Cosmetics workshop

Clockwise from L: Anna Canning, Jackie Spicer, Helen Lynch, Joanna Mawdsley, Patricia Phillippy, Sarah Cockram, Meredith Ray, Susan Stewart

For the workshop we made up selected recipes for the skin, hair and teeth from Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti, and let participants try them out on their skin, smell them and, in the case of the recipes for teeth, even taste them – though this wasn’t always the best of experiences! Everyone also got the chance to see Anna Canning make a simple rose balm , and to take some home with them.

We also had several objects similar to those used in the processes of making and applying cosmetics – raw ingredients such as dried roses, plant oils, and even some white lead; equipment, such as strainers, glass and cerambic alembics; convex glass and polished metal mirrors , and make up sponges.

The workshop was supported by the School of Arts, Culture and Environment, University of Edinburgh, the National Galleries of Scotland and the Leverhulme Trust. We are very grateful to Irene Mariani and Carolyn Henry Photography, who took many of the images below.


Many of the cosmetics recipes were highly scented – a case in point being the skin whitener we used in the makeovers which, with both rose and lilac oil, smelled lovely. Other cosmetics and perfume ingredients are less pleasant to our sensibilities, and can seem overpoweringly strong. This is particularly true of animal-derived ingredients such as ambergris, musk and civet – Sally Pointer brought some civet along for us to try, and it was incredibly pungent, even mixed with other scents, with a very long-lasting smell.

[From L-R, Sara Viinalass Smith (MSc Renaissance to Enlightenment, University of Edinburgh), Meredith Ray (Italian, University of Delaware), Catherine Conway-Payne (Head of Herbology, Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh) and Elinor Hatt (MSc Renaissance to Enlightenment, University of Edinburgh). Images 1,2 and 4 © Carolyn Henry Photography].


Keeping teeth white and the breath fresh was a concern in the Renaissance as it is today, with several recipes for this in Books of Secrets, alongside potions that could “keep the teeth tight in the jaw”. The toothpaste and mouthwash recipes we chose were all fine to put in your mouth – though not necessarily very tasty!

[From L-R: people dig in to the tragacanth-putty based recipe “to keep the teeth tight in the jaw”; Sarah Cockram (History, University of Edinburgh) then Jill Burke (History of Art, University of Edinburgh) risk trying it; at the end the pleasantly sweet-tasting recipe, said to have the same function, but based on camomile water and rose honey. Images 1 and 3 © Carolyn Henry Photography]


There is a huge range of ingredients in renaissance books of secrets – including mundane things like bread crumbs, to more problematic ingredients such as arsenic. For the purposes of the study day, our ingredients needed to be safe (so no arsenic or mercury for example), and relatively palatable for modern sensibilities (no cat dung or pigeon bones). We concentrated largely on safe plant-based ingredients for this reason, of which there are very many in Caterina Sforza’s book – from things that would have been cheap and easily accessible to most people in Italy – olive oil, onions, nettles, rose oil, for example – to more expensive and exotic imported ingredients such as cinnamon, cloves, frankincense and myrrh. For more information about ingredients and processes in renaissance cosmetics, download Anna Canning’s talk.


Most of the tools used in Caterina Sforza’s recipes would have been available in the renaissance home – pans for heating, muslin or other fine cloth for straining, spoons for stirring and so on. The only unusual equipment used regularly in the recipes is an alembic, which was used for distilling liquids and often made from glass or ceramic; Sally Pointer brought her alembics along so we could see them. For more information about ingredients and processes in renaissance cosmetics, download Anna Canning’s talk.

[From R to L: Jackie Spicer straining a recipe through muslin; a muslin strainer; a glass and a ceramic alembic. With thanks to Sally Pointer for bringing her alembics. (Image 1 © Irene Mariani; Image 2 © Carolyn Henry Photography)].


How did people (literally) see themselves in the Renaissance? Flat-glass reflecting mirrors only start to come into circulation in the first decade of the sixteenth century, and as the century went on larger glass mirrors became increasingly popular; most of these mirrors were made in Venice. Before this point, the most common types of mirrors tended to be convex glass or polished metal, which give a very different quality of reflection, as you can see in the photographs. For more thoughts on mirrors, download Jill Burke’s talk.

[From R-L: Evelyn Welch (Queen Mary, London) and Jill Burke (University of Edinburgh) look into a large convex mirror; Rachel Burnett and Natalie Lussey (both MSc Renaissance to Enlightenment, University of Edinburgh) look into small convex and polished metal mirrors. The metal used here is copper, but steel was the metal most commonly used during the Renaissance. With thanks to Tom Tolley, Richard Thomson and Sally Pointer for lending their mirrors. Images © Carolyn Henry Photography]

Making a Simple Rose Balm

Anna showed participants how to make a balm from beeswax and rose oil, the kind of thing that would have been easy for people to make at home during the renaissance period. There are more recipes on the Floramedica website.

[Image 1 © Irene Mariani, other images © Carolyn Henry Photography]

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