Two Experts: Jackie Spicer and Dr. Jill Burke on Renaissance Cosmetics [Full-Length Version]

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Woman with a Mirror (1512-15) Paris, Musée du Louvre

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Woman with a Mirror (1512-15) Paris, Musée du Louvre

Jackie Spicer: Right, so let’s talk about body hair removal. So I study Renaissance cosmetic recipes, obviously– I know you’ve looked at some as well, and I’ve often noticed recipes for body shaping and proportions. I think [shaping] proportions is a really big trend now, and were then, if you think about ideals like the “Vitruvian man”. I’ve come across a few, like recipes to keep your breasts from getting too big, and a few about obesity and regulating weight.

 Have you found much on that topic?

 Jill Burke: I’m really interested in that, though I haven’t been able to go down that path…there were a lot of ideals about breast shape. Particularly, you know, keeping your tight apple-like breasts high on the chest.

Spicer: Yes, although in my recipe books, I haven’t seen much for keeping the breasts high, specifically, just small.

Burke: Skin is the obvious one, skin tone, skin clarity and that type of thing.

Spicer: Yes, colour and texture.

Burke: There is evidence that people didn’t want to get too fat in the Renaissance, though it’s not as common as the skin. Skin is a real preoccupation. It’s related to aging, it’s related to bodies– everything just kind of slips in aging.

What I thought I’d do with the next project, hopefully, is look at the sixteenth-century advice manuals for women, particularly, and to think about what women were being told to do. I want to look at it really in response to the Bartky article, those famous articles on self-policing.

Spicer: The makeup books aren’t all directed at women, though– are you thinking of the advice manuals on women’s behaviour? 

Burke: Yeah, so the later ones, when you get to the 1550s, 1560s, like Gli ornamenti delle Donne (‘The adornment of women’) that kind of thing.

Spicer: That’s such a great book. There’s that part at the end– it sounds almost identical to one of Pietro Aretino’s works– describing the smooth thighs and buttocks, but then saying “pubic hair should be light and fine golden…” 

Burke: Yes, I read it, and it’s said all the things that you want it to say, about women having to look after their bodies, otherwise their husbands will leave them. That kind of thing. All the things you think are the subtext of these other books, it’s just direct.


Michelangelo, "The Night" (1524-1527) Medici Chapels

Michelangelo, “The Night” (1524-1527) Medici Chapels

Spicer: I’ve been wondering about people’s reactions to women’s bodies in different phases of life, during the Renaissance– especially pregnant and postpartum bodies. I know you’ve talked about the postpartum body, and models like Michelangelo’s “Night”, which was described as being really beautiful. But then, even that’s stylised.

I haven’t come across a lot of people’s reactions to women’s bodies in different phases. Have you found any writing on that?

Burke: No– I think you probably know the main stuff, you know that Machiavelli text that you talk about. It’s really, really difficult to get a handle on this, because you find praise of women, advice on women shaving their bodies, and from that, you infer what people are thinking about older women’s bodies. But you get very little straightforward reactions. 

Night’s interesting, because the praise of Night is really in praise of Michelangelo as an artist, it’s not really in praise of women’s aging bodies. But the interest there is really that he’s putting a non-traditional body in a classicising mode, and I think that would have been recognised at the time. And that’s the skill of Night, to portray aging and time in a sculpture.

What I’ve been looking at are art historians’ reactions to works like Night, which are incredibly misogynistic.

Spicer: Yes, they’re terrible!

Burke: Just unthinkingly misogynistic, including feminist art historians in some cases, some are really damning of postpartum women.

The thing about Renaissance art is that it’s not realistic. As I keep telling my students, it’s not representational, it’s idealistic, so you don’t get a great gamut of body shapes for either women or men. You just don’t get badly-proportioned men in traditional views. You know there are some exceptions, but they are exceptions. You think of Cosimo de’ Medici’s famous dwarf, and the Bronzino painting where he’s portrayed naked– but that’s interesting because it’s so unexpected, and of course it’s like a little playful joke, really, on a trope of idealistic heroic masculinity. So all the things that you might be interested in digging out, all the non-ideal, you just don’t get in Renaissance art. It’s quite frustrating.

