Sunday, November 15, 2020

Weekend Review: A Red Like No Other


A Red Like No Other: How Cochineal Colored the World /
ed. by Carmella Padilla & Barbara Anderson
NY: Skira Rizzoli, c2015.
319 p.

Since I'm on the subject of colour this month, I finally brought this book home from the library to read -- I've been meaning to for years! But it's quite large and heavy, a classic art book, so I had put it off again and again ;)

But I'm glad I finally dug in, because it's fascinating, though the content is almost as heavy as the actual physical weight of it. It's a look at Cochineal through the ages, as the sub-subtitle says: an epic story of art, culture, science, and trade. 

It's an exhibition catalogue from an exhibit on the history of cochineal put on by the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe. And as such, it is packed full of amazing images from the exhibit, ranging over centuries, from prehistoric to modern uses, and examples of natural dyes used to create red tones revealing why cochineal was so prized for its stable reds and variety of shades it could produce. 

Of course, because it's a set of essays by over 40 scholars, there is no real narrative, just a loose arrangement of themes and timelines that combine to give a vast picture of the reach of cochineal in global history. The exhibit was inspired by the museum director reading a book called "A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and a Quest for the Color of Desire" by Amy Butler Greenfield. And if you're looking for more of an exciting narrative about cochineal, this is probably the one to reach for (I have my eye out for it now).

But this art book is full of fascinating historical information, and has exemplary illustrations -- I learned a lot about things I didn't even know I was interested in! One of the first essays was called "Three Reds: Cochineal, Hematite and Cinnabar in the Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican World" and I found it so intriguing. 

The book is broken up into 7 sections, and each is really a book in its own right. The 7 topics are all centred on cochineal -- the colour and the insect that creates it -- in varied time frames. Starting with Pre-Columbian & Early Contact Americas (since the source of cochineal is Mexico and South America), it moves to Global Trade, then Science, Textiles, European Art, the Colonial Hispanic Americas, and finally brings us to the Modern World. There are 4 - 6 essays in each section and the number of pieces contributed really gives a wide view of the topic. 

This is not a book that you're likely to read cover to cover, or in a weekend. But as a beautiful book to look through, dipping into different essays over a couple of weeks and picking up varied facts and enjoying the illustrations in particular, it's a good one. If it wasn't so expensive I'd say it would be a great coffee table book. As it is, I recommend that if you think this sounds good, you give your local library a go. Much more affordable that way! 


  1. This sounds fascinating! Forty scholars on this subject! Here in Phoenix everybody has cochineal in their gardens - some people don't like it and hose it off the prickley pears as soon as it shows up. Only the really dedicated natural dyers collect it and put in the effort to make the beautiful color.

    1. I didn't know that natural dyers still collect this to make dyes -- makes sense but what effort. Interesting that it's just in the garden ;) This book discusses the importance of this dye from every angle but doesn't talk about it in today's everyday world.


Share your comments, ideas or suggestions here -- I am always interested in hearing from readers. It's nice to have a conversation!