A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield won wide praise from reviewers when it was published in 2005. Without question, it is a jaunty, entertaining and informative book.

Yet, there is an awkwardness at its core.


It is a book about the dyestuff cochineal which, when it arrived from the New World in the 16th century, “was the closest thing Europe had ever seen to a perfect red.”

Previously, textile makers and painters had used a variety of red dyes, the best of which were St. John’s blood (later called Polish cochineal) and Armenian red (later called Armenian cochineal). Garfield writes:

But cochineal had three advantages that St. John’s blood and Armenian red lacked.

First, cochineal insects produced their carminic acid with far fewer lipids than did the plump little Armenian insects, whose fat melted in the dyepot and sometimes coated the threads of silk preventing the fibers from fully absorbing the dye. Second, cochineal could be more efficiently produced than either…, and it could be harvested several times a year.

Third — and most important — cochineal yielded far more powerful dye than any of the Old World reds. Though roughly similar in cost, ounce for ounce, it was ten times more potent than oak-kemes and St. John’s blood. It produced up to thirty times as much dye per ounce as Armenian red — a fact which must surely have caused dyers to marvel.


“Fraught with Cutchannel”

Greenfield writes of the economic bounty that cochineal represented for Spain as one of the most profitable imports from that nation’s American territories.

John "Jack" Donne

John “Jack” Donne

Which meant it was also a prime target for pirates or the pirate-like privateers such as the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, the favorite of Queen Elizabeth I in her later years. When Essex set sail in the summer of 1597 to prey on Spanish ships filled with silver, cochineal and other treasures, one of his contingent of 1,000-plus men was 25-year-old Jack Donne.

Later in life, that youth was known as John Donne, the metaphysical poet and Episcopalian cleric. His poetry, employing the creative spelling of his era, included these lines:

Pirats which doe know
That there come weak ships fraught with Cutchannel,
The men board them.

Cochineal wasn’t only the target of pirates, but also speculators. Greenfield tells of the successful effort of two mercantile families — the Capponis of Florence and the Maluendas of Burgos — to corner the cochineal market in 1587:

What made the Capponi-Maluenda cartel so successful was the fact that cochineal had become indispensable to the production of high quality-fabric. As early as 1550, many fashionable Europeans were insisting that their red cloth be made with cochineal.

Demand grew rapidly over the next few decades, making the dyestuff’s conquest unusually swift and complete: by 1580, cochineal had driven the traditional kermes reds to the fringes of the European textile market. The priest’s red velvet chasuble, the dandy’s red satin sleeves, the nobleman’s red-silken draperies, and the countess’s red brocade skirts — all were now colored with cochineal.


“A grubby and infested plant”

To protect its profits, Spain warily guarded its cochineal secrets while other European powers sought to break the Spanish stranglehold, even to the point of employing spies and smugglers. But with little success.

Carl Linneaus

Carl Linneaus

Indeed, for more than two centuries, non-Spanish naturalists debated whether the source of cochineal was an insect or a berry or a “wormberry,” an amalgam of the two. Even when they finally figured out that cochineal was the product of a small fly that lived on a certain type of cactus, their efforts at obtaining some for their own use often came to naught.

In one case, Daniel Rolander, a disciple of the great Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus, found a wild variety of the cochineal bug in 1755 and moved heaven and earth to get it to his mentor:

When he sent the cactus to Linnaeus’s greenhouse, however, the great botanist was not there to meet it. Instead the cactus fell into the hands of one of Linnaeus’s gardeners, who knew a grubby and infested plant when he saw one. He decided the cactus must be cleaned immediately.

Only after the gardener had painstakingly removed and killed each insect did Linnaeus arrive on the scene…By his own account, the ruin of his hopes gave him a “dreadful fit” of migraine.


Hidden from public view

A Perfect Red is filled with many such anecdotes, and they enable the reader to glide through some 500 years of history. Yet, for me, they weren’t enough to paper over the awkwardness of Greenfield’s story.

Here’s the problem: Using Greenfield’s anecdotally rich approach, one could write a jaunty, entertaining and informative book about a lot of products from the New World — gold, silver, the potato, the tomato, the strawberry, cocoa, tobacco, rubber and more — and employ some of the same characters, including Linnaeus and Charles V of Spain and Sir Francis Drake.

Each of these products had an important impact on Europe, and each probably has one or more books about that impact, along the lines of A Perfect Red.

The potato — which became a food staple in the Old World and is credited with playing a key role in the 19th century population boom in Europe — is the subject of at least two relatively recent works: Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent by John Reader (Yale University Press, 2011) and The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World by Larry Zuckerman (Faber & Faber, 1998).

