A Perfect Red, by Amy Butler Greenfield

That's not a beetle - it's a wormberry
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The Independent Culture

My name is red. The first question colour freaks ask on reading that sexy title is - hey, which red? Towards the orange red of oxygenated arterial blood or the blue tinge of veinous? Paint or dye?

My name is red. The first question colour freaks ask on reading that sexy title is - hey, which red? Towards the orange red of oxygenated arterial blood or the blue tinge of veinous? Paint or dye? And if dye, animal, vegetable or mineral anthraquinone? Was it lac resin, brazilwood, lichen orchil or Rubiae tinctorum radix - the madder root (as celebrated in Robert Chenciner's cultural and chemical masterwork, Madder Red)? Did it come from carminic acid-emitting insects found in Poland, Armenia or on Mediterranean Kermes oaks? Or was it the squirt of the precious bug that infests nopal - prickly pear - cactus in Central America and had been domesticated by successive local civilisations, who used its defensive secretion to tint featherwork ruddily, from the pink we think of as rosa Mexicana through to sacrificial blood-red?

That last is the beastie Greenfield biographs: the Aztec nocheztli, "blood of the nopal", a fractious, frail scale insect tenderly raised, mostly by the inhabitants of what is now the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, and brushed with respect into collecting pots before being dried, baked or steamed. The resulting grana - named because it looked like cereal grains - of the creature that the conquering Spanish referred to as cochineal could be soaked in water to yield a fast dye, likely towards the crimson end of the red spectrum. It was perfect for the high display of 16th-century Europe, when even those who favoured on their persons the novel drama of severe white linen with black wool or silk set off their monochrome by garbing their retinue, four-poster and hall walls in the most flagrant shades of red on the market. Once the conquistadores had deigned to notice indigenous Mexican products other than gold, and without themselves ever incarnadining their fingers, they remitted hundreds of thousands of pounds of the dye back to Europe, where it raddled ceremonies already massively shiny with New World gold and silver. Cochineal export quantities from the 1550s onwards, as listed by Greenfield, suggest much about the establishment of European traditions of red state robes, folk costumes, military dress uniforms, maybe even the idea of the red carpet as a synonym for occasion. (Although the odds have always been on tufts underfoot being dyed with madder, known as Turkey red because the carpetweavers of the Ottoman empire were so skilled in its employment.)

The Spanish tried to monopolise the European use of the new red, not very successfully given that the country's former eminence in textiles faded as its Jewish and Islamic craftsmen were expelled and their cultures suppressed. Anyway, quantities of the prized Cutchannel or cochinillo failed to reach Seville since, in the era of Elizabeth I's licensed pirates and privateers, entire cargoes of it were captured en route and diverted to England, there to rouge public show. Greenfield has a great quote from the renegade Catholic priest Thomas Gage, who swanked to a Spaniard that the English, through sea-raiding, "delighted to go in red, and to be like the sun" - like a fan boasting of his team's red strip.

Greenfield is at her best when her research turns up such gaudy and vaunting stories as Gage's swagger, or Frenchman Nicholas Joseph Thiery's 1770s bio-piracy of the bug on an indiscreet recce through forbidden Oaxaca; this, in its clatter from swashbuckle to catastrophe (once smuggled out of closed New Spain, the bloody things died in their zillions, and moreover their sustaining cactus rotted), would make a great movie. Others later aided the critters to escape Oaxaca for nopalries elsewhere. They chomped through India's cacti hedges but wouldn't nibble nopals planted in Australia for them, while Javanese rains washed them clean away. In time, their colour got the economies of Peru, Guatemala and the Canary Islands out of the red. Greenfield is also undaunted by science, writing well of the sustained dispute over whether cochineal was a dried fruit or a beetle, or that - alas non-existent - compromise, a "wormberry". The endearing microscope pioneer Antoni van Leeuwenhoek found first for the veg and then, peering closer, anatomised the animal exquisitely. The question was finally settled in 1729 when Amsterdam scholar Melchior de Russcher got the research done at source by proxy through sworn affidavits, to settle a bet.

However, in spite of her connection to a family dyeing firm, Greenfield lacks passion for textiles and dyes. Her writing is "colourful" - that lazy word for prolix style - not colour-filled, which would need precision and more delight. What, in Pantone numbers, was the shift in red between cochineal used neat and cochineal mordanted with tin? Was it the difference between tomato and chile? She repeatedly uses the adjective intricate - properly meaning entangled or involved - of cloths whose construction is simple; no matter how complicated the design of a tapestry, its weaving technique is over and under. Her chapter on synthetic coal-tar anthraquinones draws heavily on Simon Garfield's pallid book, Mauve, and she is perfunctory about Europe's competitive medieval textile industries, and the meaning of worn colour. That said, her coda on red's 19th-century fall from splendour among aspirant African-Americans is fresh and bright: coloureds were instructed to become blacks and greys. No more scarlet women.

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