The cochineal from Bosco Sodi to Tiziano

19 May 2022

The red colour used by the artist Bosco Sodi for the creation of the large round canvases during his residency at Palazzo Vendramin Grimani is a mixture of a pigment with American cochineal, which gives the characteristic carmine red hues.

Cochineal is extracted from a native beetle that lives on prickly pear cacti, originating in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. In ancient times, the Aztecs crushed the insect to extract cochineal powder, whose name is derived from the Spanish cochinilla. The Spanish conquistadors took possession of this method, first importing it into Spain in 1523 and then bringing it to the rest of Europe where it revolutionised the art of painting.

During the 16th century, the Serenissima was then able to offer its painters a vast selection of pigments from all over the world. In trade between the Americas and Europe - and particularly with Venice - cochineal was for a long time one of Mexico's most lucrative exports, more than gold and second only to silver, traded by the Spanish. Venetian dyers and painters were already using it in the 1640s, as is also testified by some paintings of the time, including the famous portrait of the Vendramin family in the National Gallery in London by Titian.

«My pigments are natural, they have complex histories. The red comes from cochineal, still produced in Oaxaca: it also inhabits Titian's canvases as an appropriation of the Americas» - Bosco Sodi

Tiziano started using cochineal in small quantities soon after its introduction and authorisation in the textile industry in Italy in 1543.

The Vendramin family venerating a relic of the True Cross (also Portrait of the Vendramin Family) is a large painting by the 16th century Venetian master Tiziano and his workshop, executed in the early 1540s. The canvas was commissioned by the patrician Vendramin family and depicts, as was Venetian custom, only the male members of the dynasty. It depicts the brothers Andrea and Gabriele Vendramin and Andrea's seven sons.

Several layers of red from Mexican cochineal have been found on this canvas dating from the period 1543-1547, especially on the main figure Andrea Vendramin (located to the right of the group of children). Tiziano was a pioneer in the use of this new pigment from America.

Today at Palazzo Vendramin Grimani, some of Sodi's paintings strongly incorporate the Mexican cochineal. Bosco Sodi at Palazzo Vendramin Grimani. What Goes Around Comes Around is intended to be a historical-artistic intervention that brings not only the pigment but also the Mexican artist back to the shores of Venice, in an old fondaco house and trading post.

Find out more about Bosco Sodi