What Makes Her Beautiful? Feminine Beauty Standards in Renaissance Italy
By Kate Maxwell
Honors Thesis, American University (2008)
Introduction: The word beautiful can apply to almost anything, tangible or intangible; a person, a building, a landscape, a work of art, a piece of literature, an emotion. But rarely does one inquire as to what this really means, and further why the standards for determining beauty are what they are. The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” suggests that there is a level of subjectivity in the perception of what is beautiful, which in turn allows the opportunity for anyone or anything, no matter who or what it is, to be construed as a thing of beauty. For the purposes of this exploration, the scope of “beauty” has been narrowed to the physical appearance of a person, specifically, a woman. While it is true that there is and always has been a level of subjectivity and preference with regard to the perception of beauty, the lens through which beauty is judged is determined by a number of social, economic, political and cultural factors. To this end, beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder” as the meaning of that expression is understood, but rather is dominated by a comparison to an ideal that is largely a social construction.
To discover the underlying explanations of beauty standards, I have selected the women of Renaissance Italy as a case study. This choice was made most importantly because the body of research, literature and artwork from that time period is extensive and covers all areas of this investigation including standards of beauty, culture, society, politics and economics. Additionally, despite the expansive time frame, the Italian Renaissance maintained a certain level of continuity in its values and ideals. The scope is further narrowed to the upper classes of Renaissance Italy as the peasantry and lower classes changed little from the medieval period. Rather it was the elites who truly experienced and created the cultural changes, fine arts, philosophy and literature of the Renaissance.
This capstone is broken into four main sections. First, there is a brief overview of the Italian Renaissance and the principle themes that defined it. Second is a more in-depth discussion of a woman’s role within the period and the different aspects of life including the family, politics and religion. Next is a look at the physical appearance ideal for those women. This section initially examines what the standards consisted of and the supporting evidence followed by a discussion of how each aspect of the beauty standard stems from the roles of women or the overarching Renaissance culture previously discussed. Finally, there is a section on the achievement of these standards by “methods of beauty modification” as well as the merits of natural beauty as opposed to beauty achieved by such modifications.