Italian Renaissance Secrets Unlocked

I have long been curious about the fashion, herbalism, and beauty practices of the women who lived on the Italian peninsula during the Renaissance (1450 – 1600). I also have had chance to speak to a few of you on the book of faces and have had questions posed to me about recipes for various cosmetic procedures (dyeing hair, cleaning the face, adding color to the face). So, here, in this post I will assemble a few of the recipes that I have translated to English from original Italian extant books in Ferrara, Venice, and facsimiles on the Known World Web. Any errors in translation are my own (do let me know if you spot any!) and where noted I have used translations provided by other history enthusiasts.

First, I want to share with you my own preference, which is the advice from The Book of the Courtier (Il Libro di Cortegiano):

“Haven’t you noticed how much prettier a woman is if, when she makes up, she does so with so little that those who see her cannot tell whether she is made up or not? But others are so bedaubed that it looks like they are wearing a mask and dare not laugh because they fear it will crack. Such women never change color except when they dress in the morning, and must spend the rest of the day like motionless wooden images… How much nicer it is to see a woman, a good looking one, who obviously has nothing on her face, neither white nor red, but just her natural color, which may be pale or sometimes slightly tinged with a blush caused by embarrassment or the like, maybe with her hair tousled and whose gestures are simple and natural, without working at being beautiful.”

Now, on to the preferences of women in the various city-states of Italy. Simonetta Cattaneo de Candia Vespucci (nicknamed la bella Simonetta) was a noblewoman from Genova, the wife of a wealthy noble in Florence, and a celebrated beauty of the Italian Renaissance. She is likely the inspiration for the woman depicted in the 1482 Birth of Venus painting by Sandro Botticelli. La Bella Simonetta had all the features of their ideal beauty; wavy blond hair, high forehead, pale skin, long neck, rosy lips and cheeks, and thin eyebrows.

Many believe the famous Renaissance beauty Simonetta Vespucci was the inspiration for this figure in Birth of Venus by Botticelli
Many believe the famous Renaissance beauty Simonetta Vespucci was the inspiration for this figure in Birth of Venus by Botticelli

Attaining this ideal inspired women to use cosmetics to mimic their appearance as well as devote particular attention to their hair, dyeing it a shade of blonde that tended toward red. This color, known as blonde alla Venetiana, resulted from using potash (lye) or caustic soda to bleach the hair.

Giovanni Marinello advised women to rid themselves of all body hair in his Gli Ornamenti:

Many are the weaknesses, lovely women that can spoil your beautiful appearance by attacking the skin from outside: some things break or lacerate the skin, like scabies, the itch, leprosy and other similar maladies. Other things unfortunately diminish your charms, making your skin fetid and stinking. One of these things is body hair, and the other is excessive sweat, or other filthy and corrupt superfluities. Body hair, if you do not have scabies or a similar disease, has to be removed (because it is a sign of surpluses in our nutrition, just as sweat is) after your bath, or whilst you are bathing. And all our efforts are to gratify you and make sure that you are loved and caressed by your husbands, who won’t stick to their promise of chastity because of your bodily defects, and will go behind your back to other women; however teaching you how to remove body hair, we will start with the way to make baths, which will not only preserve your beauty, but keep you healthy and comfortable.

An excellent source of information on beauty practices and fashion during the cinquecento (16th Century) of the Italian Renaissance is La Raffaella. It is a work written in the form of a conversation between two female characters, Raffaella and Margarita. Alessandro Piccolomini (1508-1579) first published La Raffaella, dialogo della bella creanza delle donne in 1541 and it was reprinted in 1558 and 1574. The work was translated into English as Raffaella of Master Alexander Piccolomini, A dialogue of the fair perfectioning of ladies by John Nevison in 1968. Copies can be hard to find, but it is a jewel of information for living history enthusiasts.

The book has humorous parts where Raffaella tells the younger Margarita about navigating social situations, maintaining decorum, and showing off her assets without seeming like she wants them to be seen:

If you have a good chest it is of paramount importance for you as a woman to find out the ways that it can be seen, and especially to show that it is naturally beautiful and not only through artfulness. So, in the morning pretend to arise without tying up your dress, so he will know that your breasts are round and pronounced on their own without support. You might also play in the snow or bathe in water during the summer and then as soon as you are all damp make it necessary to untie yourself to dry off. You can show off your nice legs in the villa going to fish or catch birds and show your arms horse riding. If your whole body is nice make sure you go bathing at a time you can be seen!

Raffaella explains that she does not recommend using the “sublimates and white powders” that are popular for women of their time, saying they “are the most blameworthy. For what worse can we see than a young lady who has powdered herself with chalk, and has covered her face with a mask so thick that scarce may it be known who she is.”

