Tuesday, October 18, 2011
A Perfect Red
This is the story of a color – and of the lengths to which people went to discover, obtain, steal and synthesize it.
Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire spans the globe and history, beginning with the use of red ochre in Neanderthal rites. Mysticism and metaphor are bound up in this color, and more than one condemned aristocrat wore it to their executions.
Yet a bright deep true red was difficult to obtain, and for painters and dyers that made it all the more valuable. The best dye, though, was derived from the cochineal beetle native to what was, at the time, the Aztec Empire.
And so cochineal passed into the equally-reddened hands of the conquistadores, although most of them preferred gold. From then on it became part of a Spanish monopoly on dye, which the British countered with government-authorized piracy and the French with a spy. If you enjoy history, especially the dramatic swashbuckling aspects of history, this book is a great read, but what really kept me hooked was the introduction of science.
The scientists of that time tried to discover what exactly cochineal was – because after cargoes of dried beetles, smaller than peppercorns, had been stolen or intercepted, no one was quite sure what they were. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, who invented the first microscope, initially mistook them for seeds. As science became more advanced, though, dyes were synthesized—possibly the final blow to an industry that had survived warfare and espionage and biopiracy.
As well as being well-researched, this book is highly entertaining, with several chapters ending on cliffhangers. I even checked Amy Butler Greenfield’s website to see if she had written any other books which blended fashion, history, politics and science into such an absorbing read. Maybe a non-fiction version of The Color Purple? I’d buy it.