WHY AE THE COLORS OF ROMAN BUILDINGS SO OFTEN OCHRE? One of the delights for me of coming in to Rome is the different shades of earth tones in the buildings. David Watkin reviews THE COLOURS OF ROME by John Sutcliffe in the TLS (March 7). It is apparently an unusual book in that the text is only 26 pages long, with an accompanying folder of 20 pages displaying patches of color. The seven Roman colors that Sutcliffe features call to mind tubes of beautiful pigment: Yellow and Red Ochre, Raw and Burnt Umber, Raw and Burnt Sienna, and Lamp-black.
Why ochre? Sutcliffe apparently thought originally that these colors represented a tradition going back to Imperial Rome. However, the prevalence of earth tones is quite recent. Paintings of 18th century Rome don’t show much ochre, and buildings using plaster in pink, yellow, and grayish blue tones can be found from the 1600’s to the early 1800’s. Politics played an important part in the switch to ochre. Watkin says that when Italy was united in 1861, it was under the leadership of Turin, which supplied many of the bureaucrats for the new government. Turin was “a staunchly ochre city”.