A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire

4.5 4
by Amy Butler Greenfield
     
 

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In the sixteenth century, one of the world's most precious commodities was cochineal, a legendary red dye treasured by the ancient Mexicans and sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strongest red the world had ever seen. Soon Spain

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Overview

In the sixteenth century, one of the world's most precious commodities was cochineal, a legendary red dye treasured by the ancient Mexicans and sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strongest red the world had ever seen. Soon Spain's cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune. As the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans joined the chase for cochineal — a chase that lasted for more than three centuries — a tale of pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists, and spies unfolds. A Perfect Red evokes with style and verve this history of a grand obsession, of intrigue, empire, and adventure in pursuit of the most desirable color on earth.

Editorial Reviews

Diane Ackerman
“Fascinating...Greenfield has given us a superbly researched history of cochineal red, full of angles and tangents, curiosities and arcana.”
J. H. Elliott
“A fascinating story of greed and subterfuge, mixing fashion, folly and ingenuity in equal measure... Written with style and verve.”
Mark Pendergrast
“A marvelous book... Meticulously researched, this saga will enchant lovers of historical mysteries, fascinating characters, and world economics.”
Boston Globe
“[An] intricate history...Greenfield paints a broad historical panorama, never neglecting the intimate, eccentric, and often absurd human details.”
San Diego Union-Tribune
“A gem of accessible history.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Delightful, rollicking history . . . A fun read, well-supported by extensive research.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Greenfield does what the best historical authors do—follows the thread of a story through history without missing a stitch.”
Houston Chronicle
“With A PERFECT RED, she does for [red] what Mark Kurlansky in SALT did for that common commodity.”
Publishers Weekly
Elusive, expensive and invested with powerful symbolism, red cloth became the prize possession of the wealthy and well-born, Greenfield writes in her intricate, fully researched and stylishly written history of Europe's centuries-long clamor for cochineal, a dye capable of producing the brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen. Discovered by Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in 1519, cochineal became one of Spain's top colonial commodities. Striving to maintain a trade monopoly, Spain fiercely guarded the secrets of cochineal cultivation in Mexico and only after centuries of speculation (was the red powder derived from plant or animal?) did 18th-century microscopes bring the mystery to light. Greenfield recounts the wild, clandestine attempts by adventurer naturalists to cultivate both the cochineal insect and its host plant, nopal, beyond their native Mexico, acts of folly driven by the desire for scientific fame and commercial profit. Greenfield's narrative culminates in the 19th-century discovery of synthetic dyes that, for a period, eclipsed cochineal. However, as she explains, owing to its safety, cochineal is back to stay as a cosmetics and food dye. Greenfield's absorbing account encompasses the history of European dyers' guilds, the use of pigments by artists such as Rembrandt and Turner, and the changing associations of the color red, from the luxurious robes of kings and cardinals to its latter-day incarnation as the garb of the scarlet woman. 8 pages of color illus. not seen by PW. Agent, Tina Bennett. (May 2) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A user-friendly treatise on the color red and one of its most pleasing forms of transmission, a once-coveted dye. Children's author Greenfield (Virginia Bound, 2003, as Amy Butler) comes from a family of dyers, and, as she writes, "perhaps it's simply that color is in my blood." Certainly she brings a practitioner's knowledge to her study of cochineal, a dyestuff that the Spanish conquerors discovered in the great marketplaces of Mexico and soon brought to a world hungry for things red. Cochineal is a kind of tiny parasitic insect-"Six of them could fit quite comfortably along the length of a paperclip," Greenfield writes, "provided they didn't fall through the middle first"-that feeds on prickly pear cactus. Such plants are abundant in Mexico, where the conquistadors quickly became aware that ground-up cochineal, rich in pungent carminic acid, yielded a dye that, applied to mordanted cloth, would remain bright red for centuries. Red being the color of wealth and power, and cochineal being "the closest thing Europe had ever seen to a perfect red," the stuff soon became a prized commodity, a source of sustenance for Mexican Indian peoples and of wealth for the traders who spread it throughout the Old World. Naturally, as Greenfield writes, other powers sought to get a piece of the action; the English tried to introduce smuggled cochineal to Australia, which succeeded only to the extent that prickly pear became a troublesome weed there for generations, while the Dutch managed to start an industry in Java and the Spanish established plantations in the Canary Islands. The world market declined, Greenfield concludes, when, along about the 19th century, democratic blue and ascetic blackreplaced red as the color of choice in Europe for all but monarchs and cardinals. A smart blend of science and culture, pleasing to readers of Mark Kurlansky, Philip Ball and other interpreters of how the things of daily life, past and present, came to be. Dyers will enjoy it, too.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060522766
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
04/25/2006
Edition description:
REPRINT
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.79(d)

Meet the Author

Amy Butler Greenfield's grandfather and great-grandfather were dyers, and she has long been fascinated by the history of color. Born in Philadelphia, she grew up in the Adirondacks and graduated from Williams College. As a Marshall Scholar at Oxford, she studied imperial Spain and Renaissance Europe. She now lives with her husband near Boston.

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