The putative photoprotective role of foliar anthocyanins continues to attract heated debate. Strikingly different experimental set-ups coupled with a poor knowledge of anthocyanin identity have likely contributed to such disparate opinions. Here, the photosynthetic responses to 30 or 100% solar irradiance were compared in two cultivars of basil, the green-leafed Tigullio (TG) and the purple-leafed Red Rubin (RR). Coumaroyl anthocyanins in RR leaf epidermis significantly mitigated the effects of high light stress. In full sunlight, RR leaves displayed several shade-plant traits; they transferred less energy than did TG to photosystem II (PSII), and non-photochemical quenching was lower. The higher xanthophyll cycle activity in TG was insufficient to prevent inactivation of PSII in full sunlight. However, TG was the more efficient in the shade; RR was far less able to accommodate a large change in irradiance. Investment of carbon to phenylpropanoid biosynthesis was more in RR than in TG in the shade, and was either greatly enhanced in TG or varied little in RR because of high sunlight. The metabolic cost of photoprotection was lower whereas light-induced increase in biomass production was higher in RR than in TG, thus making purple basil the more light tolerant. Purple basil appears indeed to display the conservative resource-use strategy usually observed in highly stress tolerant species. We conclude that the presence of epidermal coumaroyl anthocyanins confers protective benefits under high light, but it is associated with a reduced plasticity to accommodate changing light fluxes as compared with green leaves.