In the sixteenth century, one of the world's most precious commodities was cochineal, a legendary red 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 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.
A Perfect Red
Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire
The Dryer's Lot
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. Eight hundred years ago, Lucca was a power to be reckoned with: its luminous silks, dyed in jewel-like tones, were one of the wonders of the thirteenth century. No one on the Continent could equal them, though many tried. Sold only by Europe's most exclusive merchants, Lucchese silks included smooth taffetas, intricate damasks, and elaborate brocades figured with fleur-de-lis, griffins, dragons, peacocks, and even entire hunting scenes. All were fabrics fit for noblemen, princes, and kings.
Advantageously situated on a major road between Rome and northern Europe, Lucca enjoyed peace and prosperity for many years. Like most Tuscan towns, however, it had its share of long-standing family feuds. These quarrels blazed into open warfare in 1300, intertwining with a larger struggle that was raging throughout much of Tuscany, forcing many people, including the poet Dante, to flee the region. A rich prize in a troubled land, Lucca found itself under frequent attack from both without and within. The violence culminated in 1314, when a band of Lucchese exiles joined a Pisan army and sacked the city, robbing, raping, and murdering their enemies.
Fearing for their lives, many of Lucca's dyers and silk workers fled to Venice, a neutral city a hundred miles away. The Council of Venice offered the refugees generous loans, but to no one's surprise there was a catch to the deal; the Venetians, after all, hadn't created an empire out of their swampy archipelago by giving their money away. Eager to learn the secrets of Lucchese silks, they required the refugees to repay the loans, not in cash but in Lucchese goods and tools.
Destitute, many refugees accepted these terms. In doing so, however, they betrayed their city and put their own lives in peril. They would spend the rest of their days with a bounty on their heads, because Lucca's guild laws prescribed death for any Lucchese practicing the silk trade outside the city. According to statute, the men were to be strangled, the women burned.
Lucca's draconian guild laws were a sign of the times, for textiles were a matter of life and death in Renaissance Europe. In many ways, they were to the Renaissance what computing and biotech are to our own time: a high-stakes industry rife with intense rivalries and cutthroat competition -- an industry with the power to transform society.
With textiles, the transformation began in medieval times and accelerated after 1350. Aristocrats who survived the Black Death had inheritances to spend, and rising merchants and lawyers were eager to ape their fashionable ways. As each tried to outdo the other, they insisted on wardrobes far larger and fancier than their grandparents had known; their houses, too, were more extravagantly furnished. People of lesser station were also buying cloth at market stalls and clothier's shops -- and buying more of it as the decades wore on. Bolt by bolt, their purchases helped fuel the rise of Europe.
Like the spice trade, the textile industry created new markets and trade networks, but its importance did not end there. Spices were usually grown and processed in the Far East, but textiles were something Europeans could produce for themselves, and for this reason their impact on Europe was more profound. Textiles spurred the invention of new technologies -- new types of spinning machines, new methods for bleaching -- and shaped the very pattern of work itself.
By the fifteenth century, hundreds of thousands of Europeans, from humble shepherds to great merchants, made a living from textiles, and many a nobleman depended on the wealth they created. Because each step in the cloth-making process was handled by different craftsmen, more than a dozen people could be involved in fashioning a single piece of fabric. The silk workers of Lucca, for example, included in their ranks a host of specialized workers: reelers to unwrap the cocoons, throwers to twist the thread, boilers to clean it, dyers to color it, and warpers and weavers to turn the thread into cloth.
Wool, the most common fiber in Europe, required even more specialization. After shepherds raised the sheep and shearers fleeced them, washers cleaned the raw wool and carders pulled the fibers apart with bristles. Spinners spun those fibers into yarn with distaffs and spindles and passed the yarn to the weavers, who wove it into cloth. Wool cloth then had to be "finished," a process that involved fullers or "walkers" who washed the fabric in troughs of water treated with fuller's earth, a mineral compound that promoted absorption. (Many walkers trampled the mixture into the cloth with their bare feet, but prosperous fullers kept their boots on and used a millwheel and hammers instead.) The soaking-wet cloth was then hung out on wooden frames called tenters; tenterhooks held the fabric fast and stretched it to the right dimensions as it dried. While still damp, the cloth could be brushed and sheared several times for a finer, softer nap. The fabric was then handed to the dyers. Although dyers usually worked with finished cloth, sometimes they treated the unspun wool instead, a costly practice that yielded the most intense and enduring colors and gave us the expression "dyed in the wool."
No matter what fiber was used, the textile industry required immense amounts of skilled labor, which is why textiles were a lifeline for many communities. A thriving cloth business meant jobs, and jobs meant coins in the purse and food on the table. If the business faltered or failed, people went hungry and lost their homes ...A Perfect Red
Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire
. Copyright © by Amy Greenfield. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield
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