Crumbs and cat poo: Renaissance women’s ‘astonishing’ beauty tips revealed

Elizabeth I is renowned for the thick white mask of makeup that coated her face, a look that became fashionable for Renaissance women who would often also be portrayed with powdery cheeks. But women of that period were using beauty products that were far more sophisticated than previously thought, according to new research.

An art historian and a physicist, Jill Burke and Wilson Poon, have been trying out recipes dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries for the beautification of the face, hair and body. They were astonished by how advanced they were.

Thirty recipes for everything from anti-wrinkle cream to sun protection, toners to skin peels, have been recreated so far. They reveal an impressive understanding of the therapeutic properties of plants and chemical processing, such as distillation, creating emulsions for face creams, and using naturally occurring plant mucilage in products such as conditioner.

Burke, professor of art history at the University of Edinburgh, told the Observer that, if she had not known how old these recipes were, she would think that many were modern: “They’re really astonishing.”

She said: “Everything we thought about Renaissance makeup – that it was all poisonous – is not true. The recipes have a much higher level of knowledge and skill than we previously understood. A face cream that we’re working on now contains tallow, which is sheep’s fat. It has vitamin E and antioxidants. It’s lovely. They used metals for calming redness, and these also have real effects. So, actually, what we’re finding is that most of what they used doesn’t contain ingredients that we now know are poisonous – and most of them actually do work.”

Elizabeth I, with her signature whitened face in a portrait by by George Gower, c1588. Photograph: Print Collector/Getty Images

She discovered that one conditioner recipe is so effective in taming the hair that her mother-in-law now will not use anything else: “It’s made from mallow, which is a lovely pink flower, willow leaves and psyllium seeds. You boil it together and it makes this gooey goo, which you just put on your hair as a leave-in conditioner. You need a tiny bit and it stops flyaway hair.”

She noted that, although thousands of such recipes have survived in printed books and unpublished manuscripts, historians have been slow to investigate them: “If you just read them, they don’t make a great deal of sense. Because they may say, ‘Take some fat and wash the fat.’ Washing the fat? Or ‘Add an egg-white and some tree gum’. It just seems like it’s a complete waste of time. But then, if you actually try it, it works. That particular recipe turns into a face cream that really feels very similar to a moisturiser.”

She added: “The great thing about Renaissance cosmetics is that you can tweak them. So if you like, say, the smell of roses, you can add rose water or rose oil.”

Her research was initially sparked by a 16th-century Italian book, Giovanni Marinello’s The Ornaments of Ladies, which was translated into English, French and German in its day. It includes more than 1,400 recipes arranged in order of the body part to be corrected.

He even understood the importance of beauty sleep, recommending “youth-bringing” rest.

She found many more such cosmetic manuals, which were aimed at a wide audience. The recipes include lip balm made with rose oil and grated beeswax simmered on a low heat, an eye cream of honey and egg crushed into an ointment and an exfoliator of breadcrumbs. Some writers urged their readers to make themselves look like women imagined by painters and poets, such as Titian and Petrarch – just as today’s women look up to idealised models in glossy magazines.

In bringing colour to complexions, they made a rouge for lips and cheeks. A mix of sandalwood and aqua vitae liqueur stained the skin and even lasted for several days.

Some of the recipes have ingredients you don’t really want, like cat poo to remove body hair. But I haven’t tried that

Jill Burke, art historian

But some of the recipes are unpalatable, she said: “Recipes, even by physicians like Marinello, often contain animal ingredients that to a modern eye seem decidedly ‘witchy’ – newts, doves, bats, frogs, chickens that have eaten snakes. For skin conditions, he even recommends ‘three litres of blood of healthy red-headed men no older than 25 or 30’…

“Some of the recipes have ingredients you don’t really want. For example, cat poo to remove body hair. But I haven’t tried that.”

The latest research will feature in Burke’s forthcoming book, titled How to be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity. It will be published by Profile Books under the imprint of the Wellcome Collection, which is also planning a related exhibition at its London centre in October.

Burke is also liaising with a New Zealand colleague, Erin Griffey, who is showing how effective many of the Renaissance ingredients were in improving skin texture.

Her “Renaissance Goo” project, funded by the Royal Society, is seeking insights into Renaissance women’s lives. She and Poon will continue trying out recipes and will publish data, which may lead to lessons for today’s beauty products.

She hopes it will inspire people to recreate recipes themselves: “It’s such a shame, for example, that even those of us who grow roses no longer take the opportunity to collect their petals to make our own scented waters or oils that can furnish us through the year with a bit of summer, bottled – and are a lovely way to spend an hour or so on a weekend morning.”

Recipe: Marinello’s mallow, willow and psyllium hair conditioner

1 entire mallow plant, roots and all (or 1 heaped dessertspoon of dried mallow root)

1 willow frond – just the end of the leaves, nothing woody

1 dessertspoon dried psyllium seeds

Wash the mallow and willow. Chop everything up and put in a saucepan. Cover it with water and bring to the boil (if using dried mallow, add 300ml of water). Boil for 10–15 minutes, until it turns into marvellously gummy gloop. Cool down, then strain the mixture into a jug and decant the gloop into a jam jar. It smells slightly of overboiled vegetables, but think like a Renaissance woman and add some distilled flower water (rose water, for example) to scent it to your liking. Add a little to your hair after shampooing, don’t rinse it off, and you have a leave-in conditioner that works surprisingly well.



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