What is the color “Titian red”? The origin of the particular shade of female hair

Looking at some of the most beautiful paintings in the world, we might notice it in the women's hair a particular type of red which also contains golden and orange notes. This gorgeous shade of red-blonde is known as “Titian red“. But what is the history of this denomination? As the name itself suggests, the chromatic shade owes its fortune to sixteenth-century Venetian painter Titian Vecellio (Pieve di Cadore, 1488/1490 – Venice, 1576), author of famous paintings such asSacred love and profane love or the Venus of Urbino. A great master of tonalism, Titian often used this color in his works, and in particular for fluffy hair of the most high-ranking women or deities. But how did he create this color that was so rich and nuanced and had an almost “soft” appearance?

Titian was great color experimenter, he was all his life. With the colonization of the Americas, in what was defined as the Colombian exchange, the richest markets of Europe (and therefore also Venice) arrived cochineal, an insect that contained a large quantity of carminic acid: once pulverized, this could be used as a pigment (in fact, carmine in color). By mixing this powder with those of mineral and vegetal origin available at the time, i.e. cinnabar, ocher and madder, Titian created very particular shades of red which he combined with other reds within the same paintings. And here is the so-called “Titian red”!

But where did Titian get the inspiration to give “his” women this hair color, not exactly common in 16th century Italy? This was revealed by the American biochemist of German origin Konrad Emil Blochco-winner of the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 1964. Bloch, who moved to Italy as a young man, noticed that the goddesses and ladies painted by Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese had this shade of hair a little too often: according the scientist, the only possible conclusion was that bleached/lightened their brown hair.

Studying with an art historian, Bloch thus discovered that at the time there already existed dozens of different recipes for lightening hair, all based on plant extracts (mostly conifers, myrtle, aromatic herbs), sometimes mixed with inorganic salts such as alum and potassium carbonate. By leaving the extracts in the sun, an oxidizing agent was produced: thus a concoction called “blonde water“, of which numerous references can be found in the literature of the time. Even today, “copper blonde” is a very popular color for dyeing hair and even today it makes you look at least a little like Titian's ladies.

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