Pliny the Elder on metals, and a warning from the first century

Roman fresco from the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii (image courtesy of Wikimedia commons)

Roman fresco from the Villa of Mysteries, Pompeii
(image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

My abiding interest in pigments and their sources has always been a catalyst for a much wider scope of interest, and in the raft of very human impulses that have shaped the history and development of our material culture. Ingenuity, invention, avarice, curiosity, and a deep need to make sense of who we are, and where we fit into our world and our universe, are some of the qualities that have driven us to exploit and meditate upon the wondrous things that we have found in our habitat.

One of my favourite sources on mineral pigments in a broad context are in the writings of Pliny the Elder, who served in the Roman army in the first century AD. His great legacy is the monumental “Natural History“, an encyclopaedic treasure-house of history, anecdote and first-hand observation, enlivened by original opinion and a commentary that reveals a deeply intelligent and enquiring mind. So great was his need for veracity that he famously met his death by venturing too near to the shores of Herculaneum in order to observe more closely the eruption of mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Book XXXIII of the Natural History is all about metals and minerals, how and where they were mined and processed, and the pigments they produced. For example, there is an account of the cinnabar mines that the Romans established in Hispania (Spain) and of the great value placed by the State upon this mineral as a pigment – hence my featured image of a Pompeiian fresco with its luxurious use of cinnabar for the background, with its added significance to the circumstances of Pliny’s death.

The main reason for this post is to share some passages from the introductory paragraph of Book XXXIII.  Pliny’s observations are amazingly portentous, and entirely valid reading today, nearly two thousand years after they were written :

” …We trace out all the fibres of the earth, and live above the hollows we have made in her, marvelling that she occasionally gapes open or begins to tremble – as if forsooth it were not possible that this may be an expression of the indignation of our holy parent! We penetrate her inner parts and seek for riches in the abode of the spirits of the departed, as though the part where we tread upon her were not sufficiently bounteous and fertile….

”   The things that she has concealed and hidden underground, those that do not quickly come to birth, are the things that destroy us and drive us to the depths below; so that suddenly the mind soars aloft into the void and ponders what finally will be the end of draining her dry in all the ages, what will be the point to which avarice will penetrate….”

This quotation comes from the Loeb Classical Library edition, Harvard University Press, with Latin text and translation by H. Rackham, first published in 1952.

I have written more on cinnabar in my previous posts:  “The colour red” and  “More than the colour red…”