Hans Baldung, Witches' Orgy, 1514

Hans Baldung, Witches’ Orgy, 1514

Spicer: In a way, it’s not that different from the depiction of body shapes in media culture now.

In class the other day, we were talking about one Hans Baldung’s drawings of witches, and the older one has hairy nipples. The students were saying that he was probably trying to show that she was inordinately sexual; I said that, on one hand, that’s likely, considering what [nipple hair] implied, according to humoural medicine. But on the other hand, if they’d seen all the things they’ve done in recent years on BBC and shows like “Embarrassing Bodies”, or “How to Look Good Naked”– where they’ve had women take pictures of their breasts to show what breasts actually look like– they’d have realised that actually that’s not very unusual.

Burke: It fed into this notion of hairiness and masculinity, and the imbalance of the humours, and that these women were too “hot” for their own good.

Spicer: Exactly.

Burke: And a lack of body hair signifies passivity, actually, in a humoural way. The fact that women don’t have hair is because they were thought to be moist and cold. 

Spicer: …and langorous

Burke: …and passive.

Not having body hair is an interesting thing in the Renaissance, because it speaks to personality, and what they’d call “complexion”. It’s not just aesthetic, because the humoural system governs all those things. Men who have an excess of body hair (what’s called an excess, anyway) are rash and too full of kind of “testosterone” (not that they would have called it that), and we still have this idea today.

So it’s interesting that Western culture makes a connection between having body hair and feistiness in women. The feminist movement in the seventies, where you just had to have body hair– it speaks to the same kind of set of values as was in Renaissance culture. 

Spicer: It does, doesn’t it!

Burke: Hairy women. 

Spicer: Hairy women. So I have a few more questions about body hair. Merkins! Did they exist in this period? 

Burke: [Laughing] I’ve never found any reference to merkins, but people ask me that.

Spicer: And yet, they supposedly exist! Dildos exist.

Burke: Yes, dildos, definitely. There’s that great article by Pat Simons. Merkins…I think they certainly were in English early modern stuff…

 Spicer: Right, so maybe it was an English thing. 

Obviously, there seems to be an interest in this sort of thing– if you’re a man, you’d want to have body hair, and if you didn’t have enough– there are enough recipes for body hair growth and things like that. Clearly, these probably wouldn’t have worked, so I was wondering if you’d come across anything.

Burke: I mean, a merkin…I suppose if you’d gone and had one of these disastrous hair removal treatments, for one, they would have come in quite handy, but I don’t understand what they were used for. I think we need to talk to someone. I’ve attached them to late-sixteenth-, early seventeenth-century England, and I don’t know whether that’s just an impression or not. Or even eighteenth-century England. We need to track down some British historians.

Spicer: A conference on the merkin! We could get some merkins, some dildos, somebody on pessaries– this could be really fun. And everyone would be really embarrassed. So you might have to have drinks instead of coffee.

Burke: It would have to have a kind of embarrassment session.

Spicer: Yeah.

Burke: There’s that underwear that they found in that castle in Switzerland, which is brilliant.

Spicer: Yeah, it was a little bra.

Burke: A little bra which, you know, weren’t meant to exist. 

Spicer: Yeah, but they did! 

Burke: And you’d think they would, really.

Spicer: Yeah, you would. I was thinking about it when I made that dress [a Venetian dress from

around 1500] because I could find enough information about how to construct a dress, but I was struggling to find information on underwear in the period. And clearly, it had to exist. Because this is a dress where the front is so low, and the waist is so high that there must be something underneath helping you keep the dress on, but I don’t know exactly what they used.

Burke: And they certainly had binding of breasts and wrappings round, didn’t they?

Spicer: I don’t know. I’ve heard of that, and I’ve seen, slightly later, you get the “pair of bodies” [the corset], which, of course, they have in Elizabethan England, but I think – it’s possible there’s just been less work, or less visible work on underwear in Italy right around 1500.

