Origin, Meaning and Uses of Colours: Black

Date: 01/04/2024
Categories: Colour study

According to colour studies, black and white are not colours. White is obtained by combining all colours, whereas black is obtained by subtracting them – that is, it is the result of the subtractive synthesis of all the colours of the visible spectrum. As often mentioned in this column, colours are determined by light and differ according to its wavelengths. We can identify the colours of objects because the materials in which they are made receive beams of light that they partly reflect and partly absorb. Black does not reflect light and, therefore, has no colour. It is thus considered a non-colour. Yet, it is one of the most widely used tints in the most diverse applications, from fashion to interior design, from architecture to electronics, from art to literature, from music to sport and comics, to name but a few, perhaps also thanks to its ability to match and bring out all the other colours in the spectrum.

This shade is characterised by a dual nature, perhaps much more than the others, although its negative associations have been prevalent throughout history. While, on the one hand, it is a symbol of elegance, charm, mystery, and courage, on the other hand, it represents mourning, darkness, death, and fear. Of course, there are some geographical differences: black is the colour of mourning in the West, whereas, in some African countries, white is; in Japanese culture, black symbolises experience, whereas white symbolises naivety, so much so that in the martial art of karate, for example, the black belt is awarded to those who have demonstrated dedication and commitment to the discipline, while beginners are assigned the white one. This choice is also linked to the Yin and Yang philosophy: sun and moon, day and night, beginning (white) and ending (black).

Black represents contrasting ideas: authority and humility, rebellion and conformity, wealth and poverty. It also means modernity, power, professionalism, traditionalism, evil, pain, subjugation... and absence: today, there exists a black pigment that is so black that it feels like staring into the void, capable of absorbing up to 99.965% of the visible spectrum radiation (see below).

The origin of the word “black”

The etymology of “black” (in Italian nero, in French noir, in Spanish negro, in Portuguese preto, and in German Schwarz) is directly related to the Latin nigrum, the accusative of niger, i.e. “black”, “dark”, and, in a broader sense, “gloomy”, “sombre”, “foreboding”, “mournful”. In fact, it is assumed that this term was connected to the Greek root nekrós, “death”, which in turn can probably be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European nekw-t, “night”.

Black in ancient history

Carl Gustav Jung wrote that black is “the colour of the sunrises, of the principles, of the occlusions in their germinal phase, preceding the luminous and the hopeful explosion of birth”. Indeed, in the Bible, it is the primordial colour from which light springs forth. The same concept is found in Egyptian mythology, according to which the cosmos was created from the Nun, the primordial chaos, akin to the Te Bo Ma (“darkness”) of Micronesia and the Dreamtime of Aboriginal culture. Black, therefore, emanates a generating and fertile power, an original chaos from which light and life can erupt. In ancient Egypt, it was associated with the fertile land left by the Nile after the floods, whereas among the Maasai of Kenya, it recalled the puffy clouds heralding rain, becoming a symbol of life and prosperity. From darkness comes the light: this concept was also evoked by Homer, who described the sea’s depths as black and containing latent life, the great reservoir of all things, and even by Aztec mythology, in which the god of medicine, Ixtlilton (“the little black one”), used magical tlital (“black water”) as a remedy for ailments.

Made from black charcoal and iron ore, black was the first pigment used in history: the bison drawn in the prehistoric caves of Altamira (Spain) and Lascaux (France) bear witness to this. In Greece, black silhouettes on a red background were painted on clay pottery using a sophisticated technique. Black was obtained by Roman painters with graphite-based powders and pigments made by burning resins or tar, although the use of soot (carbon black) to produce inks was even cheaper. Pliny wrote that some painters, to obtain good-quality black pigments, robbed graves to collect charred remains, but this practice was obviously forbidden. The black tint for dyeing textiles was obtained from the vegetal waste of the wine industry, consisting of copper tannates (fouling on vats). The name of Nero, the Roman emperor who ruled Rome from 54 AD to 68 AD and is (perhaps erroneously) blamed for the great fire that destroyed the city, derives from the Roman cognomen “Nero” (connected to the Latin nigrum, “black”), probably of Sabine origin and meaning “strong” and “valiant”, further confirming that, even in ancient times, black did not have an entirely negative connotation.

Black in the Middle Ages

At the height of the Middle Ages, black became the colour of Hell, where darkness reigns, and the symbol of the devil. Black animals, such as the raven, were penalised for this. However, according to colour historian Michel Pastoureau, something good was still seen in black since, in the same period, it also became the colour of humility, temperance, and dignity. Benedictine monks wore a black tunic, which became the subject of a religious dispute with Cistercian monks, accused of excessive pride, as evidenced by their white robes: the Cistercians replied that the black worn by the Benedictines was the colour of the devil, death, and sin, whereas their white symbolised purity and innocence.

A little later, black became the preferred colour for courtiers’ clothes and a symbol of luxury, as clearly shown in many portraits of the time. It retained the reputation of “fashionable colour” until the 16 th century. Although it remained associated with witchcraft and mourning practices, its position evolved: now respectable and luxurious, it became a royal colour until the mid-17th century. And, with the invention of printing, which used black ink on white paper, it became a part of everyday life, in the same way the smartphones’ black screens are today.

