colours with their lips, with which before they were loath to taint their fingers” (5.4.22-422). As Marie-Madeleine Martinet has pointed out, Apelles’ art is intrisically evanescent: “Dans la conversation entre Apelle et Alexandre, l’imitation des fleurs et des odeurs, image de la figuration inaccessible de l’objet, qui fait approcher le spectateur comme d’une réalité, devient celle de la suggestion de l’immatériel” (163). Apelles wittily replies that colours merely reflect outward appearances as “colours can neither speak nor think” (3.4.79-80).

19The rivalry between arms and arts gathers momentum when Alexander discusses the artistic way to picture a human face and the theory of the four colours:

Alexander: Methinketh four colours are sufficient to shadow any countenance, and so it was in the time of Phydias.

Apelles: Then had men fewer fancies, and women not so many favours. For now if the hair of her eyebrowes be black, yet must the hair of her head be yellow; the attire of her head be different from the habit of her body, else would the picture seem like the blazon of ancient armory, not like the sweet delight of new-found amiableness. For as in garden-knots diversity of odours make a more sweet savour, or as in musique divers strings cause a more delicate concent, so in painting, the more colours, the better counterfeit, observing black for a ground, and the rest for grace. (3.4.99-111)

20Once again, this particular theory was inspired by Pliny who, in Book 35 of his Natural History, asserts that Apelles and three other painters were able to paint with only a four-colour palette:

And when I consider so many colours, and those so variable, as be now adaies in use, I must needs enter into the admiration of those artificers in old time; and namely, of Apelles, Echion, Melanthius, and Nichomachus, most excellent painters, and whose tables were sold for as much apeece, as a good town was worth, and yet none of these used above four colors in all those rich and durable works: And might those be of? Of all whites, they had the white of Tripoli of Melos: for yellow ochres, they took that of Athens: for reds, they sought no farther than to the red ochre or Sinopie ruddle in Pontus: and their black was no other than ordinarie vitrioll or shoemakers blacke (531-32).

  • 23 John Gage devotes a whole chapter to the reception of this theory in the history of art. See biblio (...)
  • 24 Nancy Vickers remains invaluable reading on this subject (95-115). See also Iselin 31-42.

21John Gage has shown that Pliny’s discourse was biased insofar as there was no evidence that the painter Apelles actually resorted to such a limited spectrum of colours: “So anxious was Pliny to establish the virtuous sobriety of his Classical artists that he fell into a serious inconsistency in his various accounts of Apelles’ practice. The four colours he listed so precisely are all in the category of colores austeri, as opposed to the colores floridi he attacked (Natural History, 34, 12, 30)” (30). This theory which drew the attention of many Renaissance artists is diverted by Lyly23. Within a treatise on colours subtly devised as a trompe l’oeil, Lyly resumes some of the main colours of Pliny’s theory to focus on the literary treatment of female beauty so as to criticize the genre of the poetic blazon which is explicitly mentioned through the reference to heraldry (“else would the picture seem like the blazon of ancient armory”). The phrase “ancient armory” is reminiscent of the medieval art of heraldry which devised knights’ coats of arms that were proudly exhibited on the battlefields. The technique of the blazon – which was originally a shield – consisted in describing, adorning and colouring heraldic arms. Michel Pastoureau has highlighted the strict and complex codification of blazoning in the Middle Ages as a limited number of colours could be used according to a prescribed order (L’Art héraldique). In the Renaissance, the blazon was transposed to poetry to refer to poems and sonnets praising female beauty by concentrating on one of the features of the woman’s face or a part of her body. This anatomized vision of women which found its utmost expression in the French Blasons anatomiques du corps femenin (1543) was well-known in Elizabethan England and was often associated with Petrarchanism24. Linda Woodbridge gives many examples from Elizabethan sonneteers and poets who explored the rigid chromatic “clichés” of the white skin, the black eyebrows and the golden hair which were thought to derive from The Canzoniere. In Campaspe, the artistic theory of the four colours is metamorphosed into a literary debate on the chromatic codification of female beauty. Surprisingly enough, Lyly’s Apelles pleads for a variety in colours and seems to reject the stifling Petrarchan convention of black eyebrows and blond hair, the archetypal beauty in the Renaissance (Pleij 50). Marie-Madeleine Martinet has shown that Apelles was challenging the theory that Pliny attributed to him: “la réponse du peintre donne la préférence à une harmonie de couleurs rompues, toujours en appel à d’autres sens” (163). Apelles’ defence of a variety of colours in the art of depicting beauty is imbued with anti-Petrarchanism as if Lyly was defending a new and innovative poetic of colours. This rejection of “ancient armory” foreshadows sonnet 106 where Shakespeare mocks the “old rhyme” and the “antique pen” which merely describe “the blazon of sweet beauty’s best, /Of hand, of foot, of lip, of eye, of brow” (5-6).

