Caterina Sforza was one of the most fascinating characters of the Italian Renaissance. As the illegitimate daughter of Duke Galeazzo Sforza of Milan she was raised in a sophisticated court. At a young age she was noticed because of her intelligence, beauty, and strenth (forte). Later, because of the impetuous actions she took to safeguard her possessions from usurpers and to uphold the military defense of her holdings, she became known as the Tigress of Forli. Due to her eclectic nature, in her private life Caterina was devoted to alchemical experiments, about which she wrote a treatise (Gli Experimenti de la Ex.ma S.r Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo inllux.mo S.r Giouanni de Medici, or Gli Experimenti) and has become known as an expert in herbal alchemy. In addition to her sharp wit, strategic mind, and fearless personality she loved hunting and dancing.
Caterina was the Countess of Imola and Forli who ruled fairly but firmly and commanded her own armies, carrying on the Sforza family tradition of “strength” as her forefathers came to power in Milan as mercenary soldiers. Gli Experimenti is an extensive catalog of recipes and is valuable for many reasons, one is because it gives us insight into the state of scientific knowledge at the end of the 15th Century. The era was certainly full of superstitions but it also used the principle of modern homeopathy similia similibu curantur. For example, the root of the celandine (which means swallow) produces caustic milk that removes hair, so alchemists also have a recipe for distilled swallows to do the same. Another reason this document is so valuable is that it may be the most complete document we have on medicine and cosmetic arts of the 15th Century.
The largest group of her recipes is medicinal in nature, require long preparation times, and involve complicated methods. There are cures for diseases, aids for sleep, concoctions to promote fertility, abortifacents, healing balms, teas to cure melancholy, male impotence fixes, honeymoon pleasure enhancers, antispasmotics, digestive aids, and anesthetics for surgery. Caterina’s anesthetic is remarkable in that its ingredients are (besides being dangerous analgesics) the same as used by the famous Scuola Medica Salernitana, recorded in a 13th Century surgery handbook published in Bologna. The anesthetic is comprised of opium, unripe blackberry juice, mandrake leaves, ivy, and hemlock, among other plants. Caterina writes that this recipe is:
“To make a person sleep in such fashion that you will be able to operate in surgery anything you wish and he will not feel you and it is proven”
Many of the recipes are focused on enhancing and preserving beauty. They are divided into cosmetics, lotions, creams, elixirs, liquids, and ointments10. These were very dear to Caterina, as she was known for her beauty and likely wanted to remain so as she aged. Many of the beauty problems and medical problems of 15th Century women are the same ones we deal with today. Caterina developed formulations to darken the skin, lose weight, lift up sagging flesh, and to make the hair curly. Others were used to make the hands white, clear the skin of blemishes, grow hair, dye hair, remove hair, provide red color for the cheeks, and scent the breath.
Caterina suggests dust of baked frogs, lizards, and bees to regrow hair; promotes vegetable mastic to remove hair; and developed a recipe for de Levante with a brazilwood base to redden the cheeks (mixing rock alum and brazilwood). She recommends removing this mixture when the skin reddens. Her skin whitening recipes include cerussa which was known to be harmful to ingest but thought to be OK to apply to the skin. The most famous recipe is L’Acqua Celeste, which she writes is “of such virtue that makes the old young again… the dead alive… and the sick well… within the space of 3 pater nosters”. The water was a tonic of sorts containing distilled waters of sage, basil, rosemary, clove, mint, nutmeg, elderberry, and anise. Alchemists were very concerned with developing potions capable of imparting immortality and many “miraculous waters” were developed in the late 14th Century, including the famous Queen of Hungary Water.
I have found a respected Italian source for Caterina’s Gli Experimenti and translated several of the recipes into English. I also make some of her formulations for use by fellow reenactors and they are listed in my Etsy Store (Aromatario del Giglio).
Here is a list of a few of the recipes I have translated. They will soon be available for download as an eBook for your Kindle.
- Per far crescere li Capelli (To make the hair grow)
- A far li capelli biondi come oro (To make the hair blonde like gold)
- A far Capelli bioni et como oro (To make the hair blonde and like gold)
- A far cadere peli che mai piu torneranno (To make hair drop out and never come back)
- Per far la faccia bianchissima et bella et colorita (To make the face white, beautiful, and colorful)
- Aqua per fare la faccia bianchissima et bella et lucente et colorita (Water to make the face white, beautiful, shining, and colorful)
- Control la rosseza de viso per cause sole et crepature (Against redness of the face caused by the sun and cracking)
- L’abbronzature della pelle (To bronze the skin)
- A far bella (To make beautiful)
- Aqua a far bella (Water to make beautiful)
- Per far le mani bianche et belle tanto che pareranno de avorio (To make the hands white and beautiful like ivory)
- A fare la mano et il viso vianco (To make the hands and face white)
- A fare la memmelle piccole et dure alle donne (To make the breasts small and firm)
- Rossetto ligiadrissimo et eccellentissimo (Rouge very light and most excellent)
- Per far li dente bianchi et lucenti (To make the teeth white and shiny)
- A far li denti chiari lucenti et belli (To make the teeth clear, shiny, and beautiful)
- Per avere un alito profumato (To have fragrant breath)
- A fare odorare la bocca et el fiato (To make pleasant the odor of the mouth and breath)
- Aqua celeste che fa regiovanire la persona, et de morta fa vivio (Celestial water which makes a person younger and turns the dead into living)