Raffaella does admit that “a young lady could not have a complexion so clear, white and delicate if she did not aid it to some degree with art, or else it might show at times by mischance as might often happen, that it is not so fair. And they do not reason well who say that a lady, so she have a fair complexion by nature, may ever thereafter set it at naught and neglect it. And for this cause I would grant that a gentlewoman should use continually waters of price and excellence, but without solid matter to them or but the very least part. And for these I may know to give you recipes most perfect and most rare.”

The toxicity and negative effects of using face whitening creams and powders with lead and mercury is plainly described in many writings of that time and so should be thought of as common knowledge for women of the Renaissance. This cheap but deadly recipe is told to Margarita in the book: “One takes pure silver and quicksilver and, when they are ground in the mortar, one adds ceruse and burnt rock alum, and then for a day they are ground together again and afterwards moistened with mastic until all is liquid, then all is boiled in rainwater and, the boiling done, one casts some sublimate upon the mortar, this is done three times and the water cast on the fourth time is kept together with the body of the lye. And this is used oftentimes among ladies who have no great means to spend.”

The look that ceruse (lead), quicksilver, and mercury gave its wearer was also fodder for ridicule. Margarita describes a kinswoman’s appearance, explaining “so unhandsomely had she covered her face that I promise you her eyes seemed like those of another woman, for the cream had made her complexion of a ghastly color like lead and dried plastering so that the poor woman had to stand stiffly and not turn her head but with her whole body for fear the mask should split.”

Reenactors should keep in mind the expense or scarcity of the more benign ingredients such as ambergris (from sperm whales), civet (from polecats), and musk (from deer). There are synthetic as well as natural alternatives that I’ll be posting about very soon.

La Raffaella also contains information on fashion in Siena dressed by means of advice on how to dress. one anecdote speaks of a lady who, in order to imitate a lady of better standing than her, tied her garters above the knee before going to church (as opposed to below), but found them too tight and so loosened them. Unsurprisingly one fell off when she left, and Raffaella remarks snidely that it “was a band that stank so mightily of piss that I think it had more than once fallen off her pillow into the chamber pot.” Here are some other excerpts:

“A young lady every few days should change her dress and never lay aside a fashion which is good, and if her judgment suffices her to find out fashions new and fair, it would be most suitable for her often to put forward some one of them; but should her judgment not suffice, she should cleave to those of other ladies which are better thought of.”

“I would that garments furthermore were ample and abundant but not so far as to leave the body too incommoded. And this fullness is of great import, because there is nothing worse than when we see some of our gentlewomen, who go about Siena in little dresses of a sort which contain less than sixteen ells of cloth; and for their short capes which reach not to their tails by a span, they twist part of them round their necks and hold a flap in their hand, and so they go masked down the street, which with their other hand lifting up their dresses lest they wear out by trailing the ground, down the street they go as if possessed, with a clitter-clatter of pattens as though the Devil had got between their legs. And perhaps they lift up the dresses to show a pretty foot, with some part of the leg all tiffed up. But all they show are their broad ugly feet, ill shod with some slippers all out at seam for very age.”

“These garments… should be full of guards, of cuts, of slashes, of brodoni and other such things; some another time should be quite plain, since this variety of dressing shows great sumptuousness and much good lies therein.”

“The richness of dress lies for the great part in the seeking out with care that the stuffs, the cloths … should be of the finest and best that may be found.”

A few more recipes that I have found and translated (and on which I have an upcoming Kingdom A&S research paper!):

Take fresh roses well stamped ~ and incorporate them with said (fine white Venetian) soap, as before, which you may also do at your pleasure with other types of flowers.

For him that has a naturally red face ~ take four ounces of peach kernels, two ounces of gourd seeds, and make thereof an oil with which you shall anoint his face morning and evening, and this will destroy the redness.

An excellent wash for the teeth ~ Take the flowers of pomegranates, and soak them in wine, and take some of this wine in your mouth, for is has the virtue of refreshing the gums and making the teeth fine.

To make the hair black ~ Take leeches or bloodsuckers, and let them rot in the space of three or four days in red wine or vinegar, inside some vessel of lead, and anoint the hair with the water in the sun and they will become black.

To make the hands white [fair] ~ take leaves and roots of the nettle and boil them in water and with this water wash your hands and face and they will become white and soft.

Hair Powder ~ But when she combs her hair let her have this powder. Take some dried roses, clove, nutmeg, watercress, and galangal. Let all these, powdered, be mixed with rose water. With this water let her sprinkle her hair and comb it with a comb dipped in this same water so that [her hair] will smell better. And let her make furrows in her hair and sprinkle on the above-mentioned powder and it will smell marvelously.

Scented Veil and Hair ~ Also, noblewomen should wear musk in their hair, or clove, or both, but take care that it not be seen by anyone. Also the veil with which the head is tied should be put on with cloves and musk, nutmeg, and other sweet-smelling substances.

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