First a disclaimer. This gallery is in no way complete, and not thematic either other than being by colour. Portraits and depictions from various Italian city states and regions have been mixed together, only roughly sorted by timeline and colour. But way too often I learn that colours can line. Online reproductions can be much darker or brighter than in real life, and various pigments (especially) green change colours over time. So what I list as orange can originally have been red, what I list as grey can originally have been blue or lilac, what I list as black can in fact have been green. Brown is a particularly difficult colour, seen with modern eyes. The general rule was that the more intense the shade, the more expensive the fabric was. This is also true for "brown". The purplish brown shade pavonazzo was very expensive, and favoured by duchess Eleonora di Toledo of Florence. To our modern eye it's not too different from regular brown colours, whereas the period eye would know to separate between them. Metallic shades like dark gold and bronze can also appear brownish. True brown in period times would on the other hand be a modest and poor colour, often worn by monks and nuns, but it would be a paler brown. I have listed the brown shades through a modern sense of colour, and not through the period sense.

As mentioned, colours were usually not listed by a fixed name in the past. Rather, the name of the pigment or dye was used to denote a shade. So "red" as such was not a colour, and the red dye chermisi could be wine red shades as well as bright pink. It's often noted that pink is not a period colour. The amount of depictions of ladies in pink dresses proves this wrong, but as the same time these would probably be conceived as "red" dresses by contemporary viewers. The comment is therefore both correct and wrong. For the most, I have listed pink as in our modern perception of the colour. I've done this even though I know the "pink" dress of Eleonora di Toledo in her 1543 portrait is described as chermisi (a red dye).

A third aspect is that many dresses were two coloured. The most extreme examples have stripy bodices and skirts in two contrasting colours. Others have sleeves of another colour than the main dress - this was particularly popular in high Renaissance dresses. For the most I've listed depictions with one coloured dresses underneath. This does not reflect the full picture of how colours were used in the construction of dresses in the 16th century.

That aside, I think the list gives an impression of which colours were in vogue, and how they were used. For example, there are few or none depictions of Venetian ladies in brown shades, while it occurs more frequently in Tuscany in the late 1400s and early 1500s. To get more info on each picture, click on it, and the link name will give you the name of the region, artist, year and eventual current location. To read more about period colours, check out the books "Blue. History of a Color" by Michel Pastoureau, and "Color and Meaning" by Marcia Hall. Both are eye openers and very interesting to read.

Monachino, bruno, pavonazzo


Chermisi/cremisi, rosso, vermillion

Lionata, ochre






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