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  • Red: The History of A Color by Michel Pastoureau
  • Giovanna L. Costantini
Michel Pastoureau; translated by Jody Gladding. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, U.S.A., 2017. 216 pp., illus. Trade, paper. ISBN: 978-0-691-17277-4.

Red—the color of fire, fertility, blood and sacrifice, of passion, privilege, lust and revolution—remains today a powerful emotive agent, its complex semiology a testament to the color's universal symbolism and favor throughout the ages. Michel Pastoureau's stunning new book, Red: The History of a Color, his most recent addition to a series on the cultural history of color, continues an interdisciplinary investigation into the social history of color, one that takes [End Page 95] as its premise the position that color is a socially constructed concept, one whose vocabulary, codes and values, organization, and uses have been determined by distinct and identifiable cultures. As such, Pastoureau's narrative extends beyond color's physical properties as a component of light or physiological and psychological metrics to social customs, technical applications, religious and moral codes, artistic creations, and symbolic and lexical expressions in areas that merge at times with chemistry, economics, trade and technology. The author is particularly qualified to offer such perspectives, having conducted seminars on the subject at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales for over 30 years.

Arranged chronologically, the text spans subjects from Paleolithic cave paintings to Chinese parade photos, moving from the Hall of Bulls of Spain's Altamira caves, circa 15,000 BCE, to Rothko's twentieth-century abstractions. Pastoureau examines the composition of various pigments from plants and minerals and other organisms, such as hematite used in Pharaonic Egypt; the herb madder, popular during the Roman Empire; and kermes, a dye extracted from certain insects in the Mediterranean. This survey of red's usage in antiquity includes descriptions of the technical means used to transform elemental ores and animal or vegetable matter into pigments; dyeing processes; and artisanal practices as well as symbolic functions associated with funerary customs (red ochre burials), ritual observances (the rooster's red comb used in divination) and myth (association with the vital powers of Dionysus). According to Pliny's Natural History, red was reputed to come from the blood of dragons and elephants. Although the earliest history of dyeing remains speculative, cloth fragments recovered in tombs from the 3rd to the 1st millennium BCE provide evidence of materials such as henna, murex and carthamus traded throughout the Mediterranean basin. Roman Purple (purpura), a variation of red, was extracted from the glands of shellfish collected from Phoenicia and was reserved for the highest imperial authority, as reflected in the expression "to take the purple." Purple was expressly proscribed for those of lesser status, and Suetonius recounts that the son of King Juba II of Macedonia was put to death for being seen in Rome dressed entirely in purple. Ancient writers also commented on red's usage in cosmetics, as in Ovid's remark, "Your looks are aided by a dissembled art," or in Martial's remark to Galla, "Your face does not sleep with you."

Pastoureau devotes the core of his book to the Middle Ages, spanning the 6th to the 14th centuries, wherein he traces red's liturgical usage in Christianity, whose principal associations with red were sacrifice, redemptive blood/wine and the militant Church triumphant emblazoned as a red cross on the banners of Richard the Lionhearted and other knights of the Crusades. As the first color of heraldry, red was incorporated into coats of arms from the 12th to the 18th centuries in symbols of sanguine honor, vigor, justice, charity and courage. In Arthurian legends and chivalric romances "the lover," according to the Dutch medievalist Johan Huizinga, "wore the colors of his lady, companions the emblem of their confraternity, parties, and servants the blazons of their lords. A medieval town," he wrote in The Waning of the Middle Ages, "did not lose itself in suburbs and factories . . . girded by its walls, it stood forth as a compact whole" [1].

Pastoureau's survey—while it extends through the modern era from connotations of sin and luxury under...


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