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A Perfect Red [Hardcover]

Amy B Greenfield
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 14 2005

A Perfect Red recounts the colorful history of cochineal, a legendary red dye that was once one of the world's most precious commodities. Treasured by the ancient Mexicans, cochineal was sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519. Shipped to Europe, the dye created a sensation, producing the brightest, strongest red the world had ever seen. Soon Spain's cochineal monopoly was worth a fortune.

Desperate to find their own sources of the elusive dye, the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans tried to crack the enigma of cochineal. Did it come from a worm, a berry, a seed? Could it be stolen from Mexico and transplanted to their own colonies? Pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists, and spies -- all joined the chase for cochineal, a chase that lasted more than three centuries. A Perfect Red tells their stories -- true-life tales of mystery, empire, and adventure, in pursuit of the most desirable color on earth.


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From Publishers Weekly

"Elusive, expensive and invested with powerful symbolism, red cloth became the prize possession of the wealthy and well-born," Greenfield writes in her intricate, fully researched and stylishly written history of Europe's centuries-long clamor for cochineal, a dye capable of producing the "brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen." Discovered by Spanish conquistadors in Mexico in 1519, cochineal became one of Spain's top colonial commodities. Striving to maintain a trade monopoly, Spain fiercely guarded the secrets of cochineal cultivation in Mexico and only after centuries of speculation (was the red powder derived from plant or animal?) did 18th-century microscopes bring the mystery to light. Greenfield recounts the wild, clandestine attempts by adventurer naturalists to cultivate both the cochineal insect and its host plant, nopal, beyond their native Mexico, acts of folly driven by the desire for scientific fame and commercial profit. Greenfield's narrative culminates in the 19th-century discovery of synthetic dyes that, for a period, eclipsed cochineal. However, as she explains, owing to its safety, cochineal is back to stay as a cosmetics and food dye. Greenfield's absorbing account encompasses the history of European dyers' guilds, the use of pigments by artists such as Rembrandt and Turner, and the changing associations of the color red, from the luxurious robes of kings and cardinals to its latter-day incarnation as the garb of the "scarlet woman." 8 pages of color illus. not seen by PW.Agent, Tina Bennett.(May 2)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Pirates! Kings! Beautiful ladies! Daring spies! Elements essential for a page-turning action/adventure thriller, yes, but who would think they'd turn up in a scholarly examination of a little-known substance called cochineal? It is responsible for producing that elusive shade of red deemed vital for dyeing royalty's robes, and the quest for this coveted resource involved some of history's most infamous episodes and ignoble scoundrels. Native to Mexico, the scale insect cochineal was first harvested as a dyestuff by the ancient Aztecs, and once its properties were discovered by European conquistadors, it became the quarry in an international race to obtain a monopoly on its production. As first Spain, and then England, France, and Holland entered the race to procure this precious commodity, nothing less than the way in which the New World was conquered and the Old World prospered was at stake. The granddaughter and great-granddaughter of dyers, Greenfield combines the investigative prowess of a detective with the intellectual reasoning of an academician to create an eminently entertaining and educational read. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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First Sentence
FORTY MILES WEST OF FLORENCE, IN A fertile Tuscan valley not far from the Mediterranean Sea, lies the serene and sunlit city of Lucca. Known throughout the region for its trade in olive oil, flour, and wine, modern-day Lucca is not much more than a provincial market town, but its great piazzas, Romanesque churches, and medieval towers bear mute witness to a more illustrious past. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Informative AND a page-turner June 26 2007
Format:Hardcover
Mainly a reader of Canadian literature and some historical fiction, I don't think I've ever read a non-fiction, historical book so quickly. Not only is it a seemingly thorough history (spanning ~ 500 years) of cochineal, it is a beautiful story that captures the imagination.

As someone with little formal education in European history, but a fan of it all the same, I found the book quite valuable in that it touched on many areas: the Spanish Empire, colonialism, the scientific revolution, Renaissance artists, of course the textile industry.... etc., etc.

Not limiting herself to recounting dry, historical transactions, Greenfield seems to extract from her reference documents the actual personalities of the various players in cochineal's history. Overall, an excellent read that I would recommend to anyone!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Red makes the world go round Aug. 26 2010
By bernie TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This book, "A Perfect Red" by Amy Butler Greenfield, takes us to many of secure worlds while showing us the economic and psychological histories of the color red. Much more than the color red, she shows how these economies created wars and alliances. She also covers commerce and the distribution of plants and animals as it is seen from the color red. The focus is not as narrow as it sounds and much of this can be applied to other plants and colors.

Mrs. Greenfield starts out in her book with justification for why she's following the color red. Some of these justifications are very thin. But once you get into the details of the book you will be absorbed and as much as you think you know about history, commerce, agriculture, botany, and politics there is always something new to be learned. Somehow I lived my whole life without ever hearing about cochineal (a type of red dye) and variants.

This book is so well written in such detail that you almost want to go out and try some of the experiments with your own creating of the color red.

If you enjoyed this book and the many adventures that Amy Greenfield carries you through then you will also enjoy reading "Green Cargoes" by Anne Dorrance.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A compelling read March 1 2006
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
In my opinion, it's well researched and I found it a compelling
read. Like most textile related histories, it reminded me of the PBS
series "Connections".
The index and bibliography seem inclusive but somehow she kept indigo
and woad out of the story but that's ok because they have their own
books. She does include Perkin's purple.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Perfect Red Oct. 25 2009
Format:Paperback
An excellent explanation of the importance of red, from the Roman Empire through the conquest of Mexico by Cortes and beyond. It is full of explanations of how red is a descriptive word in our modern language and it is well written and easily read. I enjoyed this book very much and learned about something that I may have otherwise taken for granted and never really given much thought to. Highly recommended for artists, fabric dealers and history buffs.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A passionate history of the elusive red dye Aug. 28 2012
Format:Hardcover
This non-fiction book reads like a good historical fiction novel. The narrative is well-written, comprehensive & addictive. As a lover of the color red, I was excited to learn about cochineal & the extraordinary challenges people endured to acquire it. It's made me appreciate how lucky I am to live at a time when red dyes are cheap & accessible.
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