History of skin care, part 12: late Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance, 1400-1499

Smile like the Mona Lisa

While medieval feudalism continued in most of Europe, the 13th century saw a cultural revival in Italy. Aptly called Renaissance, French for “rebirth,” this period saw culture flourish in a way that it had not done since the time of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Renaissance began as a revitalization of classical culture, inspired by the discovery of great Roman monuments that had been buried for centuries. During this period, citizens of Italian cities such as Florence and Rome tried to recreate what they believed to be authentic classical society. They fostered philosophy, invention, and the arts, and this movement gave birth to many multi-talented Renaissance men, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

You don’t need to look beyond Renaissance art to see the feminine beauty ideals of the time. The portraits show women in loose, flowing dresses. Their skin is pale, their cheeks are bright, and their lips are often deep red. The ideal Renaissance woman was somewhat voluptuous, and although her dress was baggy, the material was slim and form-fitting, revealing much more of her body than was allowed during the Middle Ages. Despite the more revealing clothing, the face, and especially the forehead, remained the focal point of the body. It was also the part of the body that received the most attention in the form of skin care products and cosmetics.

An effervescent glow

Many materials used in the composition of this period would be considered toxic today. At the time, however, women believed they were using natural powders and minerals to brighten their faces and give their skin an effervescent glow. As had been the case for centuries, a pale complexion was still considered a sign of wealth and beauty. While Renaissance women had no way to permanently whiten their skin, their skincare regimens included dusting their face with a series of white powders. Lead and chalk were still two of the most common ingredients in face powders, and some women even tried lightening their skin with arsenic powder.

Once the perfect pale complexion had been achieved, Italian women applied a series of other powders to highlight their cheeks, lips, and bust line. Silver mercury was often mixed with lead or chalk and brushed onto the cheeks and upper chest. Vermilion, a red substance that was made from cinnabar, was used to paint the lips. While dark red lips were considered fashionable, having natural or slightly tinted lips was also acceptable. The women continued to pluck their hair lines and eyebrows for a smooth and expansive forehead. To combat any signs of redness or irritation, they would rub pumice stones along the hairline as well. (You can read more about Renaissance cosmetics here: http://www.thebeautybiz.com/78/article/history/beauty-through-ages-renaissance)

Cleanliness: an artistic concern

Throughout the Renaissance, cleanliness and hygiene became increasingly common themes in painting and literature. A clean body was often used as a metaphor for a clean spirit. Alternatively, the latrine became a sign of filth and was often used as a metaphor for moral baseness. Not surprisingly, the citizens of Renaissance Italy were obsessed with hygiene, since they modeled their society after the Romans, who had been legendary for their bathing rituals. However, cleanliness was not just an artistic metaphor, but a practical concern. Italy had survived several outbreaks of the plague, and staying germ-free was a matter of life and death. In addition, many people strove to live the philosophies that were explored in the art of the time. Frequent bathing was a sign of dignity and social distinction. These were subjects of great concern to many Renaissance artists and philosophers. (You can read more about attitudes towards cleanliness here: http://www.cornellpress.cornell.edu/book/?GCOI=80140100824360)

Skin care treatments during the Italian Renaissance were, in practice, very similar to what they had been during the Middle Ages. Bath rituals were similar, skin care products were similar, and cosmetics were similar. However, what had changed was the attitude towards these practices. While medieval women had viewed cosmetics simply as a way to appear more attractive, Renaissance women strove to achieve a transcendent ideal that combined classical philosophy and art with physical beauty and human distinction.

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