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.
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 (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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April 24, 2006
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