Located in the lovely cloister of the Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo in Lamoli, Borgo Pace in the province of Pesaro and Urbino, is the “Delio Bischi” Museo dei Colori Naturali (Museum of Natural Colours), a treasure trove of information about natural colours and how they evolved through history. This area has always had an invested interest in pigments, the main element in a colour, because the Benedictine abbey lies in the Upper Valley of the Metauro river along one of the main communication routes between Rome and Urbino, the nerve centre for trade between 1400 and 1600. This interest was heightened when, in the Seventies and Eighties, Delio Bischi discovered a number of millstones in the Montefeltro area, a strip of land in the Marche on the border with Tuscany and Romagna, which had been used to process Isatis tinctoria leaves, an ancient plant better known as woad. Woad was used as a dye because of the extraordinarily deep blue colour it produced, and soon became known as “blue gold”. The plant, which was also a favourite with the Romans thanks to its medicinal properties, reached the height of popularity in the late Middle Ages when it was cultivated on a large scale in these areas. Today it is enjoying a revival in many countries in Europe as an environmentally friendly resource. Woad was used to produce the sky blue colour of the “rigatino”, the garment worn by farmers in the Marche on feast days, the “pastel” shade used by Gobelins, the famous French tapestry manufacturer founded in Paris in 1662 by Luigi XIV, the blue of Renaissance table cloths and velvets, the trademark colour of the paintings of Piero della Francesca and Salimbeni. There is even a short but colourful description of it in Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus. Unfortunately, the process to produce the colour was so complex only the nobility could afford to dye their clothes, along with velvet cloth for altars, standards and table cloths. And when indigo, another important pigment which gave a higher yield and was more economical, reached these shores from across the ocean, the trade in woad began to decline until it disappeared.
Nearly one hundred woad millstones have been found in the Marche and studied and catalogued by Bischi, in whose honour the museum has been named. One of these millstones is displayed near the monastery, while many have been buried or placed on the boundaries of fields, or incorporated into the architecture of holy buildings. Thanks to the help of public organisations and private businesses, the Museum of Colours has brought the dyeing techniques back to life and woad is now flourishing once again in the countryside, with small-scale production reestablished in the region.
The rediscovery of woad is a great starting point for reviving the culture of natural colours, for looking into the history of their use and the impact they had on man and society over the years. Homo sapiens, the last of the species of prehistoric times, used to mill coloured earth, vegetables and shells with millstones to obtain the substances he needed to paint the walls of his caves and caverns. The art of dyeing textile fibres using plant extracts is closely linked with the discovery of rope and then with spinning and weaving. The art of natural dyeing dates back about four thousand years, even though techniques to obtain pigments were common knowledge before then, especially in Egypt and China. In classical times, from 800 B.C onwards, mention is made of the use of medicinal plants for dyeing in the works of Galen, Pliny and Dioscorides, while Julius Caesar wrote later in his “De Bello Gallico” that woad was the only source of blue.
The practice of preparing and using plant-based colours reached its zenith in the 15th century, thanks to cultural progress and the new opportunities offered by trade with the New World. Over two hundred different plants were used for this purpose on the continent, including broom, safflower, nettle and saffron.
Venice, where trade with the Arab world flourished, was home to the most talented colourists who used a huge range of colours with bright, brilliant shades. At the end of the 1700s, dyeing schools were established but people had already begun experimenting with auxiliary chemical products and Master Dyers were gradually replaced by a new class of specialised chemists which emerged as the industrial world developed. Colours invented by man, who is often the first person not to recognise their value, slowly gained the upper hand.
Today, experimental cultivations of medicinal herbs used for dyeing have been planted in the area next to the Museum cloister, while inside the building it is possible to take part in educational workshops and practical sessions where you can learn how to extract and prepare the colour. Everyone is welcome to discover this noble and ancient art.
Museum of Natural Colours
Oasi San Benedetto
Via dell’Abbazia 7, Lamoli di Borgo Pace (PU)
Tel. 0722.80133 –
Cover. Natural powder colours
01. “The Guati millstone”
02. Marco Fantuzzi in his workshop
03. Rosso di Robbia colour charts