Greenfield’s difficulty is that, unlike the potato and the tomato and all the others, much about the use of cochineal was hidden from public view. Textile makers — and painters, too — created all sorts of reds, using recipes that called for all sorts of dyes. Including St. John’s blood, Armenian red and cochineal from America. They didn’t advertise their recipes or their techniques for fear of giving a step up to their competitors.


Not the end product

And something even more significant: Eighteenth-century Europeans who wanted to eat a potato would grow one or buy one, cook it and take a bite out of it. But it was different with cochineal.

Cochineal wasn’t the end product. If 18th-century Europeans wanted to buy something that had been colored red, they would buy, generally, based on how beautiful the color was and how well it fit their pocketbooks. Sometimes, this fabric, say, would have been colored by using cochineal, but beautiful red fabric could also be made with St. John’s blood or Armenian red. Some rich folk, it is true, might demand fabric made with cochineal, but many wouldn’t.

Yes, demand for cochineal did “grow rapidly,” but the dye never replaced others completely. For one thing, it was very expensive. For another, it wasn’t perfect for all reds in all situations.

For instance, cochineal was used to make the red coats of the British Army — but not all of the red coats, by any means. Greenfield notes:

It was under Oliver Cromwell, shortly before the Restoration, that English army coats became red, and Cromwell specified that they be made in Gloucestershire, an area that was to become famous for scarlet woolens dyed with cochineal and tin.

While lower-ranking redcoats had to settle for less costly dyes like madder, Gloucestershire’s cochineal scarlet cloth was used to make many a British officer’s uniform over the next two centuries.


“Embattled Fort McHenry”

In 2005, when Greenfield’s book was published, relatively little research has been done to determine whether the red in a dress or a red coat or a painting was created through the use of cochineal or some other dye.

Much more work has been done over the past decade and is the subject of two more recent books: Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color by Elena Phipps (2010) and A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World — an Epic Story of Art, Culture, Science, and Trade, edited by Carmella Padilla and Barbara Anderson (2015).

padilla and phipps

A decade ago, the lack of this research hamstrung Greenfield. She could tell anecdotes about spies and pirates and naturalists and kings, but there were few things she could point to and say, “This was made with cochineal.”

One is a special American flag: “Various cochineal scarlets appeared in flags as well, including the star-spangled banner that flew over Baltimore’s embattled Fort McHenry n 1814, which gave rise to the national anthem of the United States.”

Star_Spangled_Banner_--- flag from Fort McHenry

Another was a Rembrandt masterpiece: “The cochineal lake that Rembrandt used in The Jewish Bride, for example, has given added depth and beauty to the bride’s red skirt for over three hundred years.”

Jewish bride.....large

Yet, such examples are rare in A Perfect Red.


Only 13 color images

Consider this: In a book about a perfect color, there is an insert of just eight pages featuring only 13 color images. Four of these images have to do with the cultivation of cochineal. The other nine exhibit in some way a vibrant red.

Of these, only two are identified as having been created with cochineal — Rembrandt’s Jewish Bride and a section of rich French fabric.

In addition, there are three paintings by Titian that date from the mid-16th century when cochineal was in wide use in the Europe, but neither Greenfield’s text nor the captions indicate that the dye was employed in these works. Given the paucity of images, it seems significant that no mention is made of cochineal in relation to these paintings.

This portrait of a man in a flamboyant red turban by Jan van Eyck --- used as the cover for both editions of A Perfect Red --- was painted in 1433, nearly a century before cochineal reached Europe.

This portrait of a man in a flamboyant red turban by Jan van Eyck — used as the cover for both editions of A Perfect Red — was painted in 1433, nearly a century before cochineal reached Europe.

Finally, there are three other works, all of which were created well before cochineal arrived in Europe, including a wonderful painting (possibly a self-portrait) by Jan Van Eyck of a man wearing a very elaborate and elaborately red turban. The image which also was used as the cover of the hardcover and paperback versions of A Perfect Red was created in 1433, nearly a century before anyone in Europe even knew American cochineal existed.

This is awkward. And, for some readers, it will bring some amount of frustration to the reading of A Perfect Red.

Nonetheless, while this may not be a perfect book, it did help to spur greater research into the presence of cochineal in a wide range of textiles and artworks now held in institutions across the globe.

And it is jaunty and entertaining and, as far as it can go, informative.

Patrick T. Reardon

Written by : Patrick T. Reardon

For more than three decades Patrick T. Reardon was an urban affairs writer, a feature writer, a columnist, and an editor for the Chicago Tribune. In 2000 he was one of a team of 50 staff members who won a Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting. Now a freelance writer and poet, he has contributed chapters to several books and is the author of Faith Stripped to Its Essence. His website is https://patricktreardon.com/.

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