February 25, 2024

The cosmetics entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein once observed, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” The kind of beauty she had in mind is an ambivalent gift. On the one hand, it is not confined to the biologically blessed but available to everyone; on the other, it is a hard-earned prize, a product of ritualistic and often painstaking devotions at the mirror.

Is this sort of beauty worth pursuing? Some feminist thinkers have bashed it as a superficial distraction. “Taught from infancy that beauty is woman’s sceptre, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison,” Mary Wollstonecraft wrote disdainfully in 1792. Yet there is a tinge of misogyny to the familiar accusation that cosmetic projects are fluffy trivialities. Perhaps there is more truth (and more respect) to be found in the view of the novelist Henry James, who once described a female character’s flair for fashion as a form of “genius.”

Is beautification always a capitulation to sexist pressures? Or can it be a means of self-expression? These are the perennial questions that Jill Burke takes up in “How to Be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity.” They were also subjects of heated debate during the Renaissance, when some women chastised their peers for vanity and others maintained that beautification practices allowed them a measure of agency.

Burke, an art historian at the University of Edinburgh, is a veritable repository of arcane, entertaining information. Her diverting history touches on subjects from reconstructive surgery for noses slashed off in punitive rituals to wives who used toxic ingredients in their makeup to poison their husbands. If “How to Be a Renaissance Woman” never quite coalesces into a continuous narrative or mounts a clear argument, the disjointed anecdotes that make it up are nonetheless delightful and surprising.

The Renaissance, which began around 1400 and ended around 1650, was a transitional and transformative era, a time of inventions and discoveries. The printing press allowed for the widespread dissemination of books and pamphlets, and explorers returned from trips across uncharted seas with news of a “world previously unknown to Europeans,” which they promptly proceeded to pillage. Meanwhile, the Scientific Revolution enabled a generation of enterprising scholars to manipulate the environment in ambitious and, until then, unimaginable ways.

It was in the context of these dramatic reorientations — and of science’s staggering triumphs over nature — that Renaissance women were sometimes compelled and sometimes empowered to see the body not as a given but as a “canvas” (Burke’s word) ripe for reimagination. “Whether we look fat, thin, clear-skinned, healthy, exhausted is not related simply to our genes, but constituted by a complex to-ing and fro-ing between inside and outside, between our bodies and our environment,” writes Burke of Renaissance women — and, I think, of us.

Then, as now, technological changes drove shifts in both the understanding and the pursuit of beauty. “Before the sixteenth century,” Burke explains, “it was difficult for people to see themselves in their entirety from an exterior viewpoint.” When the full-length mirror appeared in the early 1500s, it enabled women to take stock of how their looks thwarted or satisfied the norms of the era.

These norms, in turn, were popularized by a second spate of innovations. “The advent of the naturalistic nude and true-to-life portraiture,” two nascent yet increasingly ubiquitous genres of painting, yielded a relatively standardized model for women to emulate, in much the same way that social media generates templates today.

Titian’s “Venus of Urbino,” completed in 1538, provides a prime example of the Renaissance ideal. The voluptuous Venus in question has luxurious strawberry blonde hair, a strikingly fair complexion and what Burke describes as a “fleshy hourglass” form. Like Laura, the young beauty immortalized by Petrarch in his celebrated sonnets in the early 1300s, the seductress in Titian’s masterpiece boasts “golden hair, spacious forehead, benign eyes, rosy cheeks, ruby lips, sweet breath, white throat, apple breasts and white hands,” Burke writes. “White hands” — and pale skin more generally — would become ever more of an imperative for European women when enslaved Africans were kidnapped and hauled to the continent’s shores in the 1500s.

European women achieved their icy whiteness figuratively, by insisting on their distance from the darker-skinned women they subjugated, and literally, by producing complex (and frequently toxic) ointments. One noblewoman’s unappetizing recipe called for “twelve lemons and twenty-five eggs, and a mixture of alum, asbestos, borax, camphor and mercury sublimate.”

