Of Phosphorescence, Fireflies and Caravaggio

This excites me BECAUSE it is actually related to pigment history. The word ‘phosphorescence’ was not actually invented until the eighteenth century, from the Neo-Latin ‘phosphorus’ (below – from my beloved Online Etymology Dictionary – those people have no idea how much I love them.)

phosphorus (n.) Look up phosphorus at Dictionary.com“substance or organism that shines of itself,” 1640s, from Latin phosphorus “light-bringing,” also “the morning star” (a sense attested in English from 1620), from GreekPhosphoros “morning star,” literally “torchbearer,” from phos “light,” contraction of phaos “light, daylight” (related to phainein “to show, to bring to light;” see phantasm) +phoros “bearer,” from pherein “to carry

‘Light-bringing’, how marvellous – there is an odd painting at the Yale University Art Gallery, one of a series of c1900 lunettes painted for the Huntington mansion in New York, which depicts Arabella Huntington as the Muse of Electricity, holding aloft a light bulb (below – by H. Siddons Mowbray).  I digress, but so what? It’s Sunday.

Anyway, the non-metallic element, phosphorus, was discovered around 1660, but only isolated and identified in the eighteenth-century, from which it then grew into adjectival form, to describe the character of a light-bringing substance.

This brings us to bio phosphorescence, characteristic of the moonlit sea at night, which glows, in certain conditions, with a peculiarly greenish bluish emission – the light is produced by the bioluminescence of living organisms ranging from bacteria to the many species of plankton, including phytoplankton, especially dinoflagellates.

Other sources of bioluminescence “the production of emission of light by a living organism” include some arachnids, fungi, glow-worms and fireflies. Here’s the best thing – in the seventeenth century some painters ground up fireflies and added them to pigments – presumably including lead white – the luciferins would oxidize, creating a kind of glow.  It was once hypothesized that this might have been how Caravaggio prepared his canvasses, with a pigment made of the ground wings of fireflies, that would flare in the darkness of the camera obscura, allowing him to trace the outlines of projected images.  Isn’t that marvellous?

Image

 

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About hickson1

Art historian, professor, Italian Renaissance and Baroque specialist
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