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

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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'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 ...

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A Perfect Red

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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'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.

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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.”
Diane Ackerman
Greenfield has given us a superbly researched history of cochineal red, full of angles and tangents, curiosities and arcana. Some anecdotes bog down, but most are sprightly and charming. I enjoyed learning, for example, that when 25-year-old John Donne (later to win fame as a poet) joined a massive expedition under the command of the earl of Essex, he and his fellow sailors returned home with a dusty fortune pillaged from Spanish galleons: 27 tons of pirated cochineal.
— The Washington Post
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: 4/25/2006
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 239,912
  • 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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Table of Contents

Prologue : the color of desire 1
1 The dyer's lot 5
2 The color of the sun 18
3 An ancient art 34
4 The emperor's new dye 45
5 A profitable empire 53
6 Cochineal on trial 69
7 Legacies 87
8 Trade secrets 102
9 Pirates' prize 110
10 Wormberry 125
11 Through the looking glass 143
12 A curious gamble 157
13 A spy in Oaxaca 165
14 Anderson's incredible folly 183
15 Red and revolution 198
16 Scarlet fever 209
17 A lump of coal 221
18 Renaissance dye 235
Epilogue : cheap color 248
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First Chapter

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

Chapter One

The Dryer's Lot

Forty miles west of Florence, in a fertile Tuscan valley not far from the Mediterranean Sea, lies the serene and sunlit city of Lucca. Known throughout the region for its trade in olive oil, flour, and wine, modern-day Lucca is not much more than a provincial market town, but its great piazzas, Romanesque churches, and medieval towers bear mute witness to a more illustrious past. Eight hundred years ago, Lucca was a power to be reckoned with: its luminous silks, dyed in jewel-like tones, were one of the wonders of the thirteenth century. No one on the Continent could equal them, though many tried. Sold only by Europe's most exclusive merchants, Lucchese silks included smooth taffetas, intricate damasks, and elaborate brocades figured with fleur-de-lis, griffins, dragons, peacocks, and even entire hunting scenes. All were fabrics fit for noblemen, princes, and kings.

Advantageously situated on a major road between Rome and northern Europe, Lucca enjoyed peace and prosperity for many years. Like most Tuscan towns, however, it had its share of long-standing family feuds. These quarrels blazed into open warfare in 1300, intertwining with a larger struggle that was raging throughout much of Tuscany, forcing many people, including the poet Dante, to flee the region. A rich prize in a troubled land, Lucca found itself under frequent attack from both without and within. The violence culminated in 1314, when a band of Lucchese exiles joined a Pisan army and sacked the city, robbing, raping, and murdering their enemies.

Fearing for their lives,many of Lucca's dyers and silk workers fled to Venice, a neutral city a hundred miles away. The Council of Venice offered the refugees generous loans, but to no one's surprise there was a catch to the deal; the Venetians, after all, hadn't created an empire out of their swampy archipelago by giving their money away. Eager to learn the secrets of Lucchese silks, they required the refugees to repay the loans, not in cash but in Lucchese goods and tools.

Destitute, many refugees accepted these terms. In doing so, however, they betrayed their city and put their own lives in peril. They would spend the rest of their days with a bounty on their heads, because Lucca's guild laws prescribed death for any Lucchese practicing the silk trade outside the city. According to statute, the men were to be strangled, the women burned.

Lucca's draconian guild laws were a sign of the times, for textiles were a matter of life and death in Renaissance Europe. In many ways, they were to the Renaissance what computing and biotech are to our own time: a high-stakes industry rife with intense rivalries and cutthroat competition -- an industry with the power to transform society.

With textiles, the transformation began in medieval times and accelerated after 1350. Aristocrats who survived the Black Death had inheritances to spend, and rising merchants and lawyers were eager to ape their fashionable ways. As each tried to outdo the other, they insisted on wardrobes far larger and fancier than their grandparents had known; their houses, too, were more extravagantly furnished. People of lesser station were also buying cloth at market stalls and clothier's shops -- and buying more of it as the decades wore on. Bolt by bolt, their purchases helped fuel the rise of Europe.

Like the spice trade, the textile industry created new markets and trade networks, but its importance did not end there. Spices were usually grown and processed in the Far East, but textiles were something Europeans could produce for themselves, and for this reason their impact on Europe was more profound. Textiles spurred the invention of new technologies -- new types of spinning machines, new methods for bleaching -- and shaped the very pattern of work itself.

By the fifteenth century, hundreds of thousands of Europeans, from humble shepherds to great merchants, made a living from textiles, and many a nobleman depended on the wealth they created. Because each step in the cloth-making process was handled by different craftsmen, more than a dozen people could be involved in fashioning a single piece of fabric. The silk workers of Lucca, for example, included in their ranks a host of specialized workers: reelers to unwrap the cocoons, throwers to twist the thread, boilers to clean it, dyers to color it, and warpers and weavers to turn the thread into cloth.

Wool, the most common fiber in Europe, required even more specialization. After shepherds raised the sheep and shearers fleeced them, washers cleaned the raw wool and carders pulled the fibers apart with bristles. Spinners spun those fibers into yarn with distaffs and spindles and passed the yarn to the weavers, who wove it into cloth. Wool cloth then had to be "finished," a process that involved fullers or "walkers" who washed the fabric in troughs of water treated with fuller's earth, a mineral compound that promoted absorption. (Many walkers trampled the mixture into the cloth with their bare feet, but prosperous fullers kept their boots on and used a millwheel and hammers instead.) The soaking-wet cloth was then hung out on wooden frames called tenters; tenterhooks held the fabric fast and stretched it to the right dimensions as it dried. While still damp, the cloth could be brushed and sheared several times for a finer, softer nap. The fabric was then handed to the dyers. Although dyers usually worked with finished cloth, sometimes they treated the unspun wool instead, a costly practice that yielded the most intense and enduring colors and gave us the expression "dyed in the wool."

No matter what fiber was used, the textile industry required immense amounts of skilled labor, which is why textiles were a lifeline for many communities. A thriving cloth business meant jobs, and jobs meant coins in the purse and food on the table. If the business faltered or failed, people went hungry and lost their homes ...

A Perfect Red
Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire
. Copyright © by Amy Greenfield. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 4 )
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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 23, 2014

    I had read this book about a year ago.  On a recent trip to Colo

    I had read this book about a year ago.  On a recent trip to Colonial Williamsburg the weaver and I discussed the book and others asked us for the name.  I gave it to my husband to read and didn't see him for two days!  I have never seen him read a book like that. He  the in-depth history that you don't get in school.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2007


    This is a very interesting look into a part of history that is not usually mentioned in the common textbook. Very well written!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted August 25, 2014

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