We can thank Magenta, Italy, a quiet town outside Milan, for the name of the color that isn’t really any color at all, but a trick of the eyes. And, actually, it’s probably the French not the Italians we should be thanking. To be honest, it’s all a little confusing, but we’ll try to sort it out!
First, let’s take a look at the event that catapulted Magenta into infamy: The Battle of Magenta, fought on the outskirts of the town during the Second Italian War of Independence. Some historians say the Battle of Magenta was a turning point in the war. That’s all well and good, of course – but how did the color magenta get its name from this battle, what do the French have to do with it, and what was that about it not being a color at all?
As it turns out, the town of Magenta, and the eponymous battle was fought the same year that a synthetic aniline dye called fuchsine was invented. In fact, it was the first synthetic dye ever made – prior to this, all dyes had come from natural sources such as plants, animals and minerals. But as handmade rugs from the East gained popularity, the need for cheaper dyes that could be produced easily became a priority.
Shortly after this dye was invented, the color was renamed magenta. Now, here’s where the French come in. The color reminded someone – most likely the person who named it – of the uniforms worn by the Zouave troops of the French army that fought in the Battle of Magenta. There were no photographs at that time, naturally, but paintings of the Zouave troops as well as depictions of the battle featured their brightly colored, baggy pants.
So if magenta was named after the color of some French pants in an Italian town, why is there any debate as to whether or not it exists? After all, these aren’t the emperor’s new clothes – we can all agree that the French weren’t fighting pantsless!
Don’t worry. Magenta really is a color – at least on paper, and in cans of paint, and on your computer screen. Where it does not actually exist, though, is in the light spectrum visible to humans and gives a name to what our eyes are telling us we’re seeing.
In the spectrum there is violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange and red – but there definitely is no pink, known among scientists as the slang word for magenta. When we see magenta, we’re actually seeing both ends of the light spectrum – violet and red – and our brain is inventing magenta all on its own!