Purple is a paradox, a contradiction of a colour. Associated since antiquity with regality, luxuriance, and the loftiness of intellectual and spiritual ideals, purple was, for many millennia, chiefly distilled from a dehydrated mucous gland of molluscs that lies just behind the rectum: the bottom of the bottom-feeders. That insalubrious process, undertaken since at least the 16th Century BC (and perhaps first in Phoenicia, a name that means, literally, ‘purple land’), was notoriously malodorous and required an impervious sniffer and a strong stomach. Though purple may have symbolised a higher order, it reeked of a lower ordure.
It took tens of thousands of desiccated hypobranchial glands, wrenched from the calcified coils of spiny murex sea snails before being dried and boiled, to colour even a single small swatch of fabric, whose fibres, long after staining, retained the stench of the invertebrate’s marine excretions. Unlike other textile colours, whose lustre faded rapidly, Tyrian purple (so-called after the Phoenician city that honed its harvesting) only intensified with weathering and wear – a miraculous quality that commanded an exorbitant price, exceeding the pigment’s weight in precious metals.
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