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When scanning over the (dreadful and upsetting) news this morning, a wacky and funny story jumped out at me from amidst all of the grim happenings: fruit merchants in Japan auctioned off some grapes for a record high price!  A bunch of approximately 30 “Ruby Roman” grapes sold for 1.1 million yen (which is equal to approximately $11,000.00).  Even considering today’s high food prices and Japan’s astringent import rules (aka crooked tariffs), $365.00 per grape is an appallingly high price!  What is going on? And what are “Ruby Roman” grapes?

rubyroman

Paying astronomically high prices for high-status foods is sort of a Japanese food tradition—like hotdog contests or giant pumpkin weighing in America. Merchants or wealthy patrons buy up ceremonial first fish or crops in order to gain prestige and whip up public attention (from all the way across the ocean in this case). The buyer of these particular grapes, Takamaru Konishi, plans on showing the expensive fruit in his shop before parceling them out to special customers and patrons.

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Ruby Roman grapes are a special Japanese variety of red grape which each grow to the size of ping pong balls. Viticulturists began developing this new variety of grapes in 1992 by hybridizing and selecting certain strains of Fujiminori grapes.   In 2008 the new giant red grapes hit shops…provided the fruit met the hilariously strict Japanese agricultural guidelines for what constitutes “Ruby Roman.”  To quote Wikipedia:

Every grape is checked strictly to guarantee its quality, with certification seals placed on those thus selected. The Ruby Roman has strict rules for selling; each grape must be over 20g and over 18% sugar. In addition, a special “premium class” exists which requires the grape to be over 30g and where the entire fruit bunch must weigh at least 700g. In 2010, only six grapes qualified for premium status while in 2011, no grapes made the cut.

Wow! Maybe these grapes are worth $365.00 each! Or maybe this is another goofy publicity stunt for lazy reporters.  If so, count me in!

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Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Last week Ferrebeekeeper featured a delicate porcelain cup from the Ming Dynasty. I was going to let you think about it for a while before showing more Chinese porcelain, but the news of the world has intervened with my plans. Behold the famous Meiyintang Chenghua Chicken Cup which was made in mid 15th century China.

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Made of delicate white paste porcelain, the cup is quite charming. A bold rooster struts vainly through a garden of prayer stones and red flowers while a pragmatic hen snatches up bugs with her beak. Around the pair is a little flock of endearing chicks. The scene is almost exactly copied on the opposite side (as you can see in this futuristic albeit mildly sinister wrap-around photo).

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

The cup has spawned countless imitations—you could go to a Chinese market and buy endless chicken cups of plastic and porcelain for not very much money. Yet the reason that the original cup has made waves in the international news is not because of its beauty or its legacy but instead because of the sky high price which it commanded at auction today (April 8, 2014) in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s auction house reports that the chicken cup sold for a record 36 million US dollars (well, really 281.2 million Hong Kong dollars to be exact). For comparison Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars (although if we adjust for inflation, that price goes up a good deal).

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The cup was made in the Ming dynasty during the reign of Emperor Chenghua (who ruled from 1464-1487). Emperor Chenghua was the father of the renowned and righteous Hongzhi Emperor whose reign was a high water mark for the Ming. The story of Emperor Hongzhi’s boyhood however is one of terror and fear. The young crown prince was nearly snuffed out by the infamous Lady Wan, an imperial concubine of Emperor Chenghua who tried to consolidate power by surreptitiously killing off all of the emperor’s male heirs (and all of his other favorite concubines to boot). The turmoil and corruption at court spread far and wide.

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

I wonder if the unknown artisan—or team of artisans—who made this little cup were thinking about the problems in the imperial court and in society as they churned out a big batch of chicken cups long ago. I also wonder how they would react to the fact that this one somehow survived more than 500 years of war, upheaval, and change to end up being sold for more than a lord’s estate.

A few weeks ago, during Holi, I dedicated a week to blogging about color.  The subject was so vivid and enjoyable that ferrebeekeeper is now adding a color category.

I’ll begin today’s color post with a myth about Hercules (or Heracles), the quintessential Greek hero, whose name appeared again and again when discussing the monsters born of Echidna.  But how is it that the warrior and strongman belongs in a discussion concerning color?  A myth attributes the founding of one of the classical world’s largest chemical industries to Hercules—or at least to his dog.  According to Julius Pollux, Hercules was walking on the shore near the Phoenician city Tyre and paying court to a comely nymph.  While he was thus distracted, his dog ran out and started consuming a rotten murex which was lying on the beach (a tale which will sound familiar to any dog owner). The mutt’s ghastly repast caused his muzzle to be stained a beautiful crimson purple, and the nymph promptly demanded a robe of the same color as a lover’s present from Hercules.

La Découverte de la Pourpre (Peter Paul Ruben, ca. 1636, oil sketch)

Rubens painted a sketch of this vivid scene on wood but, unfamiliar with marine biology, he drew some sort of gastropod other than a murex. The gist of the scene however is comprehensible and correct.  Tyrean purple, the most expensive and sought after dye of classical antiquity was a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland of one of several predatory gastropods from the Murex family.   Haustellum brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma seem to be the murexes which were most used for this purpose in the Mediterranean dye industry but many other murexes around the world produce the purple discharge when perturbed. Archaeological evidence suggests that the dye was being harvested from shellfish as early as 1600 BC on Crete as a luxury for the Minoan world.

The mucous secretion of a murex: the snail s use the discharge for hunting and to protect their eggs from microbes

Since more than ten thousand murexes were needed to dye a single garment, the color remained one of the ultimate luxuries of the classical world for millennia to come. Tyrian purple was the color of aristocracy and the super elite.  To produce the richest tyrian purple dye, manufacturers captured and crushed innumerable murexes, the remains of which were left to rot. The precious purple mucous oozed out of the corpses and was collected by unfortunate workers until enough was produced to dye a garment.  Since this process was malodorous (at best), whole sections of coast were given over to the industry.

Only a handful of individuals could afford the immense costs for this material and sumptuary laws were passed proscribing the extent of to which it could be used.  In later eras it was reserved for the exclusive use of emperors and senators.  By Byzantine times, purple had become synonymous with imperial privilege. Emperors were born in porphyry rooms and swathed for life in crimson-purple robes.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian the Great

The actual color is not what we would now consider purple, but rather a glorious rich burgundy with purple undertones. The industry was destroyed when French aristocrats of the misbegotten fourth crusade invaded and conquered Constantinople at the beginning of the 13th century.  The brilliant scarlet/purple hue was still in demand for the regalia of European kings and queens (a recreation of the characteristic hue should be familiar to readers as the velvet used in many crowns). But these scarlet and purple dyes lacked the glorious richness and the famous colorfastness of tyrian purple. During the middle ages, after the fall of Constantinople, royal crimson was obtained from insects and lichen. It was not until the great chemical revolution of the 19th century that purple clothing became available to everyone.

Tyrian Purple

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