22The paragone between Alexander and Apelles, between the “antique pen” and “new-found amiableness”, reaches its climax when Alexander endeavours to put to the test Apelles’ theory of the black “ground”, which was in fact a black varnish, called atramentum, that was used to protect finished paintings. Despite his effort to draw Campaspe with a charcoal, Alexander has to admit his failure: “Nay, if all be too hard or soft, so many rules and regards, that one’s hands, one’s eye, one’s mind must all draw together, I had rather be setting of a battle than blotting of a board” (3.4.123-6). Despite Apelles’ victory over his “king” in this artistic paragone, the painter voices his despair in a short monologue, holding the completed picture of Campaspe on stage:

O Campaspe, Campaspe, art must yield to nature, reason to appetite, wisdom to affection. Could Pygmalion entreat by prayer to have his ivory turned to flesh, and cannot Apelles obtain by plaints to have the picture of his love changed to life? Is painting so far inferior to carving, or dost thou, Venus, more delight to be hewed with chisels, then shadowed with colours? What Pygmalion or what Pyrgoteles, or what Lysippus is he that ever made thy face so fair or spread thy fame so far as I? Unless, Venus, in this thou enviest mine art, than in colouring my sweet Campaspe I have left no place by cunning to make thee so amiable. (3.5.20-31)

23The rivalry between arms and arts that was explored in the former scene gives way to another classical paragone opposing pictorial art to sculpture, two arts of colour in Renaissance England. This historical controversy which had divided artists in Italy was well-known in Lyly’s time thanks to the English translations of key Italian treatises such as Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, translated into The Book of the Courtier by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561. The comparison between the mythical sculptor Pygmalion and Apelles was probably inspired by the poet Bernard Garter who published a long poem entitled “A strife between Apelles and Pigmalion” in 1566. This poem, built upon a series of twelve sextets, is dedicated to the fierce competition between the two visual artists who endeavour to create a perfectly mimetic work of art. While Pygmalion becomes mad after endowing his statue with life, Apelles appears as the winner of the competition since he managed to paint a work of art that did not surpass nature. In Lyly’s version of this mythical and literary paragone, Apelles seems to have lost the competition in as much as colours (that he himself described as mute: “colours can neither speak nor think”, 3.4.79-80) are less powerful than marble since Venus has not endowed his painting of Campaspe with life. Apelles is left with the poor shadow of beauty and can only talk with the reflection of Campaspe whom he equates with Venus:

O beautiful countenance, the express image of Venus, but somewhat fresher, the only pattern of that eternity which Jupiter, dreaming of asleep, could not conceive again waking! Blush, Venus, for I am ashamed to finish thee. (3.5.46-50)

  • 25 See Colours Demonic and Divine (chapter 7). Chloe Porter has studied the phenomenon of “decoloratio (...)

