A Perfect Red

Since the Middle Ages, Western societies have been fascinated by brightly colored, especially red, clothing. In A Perfect Red, historian Amy Butler Greenfield, the granddaughter and great-granddaughter of dyers, traces the lengthy European quest for the source of a perfect red, with success finally being found in sixteenth century Mexico.

“An affinity for red seems almost hard-wired into us,” writes Greenfield. As proof, she explains that most languages had a word for red before any other colors except black and white. Various cultures from the time of the Neanderthals have had strong psychological, religious, and political associations with the color. Primitive societies equated red with magical powers, from curing illnesses to exorcising demons, and most cultures have associated it with courage, danger, violence, war, divinity, martyrdom, sin, or passion. Greenfield is most interested in red as a symbol of wealth, power, and status.

Since the Cro-Magnons used ochre in their cave paintings, a perfect red has been sought for use in art and commerce. Cinnabar was used in ancient Chinese scrolls and on the frescoed walls of Pompeii, but this source of a brilliant red was expensive and poisonous. It often turned black when exposed to light. By the thirteenth century, the center of the red world was Lucca, near Florence, where elaborately designed taffeta, damask, and brocade fabrics were created. The heavily controlled Lucchese silk trade prescribed death for anyone trading outside the city during the Renaissance, when textiles became a major European industry as merchants and lawyers emulated the fashions of the aristocrats and people of lower status bought more and more cloth. In Renaissance Europe, gray and beige were the colors of poverty, and bright clothing became a symbol of power.

A major drawback to the increasing popularity of bright colors was the instability of dyes made from plants. Few textiles could hold up to extensive wear and washing. Chemical binding agents known as mordants helped dyes adhere to cloth, but each produced different colors from the same dyestuff. The dyeing process itself was expensive. In fourteenth century Italy, most dyers’ equipment cost four hundred gold florins at a time when a small farm could be bought for twenty florins. In the fifteenth century, the scarlet cloth worn by England’s Henry VI cost more per yard than a month’s wages for a master mason. The expense was part of the attraction, and Renaissance artists and merchants wore scarlet turbans as proof of their success. During a 1525 revolt in Germany, peasants demanded the right to wear red.

Europe’s most common source of red, madder, had been used in ancient China and Egypt but was unstable, often resulting in coral and russet colors rather than the desired crimson and scarlet. Some dyers tried to improve it by combining madder with rancid olive oil, cow dung, and even blood, but the quality suffered. Other sources of red included archil, made from lichens found on coastal rocks; lac, made from an insect found in Asia; and oak-kermes, derived from a similar insect. The reds they produced varied in quality and were expensive. For Florence dyers, kermes red could cost ten times that of sky blue.

The major breakthrough finally occurred in 1519 when Spanish conquistadors in Mexico found Aztecs selling cochineal. A member of the scale family, cochineal insects are a third of the size of ladybugs and range from silver-gray to red-black. The insect feeds exclusively on the branches of cacti known as nopals or prickly pears. The female cochineal insect spends its whole life eating and produces carminic acid to ward off ants and other predators. This acid also produces a blood-red dye that adheres to cloth better than any other natural source of red.

Some evidence indicates use of cochineal as a dye in Mexico two thousand years ago. In addition to growing beans, maize, and squash, Mexican farmers discovered how to breed cochineal insects for size and color. Greenfield describes the harvesting and drying process in which seventy thousand dried insects produced one pound of cochineal. Aztecs were especially fond of red and used cochineal, called “blood of the nopal,” to dye the feathers used in their colorful costumes. Aztecs also added cochineal to foods and medicine, practices that soon extended to Europe.

Hernán Cortés, leader of the Spanish expedition to Mexico, was amazed by the colors on display in marketplaces and notified his sovereign, Charles V. The first shipment of cochineal to Spain...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)