Degree Date



Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


History of Art


In central Italian paintings from 1300 to 1550, “cangianti”—draperies modeled with two or more hues— have long been considered formal devices invented around the time of Giotto to compensate for a limited palette; rare instances of textural intent are thought to have occurred only towards the end of the period in question. Little serious consideration has been given to seta cangiante —shot silk, also known as iridescent or changeable silk—the actual fabric that shares its name and appearance with these fictional draperies.

I have explored the relationship between seta cangiante and cangianti in paintings from three very different perspectives: the assumptions and linguistic errors that led to the original, misleading conclusions advanced by John Shearman, on which much subsequent scholarship was based; the philosophical arguments that purportedly deterred painters from mixing pigments to increase the range of colors available to them; and the presence and importance of silk in Italy during the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Chapter 2 examines prior scholarship, including significant contributions by Marcia B. Hall and John Gage, which reached a peak in 1990 when Michelangelo’s newly cleaned Sistine Chapel frescoes were revealed.

Chapter 3 begins with a survey of ancient Greek concepts of color, especially those of Empedocles, Plato, Aristotle, and Theophrastus, whose ideas were inseparable from theories of sight. To gain a better understanding of their theories, I investigated color vision, color perception, and color naming. The hypotheses of Brent Berlin and Paul Kay shed light on the philosophers’ theories and on Apelles’ four-color palette as well, both of which influenced the practice and theory recorded centuries later by Cennino Cennini, Leon Battista Alberti, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Chapter 4 traces the path of the Bombyx mori silkworm from ancient China through Rome and Byzantium to the city-states of Italy. Beginning in the 13th century, panni tartarici found their way to Europe via Mongol envoys; these cloths of silk and gold inspired the industries in Lucca, Florence, and Venice to great heights of creativity and skill. The ambiguities surrounding certain cloth names, including purpura, are discussed in this chapter; byssos and bukalamun are treated separately in an appendix.

In most cases, painted cangianti represent sete cangianti. In the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo transformed that equation from material to transcendent.


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