Why study cosmetics?

Paris Bordone, Venetian Ladies, National Galleries of Scotland, detail

Traditionally, like the study of costume and fashion, research into renaissance cosmetics was rather a niche subject, but over the last decade these fields have become increasingly mainstream fields of study. Why is studying historical make up important?

Although to some, this subject matter might seem frivolous, studying the cosmetics of the past can offer us an important insight into people’s every day lives. Renaissance recipes for anti-wrinkle rinses, tooth-whiteners, hair dye and hair removers in renaissance books of secrets allows us an insight into many aspects of life during the Renaissance. This includes, for example, issues like the formation of body image, how both men and women try to alter their appearance to meet particular cultural ideals of beauty – something that is sometimes assumed, wrongly, to be a modern concern. It can help us understand the interaction between painted images of beautiful women – portraits or the nude figures increasingly popular from the later fifteenth century on, for example – and the way that women sought to change their own bodies and faces to meet these ideals. Looking at cosmetics ingredients also provides an insight into the kind of materials that may have been available in renaissance homes, and everyday procedures of hygiene, which can often be difficult to find out from other sources. It is simply not true, as is sometimes assumed, that cosmetics were only available to wealthy women in the renaissance period. Many of Caterina Sforza’s recipes make use of inexpensive everyday ingredients, and she, as is common in this type of recipe book, tends to give a selection of recipes for the same problem, including ones with inexpensive ingredients.

There is a very fine line between cosmetics and medicines in the Renaissance; both printed and manuscript “books of secrets” contain medicinal remedies alongside advice on how to “make your skin beautiful”. Indeed, many of the cosmetics recipes are devoted to hiding marks and scars on the face, which must have been a very real concern to populations who were often blighted with infectious diseases like smallpox, which could cause permanent scarring.

It was believed in the Renaissance that the a person’s appearance was closely linked to their health and their character. The humoral system of medicine, prevalent in Europe from classical times to the early nineteenth century, linked physical ailments with an imbalance of the four bodily humours – blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile.  Too much of any of these humours could make the body ill, and this could be seen on the skin. Thus, for example, people with a yellowish skin were thought to have too much yellow bile. Cosmetics – particularly waters which brought out blush in the cheeks, for example, such as Caterina Sforza’s alchohol-rich recipe for “a beautiful and well-coloured complexion” that we tried on our Cosmetics study day – could be seen as helping to correct this balance of humours. (For more on cosmetics and humours, see James Bennett’s cosmetics and skin website). Evelyn Welch talked about the renaissance idea of the porous skin in her lecture, which can be downloaded here.

In summary, then the study of historical cosmetics has the potential to offer us an unparalleled insight into many aspects of the lives of ordinary people in the past.

Jill Burke

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