On 27 February 1639 King Philip IV of Spain received a letter from his brother Ferdinand about Rubens’ Judgement of Paris (above). The story of the Judgment of Paris was often represented in early modern texts and images. It’s the one where three Olympian goddesses – Hera, Athena and Aphrodite – compete to be judged the most beautiful by a mortal man, Paris. Ferdinand explained to Philip that ‘The Venus that one finds in the middle of the group is a portrait strongly resembling [the artist’s] own wife, who is without doubt the prettiest woman here.’
I’ve written elsewhere about female life modeling in the Renaissance and Baroque. Rubens seems to have taken his young wife, Hélène Fourment, as inspiration on many occasions. The interest here, though, is the way that Ferdinand blurs the line between a beautiful artistic representation and a real-life beautiful woman. Setting himself up as Paris, the arbiter of beauty, he is judging the real Hélène.
The significance of this letter is not that it is unique, but quite the opposite. It reflects a widespread shift in the way that female beauty is discussed from around the early sixteenth century onwards. As the female nude became increasingly popular in art, art theory proffered a way to talk about the beauty of real female bodies. Previously judged largely from the chest upwards, a raft of early sixteenth century texts started to give men the vocabulary and motivation to make judging the beauty of real female bodies a topic of conversation. Bodies are discussed in terms of “proportion”, compared to classical sculptural prototypes (normally the Venus Pudica); for the first time ideal qualities for women’s thighs, bottoms and genitalia are explicitly discussed. Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (first published 1528), for example, asserts that those who know about the visual arts are better able to appraise the beauty of real women: “those who love contemplating a woman’s beauty but can’t paint would be much happier if they could, because they they’d understand beauty more perfectly”. What was the effect of all this male chat on women?
Getting the “look”
In my last post I mentioned Giovanni Marinello’s On the Adornments of Women of 1562, and this book is one of the first of its kind. It is explicitly aimed at helping women to keep their husbands from being unfaithful, driven to another woman by their wives’ “bodily defects”. Marinello illustrates the kind of body that women should strive for by using examples from popular literature. In other words, he urges women to aim to make their bodies look like imaginary beautiful women, to compete with the images evoked in men’s mind by literary descriptions. Marinello particularly favoured Ludovico Ariosto’s descriptions of naked beauties in his hugely popular verse epic Orlando Furioso (first published in an incomplete form in 1516, and to become an international bestseller). So women should make their breasts look like those of Ariosto’s Bianca, a character tied to a rock naked to be eaten by a sea monster but saved in the nick of time (though not before being ogled by the rescuing hero). Ariosto described her breasts as ‘Two unripe apples, as if made of ivory’ – so Marinello accordingly gives tips on how to attain ‘small, round, firm and similar to two round and beautiful apples’.
The recipes here include applying a paste of cumin on a cloth dampened with vinegar and binding the breasts with it for three days; anointing the breasts with rock alum mixed with rose oil; bathing them with a rosewater, vinegar, camphor and calamine mixture then strapping them in “little bags”. Further remedies for large, drooping and overly soft breasts follow. This is a small section of a book that considers every aspect of female beauty, from hair removal, to making the entire body or individual limbs thinner or fatter, for hair treatments, wrinkle-removal creams and perfumes.
Marinello’s book was translated into several European languages, and spawned many emulations and interpretations. The line between beauty and health was very narrow (as it is today), and many recipes that seem, on the surface, to be cosmetic could be justified by the argument that outer beauty is a sign of a proper balance of humours and thus a representation of inner health. So in the French doctor Louis Guyon’s Mirror of Beauty and of Bodily Health, of 1643, he describes how to treat “external maladies” including herpes, gangrene and cancer, which if cured “greatly aid beauty and bodily health”, whilst elsewhere he considers how to make the body thinner if it is “too fat” or fatter if “too thin” (what we now call “dieting” for aesthetic reasons as well as health is much less modern than is often assumed). In a later edition, Guyon minutely lists the ideal appearance of different parts of a woman’s body and explains that it is important also to judge the relative ugliness and beauty of the parts of the body that are normally hidden beneath clothes – to “imitate Paris, who to better judge the three goddesses, wanted to see them complete naked”.
Beauty and other wifely duties
Keeping yourself looking good for your husband increasingly became a necessary part of household management. Tips for cosmetics were often given alongside ones for cookery, minor ailments and household management. In Hannah Woolley’s Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery for example, (first published in 1675), recipes for beautification are put in the context of other necessary female household qualities, such as preserving the well-being of her family through providing medicine for common ailments and healthy food daily. Amongst these (which include hair dyes, anti-wrinkle ointments and tips for getting rid of pimples), there is advice in the 1684 edition on how to maintain a desired figure – ‘To make the Body fat and comely’ – including milk, sugar, butter and almond oil. The frontispiece illustration of the first edition shows women doing their three necessary household tasks: boiling up preserves, cooking in a kitchen and applying waters on the face while looking in a mirror.
One of the fascinations here is how familiar and persistent many ideas about female beauty have been, ideas that are still easily recognizable today: valuing women primarily for the way they look; promoting dissatisfaction with the physicality of female readers in the guise of helpful advice; holding up unrealistic, fundamentally fictional models of beauty for women to strive for; and making wives responsible for their husbands’ adultery because they have “let themselves go”.
This all sounds quite one-sided so far, even depressing. As I research further into this topic and look at a broader range of sources, I hope to find evidence that there was another side to this type of female adornment, that practices of cosmetics and body beautification could be pleasurable – empowering even – as a domain of female knowledge and a topic for informal advice-giving and conversation between women. I will, hopefully, report back once I’ve looked at more sources. Whatever the future findings, I want to reinforce here that the study of historical cosmetics and body modification, still very much in its infancy, helps us to investigate the ideologies underpinning female beauty advice and how attitudes toward maintaining and enhancing bodily beauty has affected women’s everyday lives for centuries.
Some further reading:
I discuss many instances of how a new artistic vocabulary came to be used to discuss real female beauty, in chapter 4 of my forthcoming book, The Italian Renaissance Nude (Yale University Press, 2018). A forthcoming article that elaborates on texts and issues raised here: “Emulating Venus: Beautifying the Body in Early Modern Europe” in Myrto Hatzaki ed., The Venus Paradox (George A. Leventis Gallery, forthcoming 2017). I’ll add links to info when they are published!
If you are interested in fashioning the body and cosmetics use in the Early Modern period, there’s more here:
- Sara Matthews Grieco, “The Body, Appearance and Sexuality”, in Natalie Zemon Davies and Arlette Farge (eds.), A History of Women in the West vol III, (1993).
- Patricia Phillippy, Painting Women: Cosmetics, Canvases and Early Modern Culture (2006)
- Farah Karim-Cooper, Cosmetics in Shakespearean and Renaissance Drama (2006)
- Aileen Ribeiro, Facing Beauty: Painted Women and Cosmetic Art (2011).
- Sandra Cavallo. “Health, Beauty and Hygiene”, in Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis eds, At Home in Renaissance Italy (2006).
- The Making Up the Renaissance website (2011)
- Jacqueline Spicer, “‘A fare bella’: The visual and material culture of cosmetics in Renaissance Italy (1450-1540)”, PhD thesis, University of Edinburgh, 2015.
- Romana Sammern and Julia Saviello with Wolf-Dietrich Löhr, Make up/Makeover, special issue of Kritische Berichte vol 1, 2017.