Fall 2010

Colors / Amber

Old magic

Mark Bradley

“Colors” is a column in which a writer responds to a specific color assigned by the editors of Cabinet.

Amber is the stuff of antiquity. Like a prison of the past or a miniature museum, it captures, preserves, and exhibits a snapshot of history. It is color, and yet much more than color: it is the object of touch, taste, and smell as much as it is the object of vision. Once sticky, now smooth and glossy to the touch, a receptacle of static energy and a time capsule of resinous smell and tangy taste, amber is a treat for the synesthete.

A centipede preserved in Baltic amber dating from the Upper Eocene subepoch. Courtesy Natural History Museum, London.

Amber, then, is quintessentially stuff: amber perfumes, amber candles, amber lights, and amber honey are all reminiscent of the substance and its associations, rather than just what it happens to look like. Most colors start out anchored in specific objects or phenomena, and not just such familiar associative categories as ivory, peach, orange, or lavender: in Greek and Latin, “white” and “black” were attached to light and darkness; “red” to blood; “green” to plants; “blue” to deep water; “yellow” to blond hair; and so on. Amber, though, is so much more. Many people today might think twice before classifying it straightforwardly as a color, not least because amber occurs in such a range of different hues: whites, greens, blues, and blacks, as well as yellows and browns. And yet its use as an adjective is commonplace in our color repertoire: amber traffic lights, amber eyes, amber nectar, amber-hearted, and so on. The Romans were among the first to turn it into a color: Pliny the Elder tells us that the decadent emperor Nero used to describe his wife’s hair as “amber-colored” (sucini) and so set a fad among high-society ladies for a new hair color. Pliny, a natural historian and a Stoic philosopher, was deeply worried by the luxuries and immorality of his day, and by the effects the rich material culture of imperial Rome had on its inhabitants and their experience of the world. His patience with such exotic fancies as amber was short: some connoisseurs (he complained) think it is the color of the sun, of fire, of honey, or of wax because they imagine it is actually made of these things; others call it pee-colored because they believe it was formed from crystallized lynx urine. Pliny’s account of amber was a satire on the sensory bedlam at work in imperial Rome: all vices, he concluded, can be glamorized using fancy language and a warped imagination.

Not for nothing was amber such a talking point for Romans. An antiquity even in antiquity, amber derived from a faraway place as well as a faraway time: according to the Greek historian Herodotus, the one thing everybody knew about amber, apart from the fact that it had been around since time immemorial, was that it was from distant lands (mostly, in fact, from the Baltic, an ancient territory shrouded in mystery and intrigue). For Greeks and Romans, this precious fossilized resin, prized for its warm glow, transparency, and ability to refract light in weird and wonderful ways, was widely used for jewelry, amulets, even sculpture and architectural decoration. Little surprise that it became associated with the sun: the Greeks called it ēlektron, a word associated with ēlektēr (“the beaming sun”). Homer described the halls of Menelaus flashing and glowing with amber and other precious materials, imitating the gleam of the Olympian heavens. Mythical heroes such as Herakles were imagined adorned with glowing amber (“a marvel to behold”), and divine tears shed at the death of Phaethon, son of the Sun, were formed out of the precious stone. And there was a fine statue of the emperor Augustus at Delphi carved out of amber, pointing unequivocally to his heroic and divine status in the world.

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