Origin, Meaning and Uses of Colours: Red

Date: 14/12/2023
Categories: Colour study

Used since prehistoric times for the first pictorial drawings, red arouses conflicting emotions by its very nature: loved and hated at different points in history, this primary colour has reached the present day as a protagonist in the most diverse fields, from art to fashion, from astronomy to architecture.

If you think of a Ferrari, you will imagine it flaming red. As a matter of fact, it is virtually impossible to think of this brand without associating it with the colour red. Did you know, however, that red was chosen by Ferrari not because of fashion trends but due to an obligation imposed by the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA)? At the beginning of the 20th century, the federation used to assign a different colour to each nation and the Italian car manufacturers that took part in its first competitions were assigned red (blue went to France, green to Great Britain, white and later silver to Germany).

The iconic red of Ferrari is therefore a legacy of the red Alfa Romeo cars with which Enzo Ferrari’s small company raced when it did not produce vehicles of its own yet, in the 1920s. The colour then went on to become rosso corsa (“racing red”) for everyone, normally identified with Pantone 185 C. More in general, red – which is one of the three primary colours – has always been considered an extreme tint: it is the symbol of passion and excitement, danger and prohibition, dynamism and energy, luxury and celebration, fire and hell, anger and battle.

The origin of the word “red”

The word “red” (in Italian “rosso”, in French “rouge”, in Spanish “rojo”, in Portuguese “vermelho”, and in German “rot”) derived from the Indo-European root “rudh-” or “reudh-”, which also originated the Latin terms “rubens”, “ruber”, and “rufus”, the proto-Germanic term “rauthaz” (the English name for this colour, as well as the German and the Dutch one, “rood”, derived directly from it), and their Slavic, Celtic and Sanskrit counterparts. In the latter case, the word “rudhiram” meant “blood” as a noun and “red” as an adjective. This was also the origin of the Greek term “éruthros”; in fact, “ereuthophobia” (or “erythrophobia”) is the term for fear of blushing.

Red: the history of a colour that was first loved...

Red has ancient origins: as mentioned, in some archaic languages the term “red” was used to refer to blood or even just to describe a beautiful or colourful object. The earliest evidence of the use of red pigment from hematite clay dates back to the Stone Age, some 400,000 years ago. About 30,000 years ago, in the cave of Altamira in Cantabria (Spain) or in Lascaux (France), our ancestors painted hunted animals on the rock with red from hematite. In addition, archaeologists in Africa have uncovered hundreds of fragments of pigments of various colours, consisting mainly of oxides, iron hydroxides and manganese hydroxides, which have remarkable technical characteristics in terms of coverage, colour intensity and resistance.

Red has had great importance in all ancient civilisations. In China, for example, the first evidence of black and red ceramics can be traced between 5000 and 3000 BC. In Egypt, traces of red ochre were found in Tutankhamun’s tomb and it is widely believed that it was used as a female cosmetic to make up cheeks and lips. In Greece, red was combined with black to create vivid and contrasting tints on ceramics, statues and temples. Traces of coloured pigments have been found in the metopes of the Parthenon, the marble sculptural panels originally located on the outer walls, suggesting that the most important temple of the Acropolis was richly coloured, with red and blue as the most used tints.

In ancient Rome, the most commonly used colour after red ochre was cinnabar, made of mercury sulphide and, for this reason, considered toxic. It was so appreciated and valued that it cost even more than Egyptian blue. In classical Rome, the use of red was widespread. The Romans attributed a stronger symbolic meaning to it than to other shades. At the same time, animals with tawny or red fur aroused fear and in human beings red hair had such a bad reputation that it was also considered a negative sign in the Germanic-Scandinavian world.

The colour of the blood of Christ marked the indissoluble link of red with Christianity, and then with wine and the ecclesiastical world inheriting Roman purple clothes. Red soon became a symbol of power and the Roman aristocracy loved it for fabrics, clothes, ornaments, precious stones, jewellery, decorations and emblems.

…and then hated

The Venus of Urbino painting

In the 16th century, religious reformers vetoed the use of red because it was associated with the concept of luxury: clothes and dyes in this colour were downgraded due to their excessive cost. However, it remained the colour of Renaissance painters: in the 16th and 17th centuries, red was used to attract the viewer’s attention. The master of reds was Titian, who unsurprisingly also gave his name to a particular shade of red and who used to apply many layers of pigment mixed with a semi-transparent glaze that allowed light to filter through, to make his vermilion colours even brighter.

“The new science dealt yet another blow to red. By discovering the spectrum in 1666, Newton dethroned it. From the centre of the system (white, yellow, red, green, blue, and black), in this English scientist’s classification red was moved to one of the extremes (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).” The term “infrared”, coined in the 19th century, refers to the invisible energy emanating below the lowest frequency wave, precisely that of red.

In the 19th century, red was transformed into a political colour, becoming the tint of the flag of the Paris Commune in 1871 and of the Russian and Chinese revolutions later on, symbolising the socialist and communist parties and therefore subverting the 16th-century concept of the colour red being associated with luxury.

Red in the present day

Whereas in the West red has such a variety of different and contrasting connotations, in the East it has the meaning of purity (India) and good luck (China): just think of the dresses of Indian brides and the typical colours of the Chinese New Year. But how is this tint utilised on the web?

Although most websites are dominated by blue, recalling reliability and solidity, and green, reflecting the current sustainability-related trends, red as the colour of communication is found in many corporate logos, for precisely the same reason it was chosen by Greek sculptors and 16th-century painters: it is eye-catching and impossible to ignore, it is the colour of fire, and it recalls energy and dynamism.

Its visibility is the reason why it was chosen for fire engines and stop signs to trigger alarms. It is also often used in the logos of businesses in the food industry because it is thought to stimulate appetite.

Fun facts about the colour red

This warm colour also plays a role in fashion, astronomy and architecture. “Valentino red”, for instance, represents its namesake maison. According to a statement, this nuance stemmed from an experience of Valentino himself when, as a young man, he attended a performance at the Barcelona Opera House and a woman in the audience struck him with her red velvet dress: “Among all the colours worn by the other women, she seemed unique, isolated in her splendour. I have never forgotten her. I think a woman dressed in red is always wonderful, the perfect image of the heroine.”

Planet Mars, not coincidentally called after the Roman god of war, is nicknamed “the Red Planet” because the regolith that makes up its soil is rich in iron oxide. This shade of red is more evident here than on the other planets because when the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago, many planets received large quantities of iron forged in the hearts of long-dead stars but, whereas most of them saw a gravitational collapse that concentrated iron in their cores, Mars’ smaller size together with its weaker gravity meant that high amounts of this element remained in its more superficial layers.

Finally, a word on red in architecture: it is not easy to find red buildings in the everyday landscape, probably because of the controversial nature of this colour.

Yet, a building designed by French architect Jean Nouvel fully reflects its sense of energy and vitality: the scientific and technological hub named Kilometro Rosso and requested by Alberto Bombassei, the founder of company Brembo, along one of the busiest motorways in the province of Bergamo (Italy).

The scientific and technological hub named Kilometro Rosso

Its colour was chosen for two reasons: on the one hand, its brightness attracts the attention of motorists driving along the road and, on the other hand, it pays homage to the project’s commissioning company, Brembo, which supplies Ferrari and many other F1 car manufacturers with its brakes – which brings us back to Ferrari’s red mentioned at the beginning of this article, like a fil rouge (!) linking all the nuances of this controversial colour.