Upon entering the lecture hall, I was handed a bag containing some measly dried scale insects and a piece of silk. The professor instructed us to add water and crush the exoskeletons. The significance? A vivid red quickly spread throughout the bag – the notorious cochineal dye that was once valued more than gold. An insect has never impressed me more.
Throughout much of the world, red represents events and emotions at the core of the human condition: danger and courage, revolution and war, violence and sin, desire and passion, even life itself…It is one thing, however, to assign meaning to a color; quite another to create the color itself. For thousands of years artists met with disappointment as they tried to reproduce the flaming scarlets and deep crimsons they saw in nature…
Elusive, expensive, and invested with powerful symbolism, red cloth became the prize possession of the wealthy and well born. Kings wore red, and so did cardinals. Red robes clothed the Shah of Persia, and in classical Rome red became so synonymous with status that the city’s most powerful men were called coccinati: the ones who wear red.
It was big news, then, when Spain’s conquistadors found the Aztecs selling an extraordinary red dyestuff in the great marketplaces of Mexico in 1519. Calling the dyestuff grana cochinilla, or cochineal, the conquistadors shipped it back to Europe, where it produced the brightest, strongest red the Old World had ever seen…Cochineal became Europe’s premier red dyestuff, and Spain made a fortune selling it to dyers around the globe.
As far as Europe was concerned, the only trouble with cochineal was that Spain controlled the supply, guarding its monopoly so jealously that the dyestuff’s very nature remained a mystery. Was cochineal animal, vegetable, or mineral? The best minds in Europe argued the point for more than two centuries.
Few, however, disputed the new dyestuff’s value. In an age when textiles were a major source of wealth, cochineal was big business. Determined to break Spain’s lucrative monopoly, other nations turned to espionage and piracy. In England, the Netherlands, and France, the search for cochineal soon took on the tone of a national crusade. Kings, haberdashers, scientists, pirates, and spies all became caught up in the chase for the most desirable color on earth.
The history of this mad race for cochineal is a window onto another world — a world in which red was rare and precious, a source of wealth and power for those who knew its secrets. To obtain it, men sacked ships, turned spy, and courted death. This is their story.”
Part of a shawl with chains of elytra (beetle wings). Brought in by a guest lecturer, for an unusual discussion of insects & art history.
New finding: UCD has an Entomology Museum with the 7th largest insect collection in North America. There are roughly 7 million bugs from all over the world.