Tractatus physicus de Cochinilla. Christoph Friedrich RICHTER.
Tractatus physicus de Cochinilla
Early Treatise on the American Red Dye Cochineal
With Fine a Folding Engraving
[Americana] / [Cochineal].
Leipzig, C. Fleischer, 1701.

Tractatus physicus de Cochinilla.

8vo [17 x 10.5 cm], (1) f. title, 59 pp., (1) f. integral blank, with (1) folding engraving, woodcut initials and tailpiece. Bound in contemporary red and gold brocade paper over pasteboards, paper spine, paper shelfmark label laid to spine, red and blue sprinkled edges. Some rubbing, edge wear, staining and worming to covers, with some losses at lower extremities of spine. Minor internal toning.

Very rare first edition of this early treatise on all aspects of the American dyestuff cochineal, including the most recent discoveries obtained through microscopic observation (by Antonie van Leeuwenhoek and others) and illustrated with a folding engraving depicting the cochineal insects themselves and the species of cactus which they inhabit. Long prized for its brilliant red color, cochineal often had been written about in Europe since the early 16th century, but the present work by C. F. Richter (1701) is one of the first, if not the first published monograph devoted exclusively to the topic. The 18th century would see an increasing effort in Europe to break the Spanish monopoly on the import and cultivation of this valuable commodity, culminating in the French botanist Nicolas-Joseph Thiéry de Menonville’s infamous smuggling in 1776 of cochineal insects and pads of the Opuntia cactus from Mexico.

Richter treats the etymology of the term ‘cochineal’ and its New World and European analogs (e.g., Nochextli, kermes, grana), the dye’s use among indigenous people of the Americas (e.g., the Mixtec of Mexico), issues of indigenous nomenclature (yztacnochtli vs. coznochtli vs. atlatocnochtli), early European writers on the topic (e.g., José de Acosta), European uses of the dye, and, crucially, recent scientific confirmation that cochineal was made from insects living on cactuses and not from berries or fruits of those plants.

“When the Spanish returned from Mexico in the 1520s with samples of a dye that produced the most intense and stunning red Europe had ever seen, it understandably caused a stir, and by 1550 the Spanish flotillas were hauling tons of the crimson treasure to Europe. Cochineal, produced from the dried and pulverized bodies of a cactus-eating scale insect, was in abundant supply and easy to use, and it quickly supplanted all other red dye stuffs … Pliny had described [Old World] kermes, or coccus, ‘a dye reserved for the military costume of our generals,’ as a berry that becomes a worm, a misconception that would persist until the cochineal insect was examined under a microscope and accurately described, first by Nicolaas Hartsoeker in 1694 and then, in even greater detail, by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek in 1704” (Phipps, pp. 2, 7); Richter in the present work of 1701 already cites Van Leeuwenhoek, as well as the observations of Robert Boyle and others. Richter’s fine engraving clearly illustrates the cactus and the insects in their various stages of growth and dessication.

Richter’s Latin treatise on cochineal was published in 1701 at the Leipzig press of Fleicher both as a 4to dissertation (under the title Dissertatio physica de Cochinilla) and as the present ‘popular’ 8vo-format Tractatus physicus de Cochinilla (text and engraving of the two works are identical). In 1703 the treatise was translated into German under the title Phisicalischer Tractat von der raren Conzenille (Leipzig, C. Emmerich).


OCLC locate just 1 U.S. example of the present Tractatus physicus de Cochinilla (Academy of Natural Sciences Philadelphia). The Dissertatio physica de Cochinilla is held at Cornell, Chicago, National Library of Medicine, Missouri Botanical, and Vermont. OCLC locates no U.S. examples of the 1703 German translation.

* A. B. Greenfield, Cochineal: A Perfect Red; E. Phipps, “Cochineal Red: The Art History of a Color,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 67, no. 3 (2010), pp. 4-48.

Price: $2,450.00

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