A Tourbook Written in Crayon

For a child, a box of Crayola crayons can be a wondrous thing. When I was in elementary school, I was particularly taken with burnt sienna. It was neither brown nor red, but seemed taken from the earth, and it had the most beautiful name. I was reminded of my early curiosity and respect for that color recently, as I stood on top of the walls of Siena's Museo dell'Opera, high above the Piazza del Duomo, and looked out over the city spread below. At first, all I saw was a dull sea of brown, but then it began to take shape and gain heft. The brown became warmer, redder, and splintered into dozens of tones. I thought of burnt sienna, and suddenly the association between a crayon and a city did not seem silly or strange. Afterward, walking through the cramped streets of the town's historic center, I saw echoes of the color everywhere. There were the brick-red chevrons of the sloping Piazza del Campo, the town's spectacular medieval square, and the Palazzo Pubblico, burnished in afternoon light. Apartment buildings were sepia, their undulating roofs an orangey red. In the middle of such a rich but narrow chromatic range, Siena's magnificent black-and-white-striped cathedral, the Duomo di Siena, stood out even more awesomely than it would in the drabness of another city. It was a zebra amid roans, a monument to God amid the buildings of men.

Burnt sienna is elemental—it comes from roasting a pigment mined from the earth. (This, of course, does not make it unusual: as anyone who's ever gotten a grass stain knows, most colors originated not in a Crayola factory but as flower petals, or dirt, or ore.) Creating burnt sienna requires heating a particular iron-oxide pigment (terra di Siena, or land of Siena). The name refers to a specific color, which the enchanted tourist's eye can glimpse in the blocks of baked clay that give Siena its consistent hue. In 14th-century Siena es-pecially, brick was the primary material used in building, for matters of convenience, cost, esthetics—and law. The city's Council of Nine supported churches by giving them an annual allocation of bricks, established a statute in 1309 ordaining that domestic architecture should be built of brick, and paved the Campo and major streets with fired clay soon after.

Nineteenth-century tourists, infatuated with a certain ideal of Italy, were the ones to give "burnt sienna" an air of romance. In his travelogue Pictures From Italy, Charles Dickens—perhaps with a sly poke at the Anglo-American obsession with the exotic "other"—described "two burnt-sienna natives with naked legs and feet, who wear, each, a shirt, a pair of trousers, and a red sash, with a relic, or some sacred charm like a bonbon off a twelfth-cake, hanging round the neck." These visitors gave a pleasant but typical shade of brownish brick-red a local habitation and a name, and, with that mysterious past participle "burnt," a kind of story. They connected the color to a place with a rich history, and so gave it overtones of art, God and struggle.

In 2003, in honor of its centennial, Crayola held a contest in which voters could save one of five soon-to-be-discontinued colors—burnt sienna, blizzard blue, teal blue, magic mint and mulberry—from retirement. More than 60,000 votes were cast, and burnt sienna won. The contest cannot exactly claim a place in the long line of battles fought over Siena's land, but it seemed a kind of victory, all the same.

Join the Discussion