In 1776, a French spy went to Oaxaca in Spanish-held Mexico. He was there to steal a treasure — a tiny bug called cochineal.
The female of this insect species had been used in the Americas since at least the second century B.C. to provide a rich red dye, particularly for textiles. Following the arrival of the Spanish in the 1520s, it became an important trade good.
Indeed, Elena Phipps writes in her 2010 book Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color, “[B]y the mid-sixteenth century the Spanish flotillas that traveled annually between the Americas and Spain were bringing literally tons of the dried insects to Europe.” In one year alone, 72 tons of the dried bodies of cochineal was shipped from Lima to Spain. “Cochineal, along with gold and silver from the Americas,” Phipps notes, “enabled the Spanish Crown to finance its empire…”
Throughout human history, red has been among the most highly prized colors because it’s so difficult to achieve. Phipps delineates the many means used to create red dye, such as minerals, and notes, “The most brilliant crimson red dye, however, was obtained from a group of scale insects of the superfamily Coccoidea.”
And the most brilliant dye from that family was produced by the American cochineal bug. There are also two other, lesser cousins — Polish cochineal and Armenian cochineal. Phipps writes:
None of the beautiful red dyes produced from the Old World parasitic insects, however, could match the deep crimson color, ease of use, and abundant supply of the dye extracted from Dactylopius coccus, an American species of the same superfamily Coccoidea, that yields more red colorant than any of them.
Over the past half century — and especially over the last decade — there has been a growing study of the use of cochineal in fabrics and artworks to determine age and to gain a glimpse into the cross-cultural influence of the tiny bug. The Spanish shipped cochineal home where it was distributed throughout Europe. It was also put on ships heading back to the Americas and also to the Far East.
In 2005, Amy Butler Greenfield published A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, a popular account of cochineal that one reviewer called “a fascinating history of dyeing, as craft and culture.”
In September of this year, a much different book was published 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. A lavishly illustrated, large-format book, it includes the work of over 40 scholars, including Phipps and Greenfield, who present their findings about cochineal from rigorous scientific and historical studies.
Published midway between those two, Cochineal Red uses the mammoth collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Phipps had worked for over 30 years, as a lens to examine many of the cultural and artistic uses of the dye.
For instance, the cover of the book is a detail from an item in the Met’s collection — “a tapestry-woven coca bag with a large-winged and masked figure on either side that dates to the fifth or sixth century” in Peru.
Around the globe, cochineal had various names. In China, it was called “foreign red.” In Italy, “insect red.” In Northern Europe, it was called “Dutch scarlet” (because of the dyeing industry in the Netherlands) and “fire scarlet.”
Cochineal was widely used by the elite of the Incan society, and that red was described at times as “earth red” and “blood red.” It was an important cultural color, Phipps writes.
In the realm of Inca ritual and religious worship, red garments were signals to the gods. During the Inca ritual of capacocha young women dressed in red and white garments were sacrificed to Ilyapa, the lightning god who lived on the high mountaintops.
“A long and glorious history”
Among the many cochineal-dyed items from the Met’s collections illustrated in this 48-page book are tunics, mantles and tapestries, including The Bridal Chamber of Herse (about 1550), believed to have been designed by Giovanni Battista Lodi da Cremona and woven in the workshop of Willem de Pannemaker.
The dye was also used in paintings to provide subtle shadings, as in the dark background of Rembrandt’s Aristotle with a Bust of Homer (1653) and in a shadow in Van Gogh’s Shoes (1888), both from the museum’s holdings.
Summing up the impact of the insect dye, Phipps writes:
Cochineal is a humble insect with a long and glorious history, and the treasures dyed and painted with its brilliant red hues bear witness to the contribution it has made to art and commerce throughout the world from antiquity to modern times.
That pretty much says it all — except to finish the story about the cochineal thief.
His name was Nicolas-Joseph Thiery de Menonville, and, during his visit to Oaxaca, he “managed to buy live insects and some of their host cacti and then to smuggle his treasure first to Veracruz and then by seat to the French colony of Saint-Dominque (now Haiti).”
But then his luck ran out. He died. And the bugs failed to prosper.
Patrick T. Reardon