Although scarlet is the colour of sin in the Old Testament, the ancient world’s elite was thirsty for red, a symbol of wealth and status. They spent fantastic sums searching for ever more vibrant hues, until Hernán Cortés and the conquistadors discovered an intoxicatingly saturated pigment in the great markets of Tenochtitlan, modern-day Mexico City. Made from the crushed-up cochineal insect, the mysterious dye launched Spain toward its eventual role as an economic superpower and became one of the New World’s primary exports, as a red craze descended on Europe. An exhibition at Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes museum reveals the far-reaching impact of the pigment through art history, from the renaissance to modernism.

In medieval and classical Europe, artisans and traders tripped over each other in search of durable saturated colors and – in turn – wealth, amid swathes of weak and watery fabrics. Dyers guilds guarded their secrets closely and performed seemingly magical feats of alchemy to fix colours to wool, silk and cotton. They used roots and resins to create satisfactory yellows, greens and blues. The murex snail was crushed into a dye to create imperial purple cloth worth more than its weight in gold. But truly vibrant red remained elusive. Read more