In the 19 th century, black became the symbol of the smoke of the first factories and automobiles – a world difficult to imagine in colour, which we are in fact more inclined to visualise in black and white. It then became a symbol of political extremism in the 20th century, linked to a grim historical period: suffice it to recall the black swastika of the Nazi flag, the colour worn by the paramilitary corps of the Italian National Fascist Party, and the black flag symbol of anarchy.

Black in the world of art

Here, it would not be possible to mention the countless works of art in which black was preferred to white to bring out the other tints of the palette or the shapes of sculptures, from Flemish painters Jan Vermeer and Rembrandt to Caravaggio, who used it with masterly skill to create the backgrounds of his indescribable paintings.

Another example is Édouard Manet, who, in his 1863 oil painting “Olympia”, was able to make the black of the cat on the right and the face of the servant girl stand out against the black background of the canvas by creating a unique “black on black” effect.

In contemporary art, we cannot fail to mention Anish Kapoor, one of the most important sculptors today, who has been at the centre of much controversy for having acquired Vantablack ®, the blackest black pigment ever made, produced by British company Surrey NanoSystems and composed of carbon nanotubes. It absorbs up to 99.965% of the visible spectrum radiation and it was developed originally for military purposes, as it was intended to coat stealth aircraft, built with technologies that make them “invisible” to radar.

Kapoor described it in these words: “It is so black that you almost cannot see it, and it is so dark that you lose awareness of space, so much so that you are driven to rely on something you do not know in your inner reality.” BMW coated the body of one of its car models, the BMW VBX6, with Vantablack for the first time in 2019.

The “Narcissus” painting from Caravaggio, an example of the use of black as a background
Caravaggio’s “Narcissus”, oil on canvas, 1598-99 - Galleria Nazionale di Arte Antica, Rome (Italy). ©Wikipedia

When the soul is dark

Black clothing has made history, not only in fashion – Coco Chanel is credited with the invention in 1929 of the “little black dress” that Audrey Hepburn made timeless – but also in sport, music, and comics, sometimes with surprising implications.

The black dress of Audrey Hepburn in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
Audrey Hepburn in the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.

For example, the black jersey awarded to the last rider to cross the finish line of the Giro d’Italia does not have the negative meaning one might expect. It originated, as is often the case, from a particular sports story: Giuseppe Ticozzelli was a fairly well-known footballer with an immense passion for cycling who, in 1926, decided to race some stages of the Giro d’Italia as an independent. Since he did not have a team with official colours, he chose to compete with the black jersey with a white star on the chest of his then-football team, Casale. The jersey worn by “Tico” served as an inspiration when the Giro d’Italia resumed after the Second World War in 1946 and it was decided to establish a prize for the last classified, which was then abolished in 1952.

The black colour chosen for the jersey of the All Blacks, as the athletes of the New Zealand national rugby team are nicknamed, makes one of the world’s strongest teams, also known for its pre-match Haka dance, all the more fearless – and probably its opponents all the more worried. The origin of this choice institutionalised in 1893 is unclear: according to the most suggestive version, black was chosen to make the silver fern on the athletes’ chests stand out; according to the more practical version, it was selected to differentiate from the colours of other national teams or to prevent the jerseys from becoming excessively dirty during matches.

Black clothes such as leather jackets, tight jeans, and boots have also marked the history of music: from punk to heavy metal, they have become the symbols of transgression par excellence. And from Batman, who became the Dark Knight in Christopher Nolan’s movies, whose costume is reminiscent of the black of the bats he was inspired by and of the darkness of Gotham City on whose rooftops he moves, to Black Panther and Black Widow, black is also the colour of the costumes of many heroes (and villains) of comic books.

Has black really redeemed itself?

Although, nowadays, black also evokes positive aspects, we unconsciously continue to feel uneasy about it. Positive associations include Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving in the US, since 1952 traditionally considered the beginning of the Christmas shopping season and sales. The reason for using the adjective “black” associated with this day is unknown. According to some, it originated in Philadelphia and would refer to the traffic created on that particular day, whereas according to others, it referred to the entries in merchants’ ledgers that moved from red (losses) to black (gains). From (black) magic to economics (black market, black Monday) and from literature (noir as a subgenre of crime fiction) to endless other fields, this shade remains linked to negative feelings and, perhaps, to archaic superstitions (black cat and wolfs), or simply to what is different and unknown.

Without wishing to delve into socio-historical issues related to the perception of blackness – this is not the appropriate place – I would instead like to mention a personal anecdote, which proves to what extent the negative connotations of black still affect our everyday life, even at an unconscious level. I was walking two large dogs, one black and one brown. Although the former is more docile and friendly, the people I met only paid attention and cuddled the brown dog, completely ignoring the black one.

Perhaps, although black is now largely legitimised, it still unsettles us deep down... and this, too, is part of the intriguing, eternal fascination of this non-colour.

Two greyhounds with black furr