Red earth has been used in painting for millennia. Sinopia was the Italian word for this pigment and it was used for the underdrawing in fresco painting. The drawings themselves are now known as sinopia, much like the word oil can stand for painting. Sinopia color was also used in the fresco itself and in panel paintings, particularly for painting flesh. The example from Todi just below, shows a fresco, and at the left, where the intonaco or final layer has fallen, a section with the sinopia on the coarser layer of plaster called the arriccio. This fresco is from about 1380, when paper was still not very available.
As paper became more common, fresco design could be done on paper and then transferred by pricking and pouncing to the plaster. However, the much later Ligozzi example below shows that artists even in 1600 liked to use sinopia for fresco preparation.
Sinopia takes its name from Sinop, a cape and port town on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. A bustling trade in the pigment took place in Sinop, though the color was mined to the south in Cappodocia. Cennino Cennini writes about sinopia in his Libro dell’Arte (available in Italian as a pdf and in English posted online). Cennini talks of going with his father, also a painter, and finding sinopia and other colors in the Colle di Val d’Elsa area of Tuscany.
E pervegnendo in uno vallicello, in una grotta molta salvatica, e raschiando la grotta con una zappa, io vidi vene di più ragioni colori: cioè ocria, sinopia scura e chiara, azzurro e bianco, e ‘l tenni il maggior miracolo del mondo, che bianco possa essere di vena terrigna, ricordandoti che io ne feci la prova di questo bianco, e trava’lo grasso, che non è da incarnazione.
And coming into a little valley, in a very wild grotto, and after scraping the grotto with a hoe, I saw many veins of color, that is, ochre, dark and light sinopia, blue, and white, and I thought that finding white in the earth was the greatest miracle in the world. I’ll remind you that I tried using the white and found it too fat and it couldn’t be used for flesh tones.
Cennino Cennini | Il Libro Dell’Arte | Chapter 45
What Cennini writes made me think that Italy’s artistic output, enough to stock museums all over the world and still have so much left within the country, must, at least in part, have something to do with the Italy’s rich geology––so many minerals for making pigments and so much stone for sculpture.