Did white lead make-up enhance beauty at a deadly cost?
Wearing make-up made from a recipe in Caterina Sforza's Experimenti (1490)
'To Cure Redness of the Face'
Such is the title of a recipe in Experimenti, a book believed to have been compiled by the Italian noblewoman Caterina Sforza in the late 15th century.
A guarire la Roseza del Volto:
Piglia Cerusa aqua rosa oleo de viole et mestica inseme et ugne la facia
To cure redness of the face:
Take white lead [ceruse], rose water and violet oil and mix together and anoint the face.
I found this recipe courtesy of the Making Up the Renaissance project.
I owe many thanks to this group of academic historians for posting this recipe on their site. Please do look at their research, it is extremely interesting. They have done the hard work of finding and translating recipes in Experimenti.
Making Up the Renaissance says that the recipe was selected from Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti and all the translations are by Dr Jackie Spicer, with additional help from Dr Anna Canning and Dr Jill Burke.
Applying the Cream
How easy was it to apply?
Fiona's comments on applying the cream
A big issue (for physics nerds!) is that this recipe has no quantities. How much ceruse, how much violet oil, how much rosewater? I played with quantities until I found a mix that was easy to spread on my face. It dried quickly, so I had to keep wetting my finger with rosewater, to even it out. It took practice to get it uniform. It dried to a fine dry layer on my skin that surprisingly wasn't powdery or dusty.
Taren and Shaelyn's comments on how it looked to the eye
This make-up looked quite natural to our eye. It was a little too white, but under sunlight and from a distance it was hardly noticeable. We think that on Fiona's winter skin (which is two NARS make-up shades lighter than summer) it would not be obvious. The skin would just look pale. White light made it look more strongly white, but less to our eye than to the camera. It was a very soft look under peachy light.
Fiona's face with and without the Sforza make-up under different coloured lights
Bare Face White Light
This is a photograph of my bare washed face with no foundation. To paraphrase Gloria Steinem - this is what fifty-five looks like!
This photograph was taken with a Neewer Ring Light with a white diffusing filter using a Canon G7X Mark III camera in portrait mode.
Sforza Make-up White Light
This is a photo with Sforza make-up applied to my face only. It was not applied to my neck. It was taken with the same camera and white diffusing filter ring light as the bare face photograph. The camera position and settings were not changed from the bare face photograph.
Bare Face Peachy Light
This is a photograph of my bare skin taken with the same camera using the Neweer ring light using an orange diffusing filter. The camera position and settings were the same as for the white light photographs.
Sforza Make-up Peachy Light
This is a photograph where the Sforza make-up is applied to my face only. It was taken using the same camera with the orange diffusing filter ring light. The camera position and settings were again unchanged.
Our Final Thoughts
We used a mix for this Caterina Sforza that produced a softer look than our colleagues at Making Up the Renaissance. Our only reason for doing this was choosing a mix that was easy to work on the skin. The lack of quantities in the recipe makes it difficult to exactly know how thick the liquid or paste should be.
As with the Abdeker recipe, we were surprised at how soft and lovely this make-up could look under different lights. Although it dried to the touch, it didn’t look like a powder, more like a foundation. The surprise was how natural it looked in bright sunlight. The reflection was more golden. Fiona walked about campus wearing it and got no second looks. It was an extremely hot summer’s day and the make-up stayed put, despite perspiration. This is definitely a look that would stay put with no perspiration streaks in a hot ballroom!
We love this cosmetic. It is so easy to make. It smells like heaven! The perfume is intense, but very lovely.
Fiona, Shaelyn & Taren