Cinnabar, also known as vermilion, was worth it’s weight in gold in Ancient Rome.
Its important to note that “cinnabar” refers to the mineral, while “vermilion” is the pigment. Until cadmium red was discovered in the early 20th century, vermilion was the most widely used “red” in the world. It was used in rituals and ceremonies for centuries, and was regarded as having great importance and sacredness. It was used in illuminated manuscripts during the middle ages, art in Ancient Rome, and paintings during the Renaissance. Hindu women use vermilion along the part in their hair (known as Sindoor) to indicate that they are married, and Hindu men and women frequently wear the pigment on their heads during religious ceremonies.
The pigment, highly toxic in nature, is a sulphide of mercury, and those who handled it experienced similar unfortunate side effects to Mad Hatter’s Disease, a neurological disorder which ultimately affects the whole central nervous system. Despite it’s toxicity, cinnabar was historically used in traditional Chinese medicine.
The phrase “red lacquer” frequently refers to cinnabar and is especially popular in Chinese furniture and decorative arts – like the beautiful 10–panel piece our furniture has been treating for the past several months. Though the toxic elements have been sealed and no longer pose a threat to our conservators, the areas of missing lacquer needed to be replaced. To avoid said toxicity, our conservators mixed resin and pigments to create exact matches for the areas of loss.
Vermilion became so popular in demand that the price had to be fixed by the Roman government, so that it wouldn’t suffer the same (expensive) fate as ultramarine blue - read about that in our previous newsletter, here. Pliny the Elder (a Roman author, philosopher, and armed forces commander) once said: “Nothing is more carefully guarded. It is forbidden to break up or refine the cinnabar on the spot. They send it to Rome in its natural condition, under seal, to the extent of some ten thousand pounds a year. The sales price is fixed by law to keep it from becoming impossibly expensive, and the price fixed is seventy sesterces a pound.”
There were various processes and methods to create the color, but they mostly involved mixing mercury and sulfur, adding heat, and then grinding the substance until it was reduced to the size of fine grains of sand. It was repeatedly washed and milled to bring out the unique red color, and then left to settle and air dry. The process was long and tedious, but the result was worth it.
Today, cadmium red is substituted for cinnabar, similar in opacity and color, as it’s both synthetic and non-toxic. It is still possible to get genuine vermilion pigment from China, though it should be used with great care.