Ardent/The Artist’s Workshop: Red II


Matteo Olivieri

by Domenico Veneziano Florence 15th century

In Ardent, Benedetto and Morello would have to buy the materials for many of their pigments and mordants from an apothecary.  Painters and apothecaries, back to the time of Dante (late 13th century, early 14th), belonged to the same guild as doctors. Poets, as Dante was, and philosophers were also members of this guild. By the time of my novel, this guild had a lot less power, and Leonardo da Vinci belonged to a virtuoso artists’ “club” of sorts.

I meant to tell you the story of one of the mordants, to illustrate and expand on the idea of the stakes when it came to painting and dyeing materials. I’ll use the cut scene I felt was too obvious and more than was needed to tell the story of Morello’s red, but it’s interesting in itself. The drapers’ guild was the biggest guild in Florence and wielded much power, and alum, cloth, and dyes were an even bigger deal internationally.

So, from Ardent:

Morello grunted and drank deep of his wine to take the sting out from having to listen politely to a lecture he knew by rote. Zeno, a teacher of masters, would lead him to his conclusions moment by excruciating moment. His penance, it appeared, was to be kept from pursuing Benedetto.

“Now, what do you need to make the dye stick, Master Morello, and not slide off the cloth or painting?”

“A mordant,” Morello answered tersely. Franco frowned a warning at him. “Master, a mordant, like alum.”

“Where do we get our alum from?”

“The alum mines in Volterra, master,” he answered. “Over which there was a small war five years ago. Not the first and likely not the last.”

“Where did we get our alum before that?”

Morello shrugged.

“The papal lands in Tolfa,” Master Franco said helpfully. “And obtaining alum from the Turks became illegal.”

“Because to fund its own wars, a small cartel…?”

“The pope.” Franco supplied.

“Backed by a rich banking family…?”

“Medici, Master,” Morello said. Who else could that be? He refilled the wine cups and wished again he was in the tavern and sitting next to the man with the body made for sinning, a mortal, blue-eyed angel.

It’s a little more complicated than that. Again according to Spike Bucklow:

“Expensive as they were, the economic importance of insect reds and other dyes was rivaled by that of the alum required to permanently fix them to cloth. The acquisition and preparation of Turkish alum were politically charged affairs because numerous crusades and the collapse of Byzantium made supplies erratic. So news of the discovery, in 1458, of alum-bearing rocks around Volterra in Italy, was met with great celebration. Expertise and finance were sought from nearby Florence and Siena and a partnership was formed to

exploit the source. Friction quickly developed and precipitated a war between the city-states. Eventually, Volterra was annexed by Florence. (more on this later, hw)

Three years later, in 1461, Giovanni de Castro, the son of a lawyer from Padua, discovered a much bigger deposit of alum-bearing rocks at Tolfa. De Castro had worked as textile agent in Constantinople before the fall of Byzantium and had seen Turkish alum works. Back home in Italy, he was ‘struck by strangeness of the herbage and of white stones’ which he tasted and, upon finding them ‘saltish,’ started experimenting. Experts tested his results and they eventually greeted his success with ‘tears of joy…kneeling down three times [they] worshipped God and praised His kindness in conferring such a gift’. As the alum-bearing rocks had been found on Papal territory, finance for establishing an alum works was sought from Pope Pius II. This was not difficult.

De Castro recognised that the alum had strategic potential, simultaneously weakening the Turks and strengthening the Pope. ‘I announce to you a victory over the Turk. He draws yearly from the Christians above 300,000 gold pieces for the alum with which we dye our wool…This mineral will give you the sinews of war.’ In the spring of 1463, within two years of the discovery, there were four mines in Tolfa, employing 8,000 workers and contracted to provide 1,500 tons of alum a year to the Pope. The trade was so important that the Pope’s Maundy Thursday address of 1465 listed in extraordinary detail the punishments that awaited those ‘perfidious Christians’ who continued to buy Turkish alum or assist ‘the Infidel’. The Pope had established a cartel to control the market and, in 1466, the Medici became bankers and agents for the alum trade.

In 1471, eight years after opening the mines, the income from Tolfa was 140,000 ducats. Tolfa alum ships flew the Papal ensign, were protected by naval vessels, and the importation of alum from Turkey was prohibited.

Bucklow, Spike. The Alchemy of Paint (Kindle Locations 389-423). Marion Boyars. Kindle Edition.


The worked over alum was added to the paint, though there were different ways to use different types of mordant depending on the medium. Garlic was also used as a mordant. This is according to Cennino Cennini (born 1372), a painter who wrote while imprisoned for debt The Craftsmans’s Handbook, a practical book containing his techniques for painting to sculpture to gilding and making glue.

In The Perfect Red by Amy Butler Greenfield, I found the inspiration for developing the idea of fraud in Ardent. When cochineal was first discovered in South America, the trade wasn’t regulated at all, and the weight (it was sold by the gram) was adulterated with “sand, chalk, or tiny pebbles.”  The grains of the cochineal were layered with “red ochre, flour, lime, and ashes.”

It took a while for Spain to set regulations in place. Red in the 16th century is a fascinating story in itself. In the time of Morello and Benedetto, the French had a red dye, rose madder, that was less popular than the kermes and cochineals.

Ardent from Manifold Press

Historical M/M Romantic Suspense

Renaissance Florence


In the village of Torrenta, master painter Morello has created a color that mimics the most expensive pigment of all, the crimson red. Master Zeno, from strife-ridden Medici Florence, tells him the color gives him a competitive advantage – but Morello must be careful. Fraud is ever-present in the dye and pigment markets.


As they work together in Torrenta, Morello falls hard for Zeno’s assistant, Benedetto Tagliaferro, a young man of uncommon beauty and intelligence. Benedetto is still fixed on his old lover, the master painter Leo Guisculo, and cannot return Morello’s affections.


But when Leo dies in a terrible accident, it’s to Morello that Zeno and Benedetto turn for help. And Morello soon finds that in Florence, every surface hides layers of intrigue.


75,600 words

Publication February 1, 2017

Buy links:

Barnes and Noble

Manifold Press



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