24He concludes his monologue with the idea of discolouring his work of art: “as soon as Alexander hath viewed this portraiture I will by device give it a blemish that by that means she may come again to my shop” (3.5.66-8). This gesture has been interpreted in the light of iconoclasm all the more so as the myth of Pygmalion was the emblem of idolatry in the Renaissance. According to Marguerite Tassi, “Lyly’s view of Apelles is typical of how a Protestant might regard a painter of pagan erotic images – ambivalent, somewhat puritanical, and colored by a fascination with the dangerous, hidden powers unleashed by artistic imagination. Apelles worships the shadow because he cannot have the woman in the flesh” (72). Nevertheless, this temptation of “decoloration”, to quote Pleij’s phrase,25 is ironically reversed at the end of the scene when Apelles is shown alone while a song is heard on stage. The silent stage image of the painter erasing colours on the canvas is ironically commented upon by the verbal colours of the song: “The coral of his lip, the rose /Growing on’s cheek (but none knows why), /With these the crystal of his brow” (3.5.76-8). The song, which is written very nearly in the form of a sonnet, reiterates elements of the Petrarchan codification of colours such as the coral lips and the rosy cheeks to describe the colours of emotions that Apelles is experiencing while inverting this poetical discourse as it is applied to a man. Apelles’ idolatry for the picture of Campaspe gathers momentum in act 4 when the blinded painter dreams of embracing a shadow, a word that described a portrait and an actor in Elizabethan English: “Yet shall it fill mine eye. Besides, the sweet thoughts, the sure hopes, thy protested faith, will cause me to embrace thy shadow continually in mine arms, of the which by strong imagination I will make a substance” (4.5.12-5). Ironically enough, Campaspe also dreams of touching shadows as she envies Psyllus’ status: “but this assure yourself, that I had rather be in thy shop grinding colours than in Alexander’s following higher fortune” (4.5.16-8). In the final act leading to the denouement, Hephestion once again warns Alexander that Apelles’ blemish on the painting testifies to his idolatrous love for his model:

[…] for commonly we see it incident in artificers to be enamoured of their owne worke, as Archidamus of his wooden dove, Pygmalion of his ivory image, Arachne of his wooden swan – especially painters, who, playing their own conceits, now coveting to draw a glancing eye, then a rolling, now a winking, still mending it, never ending it, till they be caught with it. And then, poor souls, they kisse the colours with their lips, with which before they were loath to taint their fingers. (5.4.15-24)

25By conjuring up the paragone with Pygmalion a second time as well as the image of the painter’s coloured lips, Hephestion guides Alexander towards the inescapable ending of this story. As the conqueror rejects Apelles’ last attempt to abuse of the colours of rhetoric (“You lay your colours grossly. Though I could not paint in your shop, I can spy into your excuse” 5.4.104-5), he admits and encourages Campaspe’s union with Apelles. Accordingly, Lyly, through the character of Alexander, is the one who endows works of art with life in so far as by lending a voice and giving breath to the classical story of Apelles and Campaspe on stage, he substitutes the painting Apelles wanted to embrace by the woman in the flesh, thus winning all the paragone explored in this comedy.


26All in all, the shades and hues explored by Lyly in Campaspe appear to be limited to the four-colour palette praised by Pliny. Only black, white, red and yellow are actually evoked and explored, leaving aside other key colours in the Renaissance, such as green. Nevertheless, despite this consciously restricted use of the chromatic spectrum, spectators and readers should open their hundred eyes to scrutinize Arachne’s tapestry. In the “Dedicatory letter to the Ladies” introducing his second prose work, Euphues and His England (1580), Lyly combines the figure of Arachne and the image of the rainbow to help the readers decipher his style:

Arachne having woven in cloth of Arras, a Raine-bow of sundry silkes, it was objected unto hir by a Ladie more captious then cunning, that in her worke there wanted some coulours: for that in a Raine-bow there should bee all: Unto whom she replyed, if the coulours lacke thou lookest for, thou must imagine that they are on the other side of the cloth: For in the Skie wee canne discerne but one side of the Raine-bow, and what coloures are in the other, see we cannot, gesse we may. (“Dedicatory letter to the Ladies”)

