For thousands of years artists met with disappointment as they tried to reproduce the flaming scarlets and deep crimsons they saw in nature. The best red these artists knew was ochre, the Cro-Magnon’s pigment, which produced a color that was muddied with orange and brown… cinnabar, mercuric sulfide… was expensive, poisonous, and had a disconcerting propensity to turn black with exposure to light… As far as Europe was concerned, the only trouble with cochineal was that Spain controlled the supply… Kings, haberdashers, scientists, pirates and spies—all became caught up in the chase for the most desirable color on Earth.
—Prologue to A Perfect Red, Amy Butler Greenfield
The words “crimson” and “vermilion” both mean a shade of scarlet, and both carried connotations of royal or Churchly authority in the Middle Ages. Both words have a root meaning of “worm.” Cochineal, the red dye brought by Spaniards from Mexico to Europe, takes its name from a common Spanish euphemism for wood lice, cochinilla. The royal purple (actually, this was probably dark red) of the Roman Caesars was made from a shellfish.
Until coal-tar synthetic dyes were discovered in the 19th century, the rich red colors of blood and power were obtained from various insects of the scale family, or from Murex and Purpura shellfish. Rare and difficult to gather, these dye materials were expensive. If you could afford red ribbons, you were well-to-do. The truly wealthy had entire garments in various shades of red.
So closely did this color become identified with authority that Medieval sumptuary laws prescribed what kind and color of dress, and of what quality, might be worn by particular classes. Red garments were reserved for royalty and the upper “nobility” of the Catholic Church, although red sleeves might be worn by lesser nobles. Commoners had to settle for the duller earth-tones produced by vegetable dyes.
To this red-classified society, the well-developed Mexican cochineal industry, acquired during the Spanish Conquista, promised incredible wealth. Curiously, Greenfield points out, at first the conquistadores did not realize the potential of cochineal. Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (and Charles I of Spain), loaded with debts incurred in managing the loosely-associated principalities and kingdoms of his empire, was more interested in gold and silver, and in converting the Indians of Mexico to Catholicism. Spanish soldiers, “paid” by encomienda grants to whatever they could obtain from their Mexican properties, did not know enough about the dye trade to recognise the treasure on the Mexican cactus, or were uninterested in the slow cultivation of and cyclical market for cochineal.
But European dyers (even the French, whose nationalistic preference for French-grown madder root—which produced only orange and reddish-yellow shades—was enforced by edict) wanted the superior red and longer-lasting dye-fastness of the cochineal dyestuff, particularly for coloring silk. Within two decades, demand for the New World dyestuff had spread as far as China.
At first, traders simply went to Mexico and made deals for the cochineal with the Indian dye-traders. Phillip II, inheriting debt-laden Spain upon the abdication of his father Charles, passed a law against foreign trade in cochineal, punishable by death, and commanded the loading of treasure ships from “New Spain” with gold, silver—and cochineal. Then, as John Donne observed, came pirates, who “doth know / That there come weak ships fraught with Cutchannel, / That men board them.” We think of pirate treasure as gleaming gold “pieces of eight”; actually, it was just as likely to be bags of tiny black grains, dried cochineal insects.
When Napolean swept into Spain in the 18th century and installed his brother Joseph as King, he hoped to acquire the lucrative New World trade with that victory. Unfortunately, famine in Mexico, and the increasing ascendance of British sea power, prevented him from realizing that profit. (And his successors in France, in the age of the guillotine, would prefer the proletariat reds that could be produced from French madder.) Mexico’s hard-won independence from Spain might have signalled the rebirth of the cochineal industry, its monopoly in different hands, except for one significant development.
The insect had escaped Mexico’s borders.
This book may remind you of Mark Kurlansky’s epic Salt: A World History, in the way it traces the far-reaching impact of a single commodity. From the discovery of progressively-better dyes to create the desired rich red colors, to the political and social upheavals that accompanied (or were caused by) them, A Perfect Red is a sumptuous trip through history, wrapped in crimson silk, and tied with a big red bow.