Burke: I think underwear’s quite hot [as a topic] now, people are working on it, Evelyn Welch, or a student of Evelyn Welch is doing underwear in fifteenth-century or sixteenth-century Italy.

Spicer: We can invite them to our awkward objects conference.

Burke: Yeah! I think the problem is just evidence!

Spicer: I can see that, because textiles don’t survive very well.

Burke: It’s like all those everyday things, like you were talking about what do women do on their periods and stuff like that, which is really interesting.

Spicer: There have been some really good books now– Sarah Read’s at Loughborough, that one’s really good but she’s really had to piece together the evidence from a lot of different sources because it’s so hard to find.

Burke: Because it’s stuff that you wouldn’t talk about, necessarily.

I suppose that’s where the recipe books come in, but they’re very mute sources, you have to work with them in a certain way– that’s why [Gli ornamenti] is so good, because it has a narrative around the recipes, whereas often it’s hard to get to grips with the material in a lot of them. How they relate to everyday practice is a challenge, isn’t it?

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Woman with a Mirror (1512-15) Paris, Musée du Louvre

Titian (Tiziano Vecellio), Woman with a Mirror (1512-15) Paris, Musée du Louvre

Spicer: Yeah, because there’s a slew of [cosmetic] recipes, but you don’t know who used these, who are they directed at. You might find a bunch of recipes that maybe no one used, and we don’t know!

But when you have these little books that people are producing– some of them really quickly, and they’re sort of cutting and pasting different recipes to print out– I suppose it gives a suggestion of what they thought might have the widest audience appeal, what they might be able to sell most, and the repeated ones might suggest really common elements concerns.

Right, so… I feel like I neglect men in my research, possibly because it’s really hard to figure out whether men were wearing makeup. I’d like to look at it more, but right now, as far as I can tell, you’ve got beard dyes, dying the beard black, and some face washes that say “for noblemen and women”. You get a few references, things like Bernardino da Siena complaining about youths running around with their blond hair and…does he complain about perfume and tight hose and things like that?

Burke: Yeah, he does.

Spicer: A few of them complained about men wearing perfume “like women”. It seems as though men were less likely to be wearing actual makeup, things like rouge and that. I’m really curious about hair dye still, because you have this blond youth thing going on, but I’ve never come across direct reference to youths dying their hair. 

Burke: I don’t know…there was a satirical poem, complaining about men using makeup and being like women, but the point is they’re like women if they use makeup; it’s not a thing that men do. But certainly they did things to enhance their appearance, like padding doublets and making their legs look shapely and stuff like that.

One surprising point is that people always say that the male life drawing models were just garzoni, these are just people who happen to be hanging around the workshop, and I just cannot believe it!

Spicer: Just lurking around!? They can’t even be lurking around having a cigarette break since tobacco hadn’t yet been imported to Europe – what are they doing?

Burke: Or they’re apprentices– but they’re not apprentices, because they’re just really buff! And this perception of bodies that means that all these men hanging around happen to have this incredibly beautiful physique. And they were clearly chosen for their physique and for their physical beauty. 

There’s a little bit of evidence of men being paid to pose for artists, and a little bit of evidence of particular people being chosen to pose for artists. Lorenzo Lotto’s account book has payments for men to stand to model, and Pollaiuolo for his Sebastian was meant to have this beautiful boy from the Capponi family posing for him. So I think beauty is valued amongst young men in the same way as it is amongst women.

And that ties into why their blonde hair was celebrated, as you were saying, because they’re girlish. It’s that quality of androgyny that was so appealing in the Renaissance, for men, and to some extent for women, I suppose. It would be interesting to develop more male beauty or health and beauty routines to see what they did. There are exercise manuals and things coming out in the sixteenth century, explaining how exercise affects the body…Humanists say exercise of the body is really important, a “healthy mind and healthy body” kind of thing. 

