In the sixteenth century, one of the world’s most precious commodities was cochineal, a dye treasured by the ancient Mexicans and sold in the great Aztec marketplaces, where it attracted the attention of the Spanish conquistadors. 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. As the English, French, Dutch, and other Europeans joined the chase for cochineal -a chase that lasted for more than three centuries- a tale of pirates, explorers, alchemists, scientists, and spies unfolds. A Perfect Red Book evokes with style and verve this history of a grand obsession, of intrigue, empire, and adventure in pursuit of the most desirable color on earth.
The color red has represented many things, from the life force and the divine to love, lust, and anger. Up through the Middle Ages, red held a place of privilege in the Western world. For many cultures, red was not just one color of many but rather the only color worthy enough to be used for social purposes. In some languages, the word for red was the same as the word for color. The first color developed for painting and dying, red became associated in antiquity with war, wealth, and power. In the medieval period, red held both religious significance, as the color of the blood of Christ and the fires of Hell, and secular meaning, as a symbol of love, glory, and beauty. Yet during the Protestant Reformation, red began to decline in status. Viewed as indecent and immoral and linked to luxury and the excesses of the Catholic Church, red fell out of favor. After the French Revolution, red gained new respect as the color of progressive movements and radical left-wing politics.
Before the Cochineal discovery in the 16th century, Red color was used for carpets and kilims with madder roots. Anatolia was probably the original home of madder, but the natural distribution includes Caucasus, Iran, and western Central Asia, as far as the northwestern Himalayas. The Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans used madder as a dyestuff. The Romans were the first to bring the plant to Central Europe. Then the Arabs brought it again to Europe, to Moorish Spain. (The old trading name for madder, “alizari”, includes the Arabis article “al.”) as early as 800 AD. In our carpets’ shades of red, violet, and orange colors, we are using Anatolian Rubia Tinctorium with very good lightfastness.