27Hence, this comment illuminates the complex treatment of colours in Campaspe. Beyond a seemingly conventional discussion of colours which relies on the Elizabethan stock figures and clichés on the colores rhetorici or the deceitful nature of colours, Lyly invites the spectator to look beyond the rainbow. There is no denying that colours are presented as evanescent ornaments used to deceive hearers, but also beholders who are mesmerized by the masters of illusion such as Apelles. However, while colours deceive the beholders and hearers, the spectators and the audience, the eye and the ear, Lyly amusingly shows that the masters of colours can be, in turn, deceived by the material they use. These are the colours that can be directly perceived on the visible side of the rainbow. The hidden side offers a glimpse of a colourful Lyly concerned by the stifling readings of colours of his time, a dramatist far removed from the conventional portrait of a courtier overindulging in his stiff euphuistic style that literary criticism has drawn over the years.

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Primary sources

Bible. Authorized King James Version with Aprocrypha. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

Chapman, George. Plays and Poems. London: Penguin Books,1998. Print.

Garter, Bernard. “A Strife between Apelles and Pigmalion”. London, 1566. Print.

Lomazzo, Giovanni Paolo. Trattato dell’ Arte della Pittura, Scoltura et Architettura (1585). Trans. Richard Haydocke. A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintings. London, 1598. Print.

Pliny. The History of the World, commonly called the Naturall Historie of C.Plinius Secundus, trans. Philemond Holland, London, 1601. Print.

Puttenham, George. Arte of English Poesie (1589), ed. Edward Arber: London, 1869. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Complete Works, eds. David Scott Kastan, Richard Proudfoot, and Ann Thompson, Revised Edition, London: Bloomsbury, The Arden Shakespeare, (1998), 2013. Print.

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses. London, 1583. Print.

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Esdaile, Katherine. English Monumental Sculpture Since the Renaissance. London: S.P.C.K, 1927. Print.

Berry, Philippa. Of Chastity and Power. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Gage, John. Colour and Culture. London: Thames and Hudson, 1993. Print.

Hunter, G.K and David Bevington, eds. Campaspe. Sappho and Phao. John Lyly. Manchester: Manchester University Press, (1991) 2007. Print.

Lichtenstein, Jacqueline. La Couleur éloquente. Paris: Flammarion, (1989), 2013. Print.

Mollard-Desfour Annie. Le Rouge. Paris: CNRS Editions, 2009. Print.

Pastoureau, Michel. L’Art héraldique au Moyen-Age. Paris: Seuil, 2009. Heraldry: Its Origin and Meaning. Trans. F. Garvie. London: Thames and Hudson, 1997. Print.

Pastoureau, Michel. Vert. Histoire d’une couleur. Paris: Seuil, 2013. Print.

Pincombe, Michael. The Plays of John Lyly: Eros and Eliza. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1996. Print.

Pleij, Herman. Colors Demonic and Divine. Shades of Meaning in the Middle Ages and After. Trans. D. Webb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. Print.

Plett, Heinrich. Rhetoric and Renaissance Culture. Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 2004. Print.

Porter, Chloe. Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama. Spectators, Aesthetics and Incompletion. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. Print.

Saccio, Peter. The Court Comedies of John Lyly: A Study in Allegorical Dramaturgy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969. Print.

Smith, Bruce R. The Key of Green. Passion and Perception in Renaissance Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009. Print.

Souriau, Etienne. Vocabulaire d’esthétique. Paris: Flammarion, 1990. Print.

Tassi, Marguerite. The Scandal of Images. Iconoclasm, Eroticism and Painting in Early Modern English Drama. Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 2005. Print.

Van Norden, Linda. The Black Feet of the Peacock. The Color Concept “Black” from the Greeks through the Renaissance. Laham: University of America Press, 1985. Print.


