‘A fare bella’: the visual and material culture of cosmetics in Renaissance Italy (1450-1540)
Spicer, Jacqueline Nicole
This thesis maps out the roles of cosmetic use in Renaissance Italy from the period c.1450-1540, using books containing cosmetic recipes as the primary source material. Their content, dissemination, and use is explored as a means of creating a new understanding of a practice central to daily life and integral to ongoing arguments about the body. Recent scholarship has seen a rise in interest in books of recipes and secrets in the Renaissance and Early Modern periods, but there has yet to be a full-length study exploring cosmetic recipes as a significant source of information, leaving a considerable gap in the understanding of how ‘high’ cultural discussions of beauty ideals related to popular culture and everyday practice. This thesis aims to fill that gap. Focusing on the formative period of 1450-1540, when both the written and artistic interests in cosmetics were developing, this thesis draws together a large body of previously unpublished primary source material from printed and manuscript recipe books relating to the making and use of cosmetics, and is the first in-depth analysis of the material and visual culture of Italian cosmetic practice during this period. A major component of this project was to establish what practices, materials and products constituted Renaissance cosmetic practice. The way in which recipes for beautification are identified within recipe books is carefully considered, and recipe ingredients and methods are examined, with comparisons made to the representation of cosmetics in non-recipe sources (written and visual). The goal was to describe cosmetics as they were defined in Renaissance terms, so recipe ingredients have been considered largely in context of Renaissance medicine rather than modern pharmacy, in contrast to most extant studies on the topic. A further major aim of this study was to create a detailed reconstruction of the social values attached to cosmetic use during the Renaissance period. This has been investigated both through an examination of how cosmetics are represented in written and visual sources, and also through a critical investigation of the people involved in the making and use of cosmetics and cosmetic recipe collections. Throughout, a range of material sources have been examined in consideration with each other—recipe books, behavioural advice, moral arguments, printed and painted image, inventories, and household objects such as mirrors and combs—demonstrating that cosmetics had a wide ranging and significant presence in daily Renaissance life. The first chapter examines the moral discourses directed at cosmetic use, establishing the place of these discourses within broader concerns about the control of women’s behaviour. Chapter 2 begins to place the ideals of beauty in a social context, examining how cosmetics are represented in recipe books, and discussing what activities and practices Renaissance ‘cosmetics’ consisted of, with particular attention given to their relationship with medicinal recipes. Chapters 3 and 4 investigate the people who made and used cosmetic recipes, broadly addressing themes of accessibility, and the connections between a beautified appearance and social status. The authors of recipe books, the books’ cost, audience literacy, markets for medicine, and cost and effectiveness of cosmetic recipes are all taken into account to illustrate a lively economy surrounding the use of makeup. Finally, Chapters 5 and 6 address cultural representations of cosmetic use in art and literature, re-examining key examples within the context of the material culture of cosmetics to demonstrate the significance of makeup use in formulations of Renaissance femininity.