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 2
by Amy Butler Greenfield
     
 

"A Perfect Red recounts the colorful history of cochineal, a legendary red dye that was once one of the world's most precious commodities. Treasured by the ancient Mexicans, cochineal was sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest,… See more details below

Overview

"A Perfect Red recounts the colorful history of cochineal, a legendary red dye that was once one of the world's most precious commodities. Treasured by the ancient Mexicans, cochineal was sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519. 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." Desperate to find their own sources of the elusive dye, the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans tried to crack the enigma of cochineal. Did it come from a worm, a berry, a seed? Could it be stolen from Mexico and transplanted to their own colonies? Pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists, and spies - all joined the chase for cochineal, a chase that lasted more than three centuries.

Editorial Reviews

Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Greenfield does what the best historical authors do--follows the thread of a story through history without missing a stitch.”
Boston Globe
“[An] intricate history...Greenfield paints a broad historical panorama, never neglecting the intimate, eccentric, and often absurd human details.”
Houston Chronicle
“With A PERFECT RED, she does for [red] what Mark Kurlansky in SALT did for that common commodity.”
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.”
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.
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.”

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780060522759
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
04/26/2005
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
5.62(w) x 8.25(h) x 1.13(d)

What People are saying about this

J. H. Elliott
“A fascinating story of greed and subterfuge, mixing fashion, folly and ingenuity in equal measure... Written with style and verve.”
Diane Ackerman
“Fascinating...Greenfield has given us a superbly researched history of cochineal red, full of angles and tangents, curiosities and arcana.”
Mark Pendergrast
“A marvelous book... Meticulously researched, this saga will enchant lovers of historical mysteries, fascinating characters, and world economics.”

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