A Favorite from 2012

A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield

  • 338 pages (261 pages absent the extensive notes and the index)
  • Short sections within chapters, but pick quiet reading opportunities to really connect the dots

In the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadors found cochineal in the marketplaces of the Aztecs. The red dye produced by cochineal produced a truer and more consistent red than did the madder used in Europe to that point. European nobility began to use the rich scarlet produced by cochineal as a symbol of rank, and demand for the dyestuff soared. With that, the Spanish monopoly on cochineal—its origins a closely guarded state secret—created the nation’s fortune. Prominent individuals of all kinds tried to penetrate the Spanish monopoly over the years, ranging from explorers to scientists whose names still pop up in high school chemistry texts.

Greenfield’s book assembles some famous names and events into cogent story about the dye industry and the world economy. Robert Boyle, Carl Linnaeus and Leeuwenhoek fit into the natural science part of the cochineal story, and the tremendous amount of money they stood to gain for unraveling the mystery of this economic marvel explains their interest. Titian and Rembrandt painted with cochineal, something most artists could not have afforded to do. They were motivated to do so to capture the brilliant reds of the clothes their patrons wished to show off in their portraiture. The index for this book reads like a who’s who for a couple of centuries.

Following a single historical thread (excuse the pun), Greenfield treats us to a story that crosses multiple disciplines, geographic borders and centuries. Her beautifully conducted research yields some great stories of spying, science and intrigue. However, settle in with this book prepared to make some marginal notes to help keep names and timelines straight.

madelinetosh / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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