Solferino and Magenta
Bill Long 9/6/08
Knowing a word's origin helps us not only to understand the word itself but, when the word is named after a city, town or region, can also bring us more deeply into the history of that area. For example, the word gorgonzola, to describe a rich blue-veined cheese made of unskimmed cow's milk, is derived from the small town of that name located near Milan, Italy. The cheese was supposed to have originated there in the 9th century, though other towns now vie for being the place of origin. Yet, I don't think that the "cheese wars" will lead to a name change for gorgonzola in my lifetime...
The basic problem I explore here is whether the colors solferino and magenta, both named after Italian towns near Milan, where there were decisive battles three weeks apart in June 1859, are really the same color or are different. Some online sources say they are the same, but some color charts I found online show them to be different, though similar, colors. In addition, the dictionary definitions often are ambigious on this question. One defined magenta as "reddish purple" and solferino as "purplish red." The OED, which is usually the last word on these things, has this to say, first for solferino: "The bright crimson dye-color rosaniline." For magenta is has: "A purple-pink aniline dye, fuchsin; the color of this dye." But then, if you look up fuchsine in this article, you see it defined as "rosaniline hydrochloride," which looks pretty close to the definition given in the OED for solferino. Some web sites frankly give up and equate the terms.
Here, however, are some pictures that try to differentiate them. This site shows a picture of magenta that emphasizes the "pinkness" or "light redness" of its color, and says, in words that don't make complete sense:
"Magenta is a very nice intense darker magenta (huh?). It is somewhere in between Private Reserve Plum and Arabian Rose. It has the intensity of the Plum but is lighter and more towards a magenta red; it is more intense than the Arabian Rose and has slightly less brownish red tones."
Solferino follows next and is more "purplish":
"Solferino is an intense medium purple ink towards magenta; it is similar to Lamy Violet but is more towards a magenta color; actually Solferino is pretty much in between a darker magenta and a true violet."
This article on "list of colors," with swatches of more than 200 of them (no solferino in the list, however), has three magenta entries: magenta, magenta (dye) and magenta (process). They are progressively more "pink." But how do we know, really, what a color is? Well, the article goes on to define it according to the "Hex triplet" (the "color wheel" on most computers), the RGB system and the HSV (Hue, Saturation, Value). I sense from just these things that the whole issue of defining colors is a pretty complex one. Or, alternatively said, that the history of trying to come up with a standardized way of defining colors would be interesting to study.
So, magenta may be more "reddish" or "pinkish," while solferino is more "rust, brownish or purplish." I can live with that, if indeed these are accurate descriptions of the colors.
A History Lesson
It is always more interesting to me, however, to try to learn about the origin of the words/colors. Here again, the stories either are conflicting or aren't very clear. Both of the colors were "discovered" or "invented" shortly after the 1859 battles near these two towns. They are both in NW Italy, with Magenta being closer to Milan and Solferino closer to Brescia. One site I read said that magenta was the color of the French zouave uniforms, but other sites talked about the "discovery" of the color in the region around magenta. One source I read suggested that there were lots of experiments with "red" around that time, focusing on aniline.
Well, the important thing to notice historically was that magenta seemingly was the more important color to come out of the battles, while Solferino was the more important battle. The battle, the last conducted on European soil where the respective monarchs were also the leaders of the troops, was one between France and its Sardinian-Piedmontese (Italian) allies against the power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Northern Italy had been disputed for generations, but in 1859 was still in the control of the Austrians. The combined Franco-Italian forces met the Austrians near the Ticino River (map here), at Magenta, and managed to force them back (towards the East). Then, later in June (June 24, to be precise), the two sides met at the bloody battle of Solferino. This town is near the Lombardy/Veneto border. Here is a short description of that battle. It was only a one-day battle, but more than 200,000 troops were arrayed against each other.
Tensions had been running high between the Piedmontese and Austrians for generations. As the article says: "Italians had received reports of Austrian brutality to the resident Italians throughout the years, including rape, executions of whole villages, and even the nailing of a six-year-old to the door of a church."
Thousands of deaths and nearly 40,000 casualties were reported on this one-day battle. So brutal was the retaliation and cruelty on both sides that the Swiss businessman Henri Dunant, who witnessed the cruelty, decided to do something about it. The Red Cross was born of his efforts. In addition, at a conference shortly after the war in Geneva, the first steps were taken to hash out what would later become known as the "Geneva Conventions" relating to the humane treatment of prisoners of war.
The result of all this was the gradual expulsion of Austria from "cis Alpine" territory--i.e., from the Valley of the Po and the area between Milan and Venice. Venice, however, wasn't secured from the Austrians until 1866. Within a few years after Solferino and Magenta, however, Italy became a unified country, even though Italy still remains a land of considerably different and unique regions.
So, there you have it. From towns to battle sites important for Italian (and European) history, to Geneva conventions and the Red Cross, to the discovery of new colors--colors that still grace our spectrum. Thanks again for joining me on this geographical journey of words.