I am doing a project on paint pigments. An obvious part of the introduction is the origins of the various pigment names.

I read in Wikipedia that:

"During the Roman Empire, the term minium could refer either to the pigment made from ground cinnabar or to the less expensive red lead. The name came from the river Minius in Iberia (now forming part of the Spanish-Portuguese border and known as Miño or Minho), located near the main Roman cinnabar mines."

Really? Pliny in Natural History (sometime before 79 AD) mentions the main mine to be in Sisapo in Spain. This is further south than Madrid. The River Minius is in Galicia in the northwest of Spain, and its southernmost limit is now the border with northern Portugal. It is hundreds of miles away. Why would you name a pigment after a geographic feature so far away, with no association to the mine?

Moreover, I can't find a primary reference for this coinage. Pliny doesn't mention it (although he does mention much confusion about the interchangeable names applied to several red pigments in the 1st century AD). Neither is this naming derivation mentioned by relatively modern writers such as Cennini (Il libro dell’arte, 1437), or really modern writers such as Fitzhugh in (Artist's Pigments, A handbook of their history and characteristics, Vol 1, Ed. R L Feller, 1986).

In fact, the only thing resembling a reference is a paper by Barnett, Miller & Pearce "Colour and art: A brief history of pigments" (Optics & Laser Technology 38 (2006) 445–453), where they state:

"Red lead is a form of lead oxide (Pb3O4) and is found as the mineral minium after the River Minius in northwest Spain."

They don't give a reference for this coinage either.

I don't claim to have checked every primary reference, textbook, PhD thesis or research paper in existence (although not for lack of trying. This search has been ongoing for over a month!). But unless someone can tell me otherwise, this naming of red lead after a river looks like a questionable conjecture that has somehow morphed into "fact".

Does anyone out there have any definitive information either way?

[The tags for this question are not much use. This is because I can't make up my own tags due to a lack of reputation so I had to use the least badly fitting tags already available. If a moderator wants to replace "Painting" with "Paint" and add "Pigment" and "Minium" to the tags, that would be really helpful.]

1 Answer 1


Abelardo Moralejo Laso addressed the etymology of the river's name in the 1980 article "Notas acerca de la hidronimia galega" (pp. 167-170). You are correct that there is no cinnabar near the Miño River, and there are competing etymologies for the river's name. Moralejo Laso notes that the word "minium", ostensibly for cinnabar, was also often used for other reddish minerals such as almagra or ochre, which do occur in northwestern Spain, citing dictionaries exhibiting the ambiguity in the term. He cites A. Tovar, who concluded that "admitting barely any doubt" the names of the mineral and the river are linked etymologically (although one other author links it to a river in Tuscany instead), and that the root of the Miño's name may have once meant "mineral" in general.

  • Aaron. Huge thank you for this. I will need to use Google Translate on the article as I don't speak Spanish. (This is also why I would never have found or understood the article that you have linked to). It's looking very much like scholarly conjecture, but that's fine. I simply want to report the facts as they exist, so now I can reasonably state that it's "...very likely,,," , then quote the original source. Thanks again for being so knowledgeable and so quick with the reply! Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 9:15
  • @BarryStone You are welcome. Moralejo Laso's is a dense article, and the citation to Tovar actually looks to be in German. I don't actually know if these authors are the finest Latin etymologists, but the matter of the mineral ambiguity seems open and shut. Commented Apr 18, 2020 at 23:18

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