Chewing my keyboard

Friday, April 01, 2005

Death by wallpaper

I've been having a crisis of faith recently. I've just started trying to pursue a social friendship with someone who I've predominantly known in a professional capacity and they're such a fascinatingly well-informed polymath that I feel the fact we seemed to have pretty much only ever discussed politics and thinking styles seems such a waste of a mine of potential conversational topics. I'm just concerned that some of my alternatives are found to be rather dull but I have the problem of finding extremely strange things really, really interesting (like whether you could produce a galaxy-wise computer network using fluctuations of the quantum vacuum as a faster than light speed signalling medium) and having the burning desire to tell everyone about them when I first find them out.

Generally I like random facts. For example, I have just bought a book on colour to help me choose pastels. However, it's absolutely fascinating. It contains a history of colour (pigments basically).

Did you know that Napoleon apparently died from his wallpaper? In 1822, they discovered true Emerald Green which is is copper aceto-arsenite. This was very popular in wallpaper pigment. The chemical name probably gives the game away - when damp, arsenic fumes were released from the wall, killing people including Napoleon in his prison home on St. Helena. Death by wallpaper is a bad way to go, a little like watching paint dry (groan) especially for a famous conqueror - although Wikipedia seems unsure how Genghis Khan died, the story I heard said he died on his wedding night to his 'x'th wife which seems a somewhat more pleasant method of expiry.

Everyone knows that why Roman Emperors wore purple, of course, was because Tyrian purple pigment was very expensive. This is because it is extracted from a small colour-producing cyst within a whelk. Apparently up to 12,000 molluscs were needed to produce 1.4 grams of dye.

Other interesting and random pieces of information about pigments include:

Ultramarine (the colour) was originally derived from grinding up lapis lazuli during the Renaissance

Earth colours were derived from soils and include ochre, chalk, sienna, umber, terra verte (green earth) and soot black. Green earth was the pigment used in underpainting Renaissance pictures of flesh which is why pictures like Botticelli's Venus have green tinged flesh.

Indian yellow was originally derived from the urine of cows fed soley on a diet of mango leaves in the 15th century. This ceased due to uncertainties over the religious status of the cows (whatever that means).


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