History of Skincare Part 12: The Late Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance, 1400-1499

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Smile Like the Mona Lisa

While medieval feudalism continued throughout most of Europe, the thirteenth century saw a cultural rebirth take place in Italy. Aptly named the Renaissance, French for “rebirth,” this period saw culture blossom in a way it had not since the time of the Roman Empire. In fact, the Renaissance started as a revitalization of Classical culture, inspired by the unearthing of great Roman monuments that had been buried for centuries. During this period, the citizens of Italian cities such as Florence and Rome, attempted to recreate what they believed to be authentic Classical society. They encouraged philosophy, invention and the arts and this movement gave birth to many multi-talented Renaissance Men such as Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.

You need look no further than the art of the Renaissance to see the era’s ideals of feminine beauty. Portraits show women in loose, flowing robes. Their skin is pale, their cheeks are shiny and their lips are often a deep red. The ideal Renaissance woman was somewhat voluptuous and although her dress was loose, the material was thin and clingy and revealed far more of her body than was permitted during the Middle Ages. In spite of the more revealing clothing, the face, and especially the forehead, continued to be 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 make up of this period would be considered toxic today. At the time, however, women believed that they were using natural powders and minerals to lighten 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 did not have any way to permanently bleach their skin, their skin care regimens included dusting the face with a number of white powders. White lead and chalk were still two of the most common ingredients in face powders, and some women even attempted to lighten their skin with arsenic powder.

Once the perfect pale complexion had been achieved, Italian women would apply a number of other powders to highlight their cheeks, lips and bust line. Silver mercury was often mixed with lead or chalk and brushed onto the apples of the cheeks and across the top of the chest. Vermillion, a red substance that was made from cinnabar, was used to paint the lips. While deep red lips were considered fashionable, it was also acceptable to have natural, or lightly tinted lips. Women continued to tweeze their hair lines and eyebrows in order to give themselves a smooth, expansive forehead. To combat any signs of redness or irritation, they would also rub pumice stones along the hairline. (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 began to be increasingly common themes in paintings and literature. A clean body was often used as a metaphor for a clean spirit. Alternately, the latrine became a sign of filth and was often used as a metaphor for moral baseness. It is unsurprising that the citizens of Renaissance Italy were obsessed with hygiene, given that they modeled their society on the Romans, who had been legendary for their bathing rituals. Cleanliness was not only an artistic metaphor, however, but a practical concern. Italy had survived a number of plague outbreaks and staying free from germs was a matter of life and death. Additionally, many people strove to live out 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 toward 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 throughout the Middle Ages. Bathing rituals were similar, skin care products were similar and cosmetics were similar. What had changed, however, was the attitude toward these practices. While medieval women had seen cosmetics simply as a way to appear more attractive, the women of the Renaissance strove to achieve a transcendent ideal that combined Classical philosophy and art with physical beauty and human distinction.

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