Chiari, Sophie. ““O’er-dyed blacks” (1.2.131): les couleurs dans Le Conte d’hiver”. Sillages Critiques. Arcadias. 13. URL : Web. 5 February 2015.

Iselin, Pierre. “Portrait, blason, et anatomie dans Twelfth Night et quelques poèmes de Shakespeareˮ, Sillages critiques. Le portrait 2 (1999), ed. Pierre Arnaud: 31-42. Print.

Martinet, Marie-Madeleine. “Images de l’art et temps théâtral, ou le seuil de l’ombre” in Vérité et illusion dans le théâtre au temps de la Renaissance, ed. Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies, Paris: Jean Touzot, 1983 : 161-72. Print.

Porter, Chloe. “Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Agency: Visual Experience in Works by Lyly and Shakespeare. Literature and History, 18, 2009: 1-15. Print.

Scragg, Leah. “Speaking Pictures: Style and Spectacle in Lylian Comedy”. English Studies: A Journal of English Language and Literature 86.4 (2005): 298-311. Print.

Vickers, Nancy. “‘The Blazon of Sweet Beauty’s Best’: Shakespeare’s Lucrece” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Gary Hartman, New York: Methuen, 1985: 95-115. Print.

Woodbridge, Linda. “Black and White and Red All Over: the Sonnet Mistress Among the Ndembu”, Renaissance Quarterly 40. 2 (1987): 247-97. Print.

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1 See Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book I, 625.

2 Marguerite Tassi briefly evokes the polysemy of the word “colour” in Campaspe in her study of painting and Elizabethan drama (The Scandal of Images 86-87).

3 In the above-mentioned study, Tassi devotes a whole chapter to Lyly’s Campaspe (chapter 2, 66-97), highlighting Lyly’s ambivalent attitude towards pictorial art: “Lyly’s portrayal of Apelles taps into iconoclastic fears about images, yet at the same time indulges his audience’s iconophilia” (68). Chloe Porter analyses some of Lyly’s work in “Idolatry, Iconoclasm and Agency: Visual Experience in Works by Lyly and Shakespeare” (1-15). She has also dedicated a whole chapter to Lyly in Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama. Spectators, Aesthetics and Incompletion (chapter 3).

4 Quotations are taken from G.K Hunter’s and David Bevington’s edition. See bibliography.

5 “The euphuistic mode is distinguished by three fundamental characteristics: opposition (frequently pointed by alliteration), ambiguity (promoted through punning) and the location of duality or antithetical change (exhibited through imagery drawn from mythology, classical history or the natural world)” (Scragg 300).

6 This prevailing idea of a structural dichotomy inherent in Campaspe is also developed by G.K Hunter and David Bevington: “The use of Apelles and Diogenes to embody complementary alternative responses to princely authority (leaving the mid-point between them to appear equally desirable and unrealisable) imposes certain features on the conduct of the play. As alternatives they are normally presented alternately…but understandably enough, they are never allowed to meet” (12).

7 This image of being nourished with “beautiful pictures” is evoked in Euphues (II.59, 15-16).

8 For a complete and recent study of green in Renaissance Europe see Pastoureau 2013. Otherwise, Bruce R. Smith’s study of green in early modern literature remains invaluable reading (see bibliography).

9 In her dictionary devoted to red, Annie Mollard-Desfour describes this colour as follows: “couleur de référence dans toutes les civilisations, couleur du sang et du feu, éléments indispensables à la vie, mais symboles de mort, le rouge, conjuguant en lui beauté et horreur, est, parmi toutes les couleurs, la plus ambiguëˮ (xviii).

10 However, Philippa Berry underlines that the contrast between red and white to depict female beauty is derived from the Song of Solomon (26).

11 “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness”, Matt 23.27.

12 Etienne Souriau explains the function of polychromous statues as follows: “C’est surtout une conséquence du désir de figuration réaliste que le développement d’une statue polychrome cherchant à donner l’impression qu’on est en face du modèle lui-même et non d’une simple effigieˮ (1280).