Spicer: So do they have manuals? I’ve seen something recently, it might’ve been through the British Library– images of Victorian exercise machines that they attached to their walls. I mean, they’re hilarious to look at, but [exercise machines] also hugely popular now. That’s probably one of the biggest pressures on young men, or at least one of the more talked about ones, the pressure to have muscles and to build up that physique.

What do you think were the biggest pressures on men, young men, or any men in general, with regards to appearance, in the Renaissance?

Burke: If you look at books like Matteo Palmieri’s Della vita civile, I think there’s a great anxiety about young men comporting themselves in a manly way, and a great anxiety about masculinity and what that means. This is why books like Della vita civile become important, and books like Erasmus’s Education of Young Men as well. So this is kind of right from the mid fifteenth- to early-sixteenth centuries. There’s always a sense – this comes up repeatedly in all generations – that adolescent young men are going to bring the whole world to ruin because they’re comporting themselves in a really terrible way. 

Spicer: I’ve seen that in Viking sagas as well, one starts out with this complaint about “youth nowadays”.

Burke: Even in Castiglione’s The Book of Courtier, it says that old people think that young men are going to bring the world to ruin. They always say that, and are still saying it. So there’s an idea about general comportment. There are two things. You get a lot of worries about men caring about their appearance at all, and whether that’s a manly thing to do, so you know these things are kind of constant. But also – beards! That’s the other big change that happens in notions of masculinity, that you go from clean-shaven-ness to beards in the early sixteenth century. And beards become de rigueur.


Spicer: Right, it’s just around 1510 that beards appear.

Burke: To a ridiculous extent! All over Europe in the 1510s and 20s. 

And what because of the humoural system, the beard suggests more heat and manliness.

Spicer: But of course, the concept of humours had existed throughout the Middle Ages.

Burke: So why in the early sixteenth-century does masculinity force people to have a beard? I think that’s a really interesting question, and people have written about it before.

Spicer: So you have a couple theories. Some people have traced it to military history, to Pope Julius II.

Burke: …who grew a beard until he got the barbarians out of Italy. 

Spicer: And then that picked up, potentially. 

Burke: But then, y’see, he wouldn’t shave it, it was a big long beard, if you’ve seen the portraits. 

Spicer: And that’s clearly not the beard that’s stylish.

Burke: They like a little neat beard. 

Spicer: Often a quite short one. There’s also the connection with the New World– maybe you looked at this when you were looking at ideas of race. Apparently before this period, beards had been associated with the barbarians and whatnot, the ‘Others’. When they were fighting the crusades, and travelling in the east, it was associated with outsiders and with people in other parts of the world. Whereas when they go to the New World and they encounter the indigenous Americans, some people have suggested that may have made the Europeans reconsider how they’ve associated facial hair with European identity, and that then they rejigged it so beards became associated with European identity. I don’t know how plausible that is – clearly not everyone in different parts of the world that they’ve encountered previously had beards either.

Burke: It is an interesting question. It could work on a big level on the macro-level, but on the micro-level, I bet an individual didn’t think, “I want to grow a beard because I want to assert my European identity”. That’s the other thing I’m really interested in, how fashion spread. 

Spicer: Yeah, that’s quite a big thing with trends like the beard– does it start with one person, and just [take off from there]?

Burke: It’s just fascinating. How are people’s aesthetic tastes changed in the Renaissance? Because this is really what it’s about, making yourself attractive to other people, not necessarily sexually attractive, but attractive in a way. What is it that sparks that change?

We know that in courts, everyone notes down minutely what everyone in these big processions and entries and things like that look like, and what they’re wearing and that’s obviously really important. And there’s this kind of trickle down thing between the aristocracy and the middle classes and the working classes. I don’t know how you’d actually look at this, but it would be interesting to see how that actually functions in fashion.

Some people have written about the importance of clothes and identity, but what I really want someone to say is that some people don’t have a choice, rather than suggesting that you have a choice in how you look. 

Spicer: Yes, and some people don’t.

Burke: Well, probably most people don’t, really!

Spicer: It is really tied up with where you come from and what you can afford. 