In addition to brewing these uninviting potions, Renaissance women bleached their hair into blondness and devised formulas for the removal of unwanted hair. Elaborate diet regimens, based on the byzantine medical theory that bodies were made up of four humors, were yet another staple. One rather sanguine 16th-century text recommended that women looking to gain weight consume “fresh eggs, wheat, rice, broad beans cooked with milk, cream cheese, almonds, pistachios, pine nuts, walnuts, figs, grapes; fat capons, chickens, lamb, duck, pigeons, veal and meats of this type.” Then, it continues, “give yourself over to pleasant dances, games, songs and other pastimes, and spend three hours on things that delight you.” A more scolding tract advised men who hoped to shed pounds to “have hot baths, do exercise such as horse riding, stay up at night studying, sleep on a hard board and have little food but lots of sex,” per Burke’s summary.

And for those loath to modify their bodies (or those whose bodies resisted modification), fashion presented a less invasive alternative. Burke explains that “undergarments were developed in the sixteenth century to give women’s torsos a more sculptural shape,” especially in the wake of childbirth. (After all, she reminds us, many Renaissance women “spent much of their time from the age of puberty to menopause pregnant,” which meant that cosmetics manuals often doubled as founts of information about menstruation, childbirth and even how to make abortifacients.) Garments such as busks, corset-like contraptions designed to flatten protruding stomachs, and “breast bags,” as early bras were called, helped women transform themselves, insofar as possible, into living Titians.

It was not just rich women who could aspire to become works of art: “This was a world where even a peasant fruit seller would have been urged to emulate Venus,” Burke writes. The widespread distribution of reading matter had the unintended consequence of democratizing beauty secrets. The “earliest known printed book of beauty tips,” a pamphlet first circulated in 1526, was marketed to an audience of aristocrats and peasants alike.

For some women, beauty was a profession: In Italy, “maestras” “specialised in various aspects of maintaining and beautifying women’s bodies.” But even women who did not work in the formal cosmetics trade were forced to acknowledge that beauty was lucrative: It helped them secure desirable husbands or hawk their wares in the marketplaces of newly bustling port cities, where men were no doubt more eager to buy from attractive vendors.

Beauty was also work in another sense: It was nonoptional. “For some, a commitment to beautification was less a woman’s pleasure and more a household duty, alongside domestic cleanliness, care of the family’s health, and cookery,” Burke writes.

Some argued that beautification amounted to a kind of deceptive falsification. “Many people assumed that beauty equated to good health and to a virtuous personality” — a view that “was taken to its extreme by the widely influential Spanish celebrity doctor Juan Huarte (1529-88), who showed men how to evaluate women’s suitability as potential wives based on the principles of physiognomy.” From the perspective of Huarte and his followers, whose outlook is suspiciously similar to that of evolutionary psychologists today, makeup conceals women’s true appearance and therefore misleads suitors about their fertility.

But even the likes of Huarte believed that women should work to become beautiful — not by employing deceptive cosmetic stratagems but by recognizing that “ugliness could be understood as a medical problem,” and undertaking the more sensible labor of healing, perhaps by ingesting purgatives or taking other measures to balance their humors.

Sometimes, beautification could be a bane, and never more so than when it consigned women suffering from the disease of ungainliness to onerous Renaissance-era cures. But it could also be a boon. Women during the Renaissance exercised little control over their own lives, and the cosmetic domain was one of the few that permitted them a share of autonomy. It is not surprising that many women were vocal champions of beautification, going to great lengths to oppose sumptuary laws that restricted their choices and avowing that fashion was their realm of interest and expertise.

The work of beauty can be arduous, and in the Renaissance, when it frequently involved the application of mercury and lead to the skin, it could even be fatal. Whether it is good work or bad work, art or exploitation, depends entirely on the conditions under which it is performed. But one thing is for sure: It is too often a matter of life or death to be a mere frivolity.

Becca Rothfeld is the nonfiction book critic for The Washington Post.

How to Be a Renaissance Woman

The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity

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