Paintings in the 16th century were characterized by the increasing use of color. Masters from the provinces of the Italian Peninsula travelled to Venice, where color merchants offered items from all kinds of different places. These included pigments, varnishes, and other products they needed for their work, as well as tools to extract and apply them.
Its use in European and Mexican paintings can be seen through scientific studies done on five oil paintings in the Soumaya Museum's collection. Given their authorship and importance, these pieces chronicle the aesthetic contribution that cochineal made to the creative process.
Besides cochineal, the other red pigments found were alizarin (a colorant that is extracted from the root of the madder plant) and brazilein (made from brazilwood, a tree belonging to the Papilionaceae family).
Three samples analyzed under Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS) revealed carminic acid—which is characteristic of cochineal—in "Portrait of Giovanni Paolo Contarini" (1594), by Domenico Robusti, who was known as Tintoretto.
The SERS test, based on the scattering of monochromatic light projected onto the components, identified the presence of cochineal on "Ecce Homo" (circa 1670), by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.
High-Performance Liquid Chromatography (HPLC) is another technique that separates the components in a mix. Cochineal and brazilein were detected using this method in "Portrait of the Cardinal-Infante Fernando of Austria," by Peter Paul Rubens, produced around 1630.
Cochineal was detected in "Judith with the Head of Holofernes," produced by Paolo Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese) around 1570, using SERS and HPLC analysis, and alizarin was detected using HPLC.
"The Holy Family with Mary Magdalene," produced by Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco), is representative of the innovative palette he was using around 1610–14, as a result of incorporating cochineal. The various shades of red were produced by changing the dye's pH by adding different chemical compounds to the mixture.
During the period of the Italian cinquecento, in the 16th century, Venetian painting reached international acclaim thanks to its color palette, and even became known as "tonal painting." It flourished through a combination of artistic genius, creative collaboration among various professions, and efforts by merchants and travelers to bring the "perfect color" to art.
Based on texts on the use of cochineal in Soumaya Museum works by Mónica López Velarde and Raquel Gutiérrez Morales, in the monthly magazine in December 2017; and "Colorantes, Tintes y Pigmentos en Venecia" (Colorants, Dyes, and Pigments in Venice) by Sergio Sandoval Arias and Carolina García Torres, in the monthly magazine, September 2018. Soumaya Museum, Carlos Slim Foundation.