Making up the Renaissance! How beauty was perceived and achieved in the Renaissance

I spent yesterday at a workshop organised by Jill Burke (History of Art, Edinburgh University), Patricia Allerston (Head of Education, National Gallery of Scotland) and Jackie Spicer, a postdoctoral student also from Edinburgh, which aimed to examine how beauty was perceived and achieved in early modern Europe.

The event started with a public lecture on Thursday evening given by Prof. Evelyn Welch, Professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary, University of London, which looked at how the “Painted Faces of the Renaissance” also need to be seen in the context of medical theories of the time.   She also highlighted the importance of understanding how our knowledge of the skin has evolved: while Vesalius identified the four cutaneous layers in the early sixteenth century, the role and functions of the dermis and epidermis – and the existence of the superficial fascia – were not fully explored until the nineteenth century, and it was Galen’s (131-221 AD) theory of the skin as a “gauzy receptacle”, a porous and permeable sheath for the body, that influenced use of cosmetics and medical treatments during the Renaissance.

Evelyn Welch’s new book, co-authored with James Shaw, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence, was published last month by Rodopi.The workshop on Friday covered two main areas of discussion: early modern England and Italy.  This narrow focus was unavoidable given the constraints on time, but I hope that further research and workshops will broaden the field to include other countries and cultures during this and other periods.

The workshop started with an analysis of the use of cosmetics in Jacobean performance, under the title Painting and Performance on the English Renaissance Stage,
given by Farah-Karim Cooper (Head of Courses and Research, Shakespeare’s Globe). Two aspects struck me: the cosmetic and costumed symmetry/symbiosis of performance and audience (a contest and rivalry of finery, fashioning and fiction!), and the role of candlelight in creating the much sought-after luminescent glow of the complexion. This was followed by Patricia Phillippy’s fascinating analysis of “chaste painting” in the self-fashioning of Elizabeth Cooke (1528-1609), who became first Lady Hoby (wife to the famous translator and diplomat, Sir Thomas Hoby) and then later Lady Russell.  Patricia’s book Painting Women: cosmetics, canvases, and early modern culture (JHU 2006) provides an excellent overview of this whole question.

The second part of the morning’s talks moved to Italy: Jill Burke turned our attention to the female nude and to the dramatic shift in the portrayal of women between c.1470 and 1530.  Alongside this she discussed the Renaissance obsession with interiority and exteriority, the dialectic between truth and nakedness, as well as touching on the tantalising world of the Renaissance courtesan. Her forthcoming book will reveal more about all these subjects and perhaps answer some of the questions she raised regarding the interplay between art and self-perception, or more precisely the Renaissance awareness of body image and the extent to which this was influence by the visual arts.  The introduction of the flat glass mirror (patented in Venice in 1509) and the way increasingly large mirrors (revealing the full-length of the body) are then portrayed/used in art also raises the possibility of a technologically-driven paradigm shift.

Jacqueline Spicer has been working on the recipes for cosmetics and medical specialties collected by Caterina Sforza and subsequently published under her name as Gli Experimenti de la S.r Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo S.r Giouanni de Medici. These formed the subject of the rest of the workshop, including a practical demonstration by herbalist Anna Canning and cosmetic historian Sally Pointer.    The practical part of the workshop was particularly enjoyable – a chance for Anna to explore the effectiveness of some of Caterina Sforza’s recipes, a hands-on demonstration by Sally of the equipment and gadgets used, and finally a make-over which transformed three enthusiastic students into Renaissance beauties.   The brief was to recreate the (facial!) “look” of Paris Bordone’s Venetian Women at their Toilet (c. 1545).

(Paris Bordon, Venetian Women at their Toilet (c. 1545), National Galleries of Scotland)

Today’s Scotsman has an article about the “make-over” (“Because ye are worth it!)  and pictures and podcasts will be appearing on Jackie Spicer’s website soon. And in the meantime, I’m enjoying our “take-home” present of rosehip and myrrh lip salve which Anna Canning kindly made for us – I might even try to follow her instructions at home!

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