Jackie Spicer writes:
Many of Caterina Sforza’s recipes are vague about ingredient quantities and preparation methods, so sometimes the only way to figure out the desired effect was to try it out and see what worked. For example, we tried several preparations of ground iris (orris) root as a face foundation, both with and without added liquid, finally concluding that only the finest ground powder of the creamy yellowish root would work at all—everything else caked and fell away.
Nowadays, we tend to have a relatively limited knowledge of the effects of plants and herbs, so it is difficult to tell just by reading a recipe what effect it might have. Working with Anna Canning, with her extensive knowledge of herbal medicine, illuminated many of the potential benefits that the recipes had. It turns out that many of the recipes may have been more effective than appearances imply—the greenish water from nettle to ‘make your skin white’ wouldn’t have been a dye or cover-up, but would have worked to return skin to a normal shade if it had been reddened due to hives or other allergic rashes. Likewise, the sensory experience was not disappointing, and often revealed why various recipes would have been thought to be effective. Our participants experienced tightening sensation in their gums with the tragacanth gum-putty, the numbing mouthwash-like effect of the cure for bad breath, and tingling cheeks brought on by the reduced acqua vita mixture (we used brandy!) for a well-coloured complexion.
It’s often unclear from just reading what these ideas of beauty would have actually looked like to the everyday person, and what they might have tried to emulate. Paintings might show an idealized form, but what did people look for and see in each other? For example, writers used terms like ‘fair’ and ‘glistering’ to describe a certain beautiful sheen that doesn’t translate easily to our modern beauty standards. At the time, being fair was different than just being pale; it resembled ivory and marble, but not snow, and might also include a ‘well coloured’ complexion. By trying out the recipes, we were able to observe with our own eyes what this might have looked like, in the slight gleam of and egg white finishing wash or the glistening oily effect of white lead face cream.
This in turn helps inform our understanding of artwork, and how images might be read, because we can begin to see how much artistic idealization resembles actual effects and vice versa. We were surprised and delighted to see that the very white face cream and rather orange rouge water, when made-up on our models gave them a colouration that almost exactly matched the Bordone painting.
Overall, this kind of experience helps us form a context for past images and ideas that can otherwise lose their meaning through time and translation. Not only did we get a better idea of what kind of medical knowledge was floating around in the pool of common knowledge at the time, but we also got a sense of what people tried and tolerated for the cause of health and beauty. Some things were as familiar as red liquid lip colour, and others, such as onion mouth tonic and glistering faces, a bit less so. By literally trying on the face of history everyone involved got a feel for both how familiar and how foreign the past can be.