Burke: Yeah. Most people presumably would’ve been wearing things that were passed down in the family, or if you look at the second hand trade.

Spicer: Yes, you do have the second hand trade, but even that… I suppose it allows a little more mobility, but it does seem like, in general, most people aren’t going to be having lots of outfits.

Burke: This whole material culture turn in Renaissance studies is predicated on people being able to buy things. Everyone bought things to some extent, but if you put together what you buy with your identity, it suggests a kind of culture that is not possible for most people to join. I think that feeds into a lot of things that are happening today, with the ethos of capitalism. So I think you’ve got to be really careful with material culture, because you come up on the economics of it.

Spicer: Yeah, because there isn’t a full sense of choice, is there. Even if people can buy things and aspire to things, the idea that you could aspire your way out of your set group doesn’t seem likely. I’m always fascinated by the idea of class, because class here in Britain is so different in the States– I notice it sometimes in scholarship. When British scholars use the word “class”, I think they think about it more than… I think American scholars tend to throw it around, because, for us, class is something that’s pretty mobile, it’s not really fixed, it’s pretty amorphous.

Burke: It’s all to do with the American idea of social mobility, which isn’t really real.

Spicer: It’s not! This ‘self made man’ myth.

Burke: There’s this idea that class doesn’t really exist in America. You get this in Australia too.

Spicer: And of course class exists!

Burke: In Britain it’s different, because it’s embedded in our political system and the way that people go to school…when I went to university, the first question you’re asked is “where did you go to school?” And people would locate you within a certain sphere.

Spicer: I think that sense is definitely much looser in America.

Burke: British art historians or British historians do tend to be interested in class because that’s just the world from which we’ve come. And if you practice as an academic here, it’s something that also defines you. You know, certainly having a regional accent puts you in a different kind of… and that kind of expectations of your work as well. 

Spicer: I know you talked about this before, with people complaining about your accent.

Burke: Yeah, but it’s interesting– I barely have a Yorkshire accent anymore– but I think it goes really to the heart of the history of art, about what we do somehow. Because is what we’re doing just maintaining cultural difference, which is kind of what worries me a little bit.

Spicer: Yeah, because this can be a field very associated, hideously, with [monarchy, aristocracy, and nobility]. You see it especially in students’ essays when they’re first coming in. People feel like they have to use a certain vocabulary. And depending on who you’re reading, art historians, especially past ones, use a vocabulary that’s elitist, it keeps a certain group of people out, it’s sometimes very complex. Which I don’t really like, but I think students feel like they ought to be replicating this as well, and communicating things in a really complicated way, which doesn’t have to be the case. 

Burke: With art history, especially in the beginning, it’s just stripping back things to get to the very, very simplest form that you can have– just looking at description of objects and basic terms. Because people aspire to be something in art galleries. They go to art galleries to aspire to something often, if not always. 

Spicer: Absorb the shiny atmosphere!


Dr. Jill Burke

Dr. Jill Burke is a Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh, who specialises in Italian Renaissance Visual culture.  She is currently finishing a book on the renaissance nude, which includes the topic of hair removal.  Previously, she has done work on patronage, including her book Changing Patrons: Social Identity and the Visual Arts in Renaissance Florence (2004), and has published on a range of topics, including artistic identity, Leonardo a Vinci, sexuality and race.

Here is a link to her university website to her blog, where she writes snippets sharing some of the more exciting and puzzling aspects of Renaissance life she comes across in the course of her research.

Jacqueline Spicer 

Jacqueline Spicer is a PhD candidate in History of at the University of Edinburgh. Her research investigates the material and visual culture of cosmetics in Renaissance Italy (circa 1450-1520).  She has done previous work on translation and contextualization of Caterina Sforza’s ‘Gli Experimenti’, and is currently looking at how cosmetic recipes and practice fit into dialogues of gender, sex, and health.

Jacqueline previously received BA degrees in Anthropology and Studio Art from the State University of New York at Buffalo (2009) and an MSc by Research in History of Art from the University of Edinburgh (2010).

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