The Renaissance Makeover

Sally Pointer starts to make over Sara Viinalass-Smith

The idea of the Renaissance makeover was to see how cosmetics recipes in renaissance books of secrets altered women’s appearances, and in particular if they were successful in helping women achieve the favoured look of the day.

Paris Bordone’s Venetian Women at their Toilet (reproduced above in the banner image, and for more information, see the National Gallery of Scotland website) includes two women who are evidently wearing make up, plus a sponge and make up jar to the bottom left of the panel. For these reasons, we decided this look would be a good one to aim for in our makeover. The cosmetics we used were made up by Anna Canning based on two of the recipes for skin from Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti – “to cure redness of the face” (using lead white replacement, rose and violet oil) and “a very light and most excellent rouge” (using sandalwood and alcoholic spirit). Three students from the University of Edinburgh Renaissance to Enlightenment MSc – Rachel Burnett, Natalie Lussey, and Sara Viinalass-Smith – kindly agreed to volunteer as models. The make-up was applied both by the models themselves, and also by Sally Pointer, who has a lot of experience experimenting with historic cosmetics and techniques of application.

Sally experimented with using egg white, both as a base and to add a finishing “sheen”; egg white is frequently used in renaissance skincare recipes. Using egg white as a base on Sara, we found that it made it almost impossible for her to move her face, but also lead to the white foundation flaking and cracking. (Photos 1-3 below, © Carolyn Henry Photography)

Rachel’s makeover (below) used egg white as a finishing touch, which was the most successful method (Photos © Carolyn Henry Photography)

The white lead replacement was probably slightly purer white than lead itself, which has a yellowish quality. It was extremely opaque, a tiny quantity being sufficient to cover the face. It looked  less ghostly when rubbed into the skin, and the whole effect looked much better when rouge was added. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth century at least, the aim was for an idealised natural look as opposed to deliberate artificiality. The rouge was, as Caterina Sforza averred, extremely light, went a long way, and could be used both on cheeks and lips. Overall, we felt the effect was very similar to white faces and red cheeks of renaissance paintings of beautiful women.

Whether women often used this type of make up is hard to say – evidence would suggest that waters to wash the skin with and change its colours more naturally (to draw blood into the cheeks, for example), may have been more common.There is much more research that could usefully be done to give us a greater insight into these issues.

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