13 In Lomazzo’s Trattato, white is described as the traditional symbol of purity: “White, because it is apt to receive all mixtures signifeth simplicity, puritie, and elation of the minde (as some say) of which colour Virgill writing Aen.6. attributeth it to the garmentes of chaste Friestes, good Poets, witty men, and such as defende there countrie” (114).

14 Heinrich Plett’s chapter on “Pictura Rhetorica” is also useful (297-364). See bibliography.

15 He also notes that “in Middle Dutch, “coulour” could also mean “gloss”, p.11. Sophie Chiari also evokes this suspicion in her article on colours in The Winter’s Tale: “Pour une définition de la couleur à la Renaissance, voir par exemple Cotgrave, R. A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, Londres, Adam Islip, 1611: ‘Couleur : f. : A colour, hue; dye; staine; also, a pretext, pretence, cloake, shew, shadow, for a matter’. La couleur est à la fois teinte, teinture et tache. Au sens figuré, ses connotations s’avèrent très négatives, puisque dans la langue anglaise, la couleur renvoie dans ce cas à l’illusion, à l’apparence. Il faut dire que pour de nombreux écrivains du Moyen Âge et de la Renaissance, le mot latin color proviendrait du verbe celare, qui signifie ‘dissimuler’. La couleur serait donc trompeuse par essence : elle cache, séduit, et fourvoieˮ (Footnote 2).

16 Leda was fooled by Zeus who turned into a swan and obtained love and affection by searching for protection in her arms.

17 Zeus managed to have sexual intercourse with Alcmena by disguising himself as Amphitryon, her future husband.

18 Zeus turned into a golden shower to reach Danäe who had been locked away in a jail by her father. They had a son named Perseus.

19 Zeus, in the guise of a white bull, abducted Europa and led her to the island of Crete.

20 Ovid relates that Arachne chose to represent in her tapestry the Gods’ immoral behaviour toward mortals by weaving Zeus’ numerous tricks to seduce women.

21 In his Argument to The Banquet of Sense, George Chapman warns the reader that: “then proceeds he to entreaty for the fift sence and there is interrupted” (241)

22 In his study of green, Bruce R. Smith provides an interesting example of synaesthesia that can be found in a rare manuscript on alchemy in which colour symbolizes knowledge as the philosophers managed to see and feel colours (66).

23 John Gage devotes a whole chapter to the reception of this theory in the history of art. See bibliography.

24 Nancy Vickers remains invaluable reading on this subject (95-115). See also Iselin 31-42.

25 See Colours Demonic and Divine (chapter 7). Chloe Porter has studied the phenomenon of “decoloration” or blemish that took place in Tudor England when icononclasts whitewashed wall paintings in churches (Making and Unmaking in Early Modern English Drama, chapter 1).

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Armelle SABATIER, « Colour as an Art of Illusion in John Lyly’s Campaspe (1584) »e-Rea [En ligne], 12.2 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2015, consulté le 17 juillet 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Paris II Assas, Research group VALE (Paris Sorbonne)
Armelle Sabatier is currently Lecturer in Legal English at Paris II University and member of the research centre VALE (Paris IV Sorbonne). She is also assistant editor of the journal Sillages Critiques (VALE). She defended a thesis devoted to death and resurrection in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (December 2005).
Her research and main publications have been focussed on the interrelation between word and image, and the dramatization of visual arts in early modern England. She has already published two articles on the codification of colours in John Webster and William Shakespeare (“White or/and red?: Defining and re-defining the colour of corruption in John Webster’s The White Devil”, Definitions of Color. Interfaces, 33, 2013, 135-48; “The Rhetoric of Colours in Love’s Labour’s Lost”, eds. Delphine Lemonnier-Texier and Guillaume Winter, Lectures de Love’s Labour’s Lost de William Shakespeare, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2014, 117-32.).

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