Independent scholar Courtney Hess-Dragovich captivated the KZOO crowd with a fascinating paper, entitled: Deodorants, Hair Dyes and Diet Drinks: Renaissance Remedies from a 16th c. Venetian Beauty Manual where she talked about her attempts at using these recipes and what her findings were on Medieval and Renaissance beauty methods. So what was the Italian Medieval and Renaissance beauty ideal?
It appears late Medieval and Renaissance Venetians prized a pale complexion, no hair except on the head, blondes, a tiny nose, grey or blue eyes, straight white teeth, and a small bust. How did they try to achieve this? Much like today’s Cosmo’s, and Maire Claire’s, there were beauty manuals for keeping up with the latest trends. Beauty manuals were not uncommon during this time. Famed Persian Philosopher, Avicenna (980-1037) wrote about beauty. The 12th-century Trotula, a set of medical treatises for women, was also extremely popular. So how did Hess-Dragovich go about getting her findings? As she so aptly put it: she has some VERY good, very patient friends, who were excellent guinea pigs for her various concoctions.
Deodorants: Yes, they existed!
There is an entire section containing four recipes for deodorizing. Hess-Dragovich stated that the idea that everyone smelled in the Middle Ages and Renaissance was a myth. She decided to replicate these deodorant recipes and try them on her friends. The solid deodorant was made with white lead but since lead is quite dangerous, she replaced it with Borax. Why did the Venetians use white lead? They used it because it was anti-fungal and anti-bacterial. Borax does the same job but is much safer, and in keeping with using medieval ingredients. In the Middle Ages, Borax was scraped off the river beds in the Middle East. So how do you make medieval deodorant? In one recipe, you mix camphor, rose water and Borax and dry it on a leaf. She also made Trotula deodorant recipe #205: wine, used with a towel boiled in berries.
Did the recipes work? The end result: She tried them on approximately 100 people and half of the recipes were as accurate as modern-day drugstore deodorants! The favourites from her test group were from the Trotula and the white lead recipe. The ever-popular, White Wine and Nutmeg deodorant was nicknamed “Medieval Axe”, and it apparently really worked!
Diet Drinks: I’ll have a Diet Fennel Bulb Cola please, no ice…
Yes. Dieting was a thing back then. Venetian nobleman, Luigi (Alvise) Cornaro (1467- May 8, 1566/ or 1484-1589) wrote The Discourse on the Silver Life, in 1547. He advocated calorie restriction and was its first practitioner. He was ill at 35 and decided to drastically change his lifestyle by reducing his caloric intake. It seems to have worked and he was able to live a long life, writing treatises well into his 80s and 90s. He died in 1589, and depending on the source you read, he was between 98-105 at the time of his death! It just goes to show that dieting is not a new concept. Hess-Dragovich tried a diet drink from the Venetian catalogue that was basically a fennel bulb boiled in spring water. No one she gave it to dropped any weight, but it was tasty!
Hair Dye: Saffron is the new “Sun-In”
This was one of the most bizarre sections. One of the recipes called for human breast milk that was used to nurse a boy – specifically a boy. You were supposed to mix the breast milk with saffron and then use it as dye to get blonde hair. Hess-Dragovich was able to find a friend to oblige in this strange recipe only to find out that it didn’t really work. If you ever thought the things we do to stay young and beautiful were a little excessive, the next time you pick up that box of hair dye at the pharmacy, or you’re sitting with foils on your head in a salon, just remember: at least it’s not saffron and breast milk.
For more information about Courtney Hess-Dragovich’s work, please visit: Segreti del Pavonne
Top Image: Paris Bordon, Venetian Women at their Toilet, about 1545. These 2 women fit the blonde, pale, dedicated featured and small chested look prized by Venetians at the end of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance.