Thursday, April 2, 2009

Renaissance Beauty Secrets

In one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays, Hamlet scolds Ophelia, ‘God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another.' Shakespeare was making a reference to Ophelia’s cunning use of cosmetics and he was not alone in his objections. Especially in England, cosmetics were generally mistrusted as sorcery designed to trick helpless men. In essence, Renaissance women faced the same challenges that we do today - they had to look like their beauty was effortless. Unfortunately, to achieve effortless beauty, women had to absorb more toxic ingredients than the average lab rat.

In last week’s post, readers were invited to take the “Are you a Renaissance Beauty” quiz. For all of you that might have been less than happy with your score (including me), here is your chance to redeem yourself. The following 500-year old beauty secrets should have the poets and artists singing your praise.

Disclaimer: The Raucous Royals takes no responsibility for any injury that might result from using these techniques.

Alabaster Skin: Steal the Look (the Renaissance Way)
In medieval times, women bleached their skin using lead pasta, but by the Renaissance, women had got white skin down to an evil science. To look like you haven’t seen the sun in 20 years, first apply raw eggs to your face as a primer. Next, mix together lead and vinegar to make ceruse. Apply it liberally to face and neck.

For a truly corpse-like face, take blue paint and apply thin veins to forehead and breasts. Finish it off with another coating of egg whites and voila…you have been turned to marble.

Tip: For an even fairer look, you could also try the old Renaissance beauty trick of applying leeches to your ears. The leeches would drain the blood from your head giving you that I am about to swoon look.

Warning: Over time, this beauty concoction would cause holes in your face. If patches of your skin start to fall off then immediately apply more lead makeup. If you prefer your skin to not look like Swiss cheese covered in frosting, you may want to try the 17th century beauty trick of applying patches of fabric to the holes on your face. Cut them into stars, moons and circles. Be creative. This is your melting skin.

Plucked: Steal the Look (The Renaissance Way)
You have probably already noticed something peculiar about Mona Lisa’s mischievous eyes…she is missing her brows. Most women in the Renaissance were pluck-happy with the tweezers. They not only plucked their brows, but also their hairline to give the impression of a wide forehead. Ouch!

White Teeth: Steal the Look (the Renaissance Way)
There were many recipes to whiten teeth in the Renaissance. One recipe advised mixing pumice stone, brick and coal and then rubbing vigorously across the teeth. Crushed bone worked in a pinch too.

We think of Nostradamus as the great profit who predicted the end of the world, but he also wrote a book on beauty secrets. His formula for whitening teeth and freshening breath was the following:

Take three drams each of crystal, flint, white marble, glass and calcined rock salt, two drams each of cuttlefish bone and calcined sea-snail shells, half a dram each of fragmented pearls, two drams of bright riverbed stones (which form little white pebbles), one scruple of amber and twenty-two grains of musk, and grind them down thoroughly on a painter's marble slab. Rub the teeth with [the resultant powder] frequently and gently rub with a little rose honey any places where the gums have receded.In a few days you will see the flesh grow back, and the teeth clearly get whiter.

Warning: If you use these concoctions repeatedly, the enamel will eventually wear off your teeth. No worries. If you live in England during the reign of Elizabeth I then you could follow the latest fashion rage and paint your teeth black. It might not seem appealing at first, but it shows that you (like the queen) can afford the sweets that cause tooth decay.

Beautiful Hair: Steal the Look (the Renaissance Way)
When it comes to Renaissance beauty, blonds couldn't have been having much fun. To get those golden locks apply a mixture of saffron, lemon juice and rhubarb. Next, sit the sun for the WHOLE afternoon wearing a hat with the crown removed called a Solana. (Shown here).

If you had black hair and wanted to get rid of those pesky grays then you could try some of the recipes listed in Isabella Cortese's 1584 best-seller, Secrets. The following recipe must have not only altered your hair, but a few strands of DNA:

Take four or five spoons of quicklime in powder, two pennyworth of lead oxide with gold and two with silver, and put everything in a mortar and grind it with ordinary water; set it to boil as long you would cook a pennyworth of cabbage; remove it from the fire and let it cool until tepid. And then wash your hair with it. After an hour, wash your hair with clean, warm water and no soap, and then wash yourself with ordinary cleaning agent and soap your hair as usual; and do this every week.

Royal Beauty Secrets
Lastly, if the above concoctions don’t have you feeling 10 years younger, then you can steal these beauty elixirs from some famous royals:

  • Catherine de Medici used pigeon dung on her face to get that dewy, young complexion.
  • Mary Queen of Scots bathed in wine to keep herself looking young and fresh.
  • Diane de Poitiers’ fountain of youth was to drink gold. Yummy.



Passages to the Past said...

You've got an award waiting for you at my place!

Lucy said...

This was so interesting! How times have changed...tanning salons are all the rage these days;)

Katie M. said...

Why exactly did women plucked their whole brows off? Was it just another part of the wide forehead thing? Crazy chicks... ;-)

Another great post!

Mag-gee said...

I'm still stuck on the wide-foreheads... why?

But I think I would rather look the way I do now, then what I would look like after using those beauty tips! No holes on my face and no black teeth for me!

Bearded Lady said...

Yes, the brow plucking was to give an illusion of a large forehead. I would have had to go through much pain...I have a very small forehead.

People actually believed that the larger the forehead the larger the brain.

Anonymous said...

Ingesting gold shortened the life of Diane de Poitiers.

Anonymous said...

great blog to read. Thank you. Only thing, the mona lisa did have eye brows, they faded over time from years of restoration

Bearded Lady said...

thanks! Yes, I blogged about the restoration a few years ago. But I don't know what ever happened to their restoration efforts:

They didn't find a full bushy brow on Mona Lisa. (ha! Can you imagine?) Just a few hairs.