How we recreate Renaissance beauty recipes using modern chemistry

In Remaking History, scholars explain how they are recreating historic practices and how they impacts their research to this day.

The desire to appear youthful and beautiful has provided the impetus for extraordinary chemical experimentation with cosmetics for millennia. Historical cosmetic recipes list an array of plant, animal and mineral ingredients from roses and rosemary to donkey milk and calves’ hooves, gold and sulphur.

Around 1500, the beauty industry began to grow rapidly in Renaissance Europe. The recipes were published widely and documented in manuscripts. There was a wide range of pre-made recipes and ingredients, some marketed as “secrets”.

Recipes were claimed to be able to cure a wide range of beauty issues, such as removing hair, bleaching teeth, clearing up blemishes, and removing wrinkles. Women were the main audience for these beautifying recipes. However, men could also benefit from them by preventing baldness or growing a beard.

Titian, Venus with a Mirror (c. 1555). Andrew W. Mellon collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Renaissance art provided models of ideal beauty, especially in relation to women and Venus. The recipes offered the chance for women to appear as beautiful as Venus.

It is no coincidence that Gillette produces Venus shaving products and a Venus razor – Venus’s skin was usually depicted as soft, smooth with no body hair.

The similarities between Renaissance beauty ideals and today’s aggressive marketing strategies are striking. The ingredients and principles used to treat such concerns in historical beauty recipes have not changed for hundreds of years. Other ingredients, however, seem to be forgotten or abandoned.

Venus at her toilette, ca. 1525-1550. Musee du Louvre

Then, one would expect a rush of scientific research on historical cosmetics. And yet despite some scholarly interest in historical cosmetics, there has been a dearth of scientific, academically-rigorous, lab-based analysis.

Make it Beautiful

The Beautiful Chemistry Project recreates and analyses popular beautifying recipe recorded in Renaissance Europe, including the ingredients, working processes, and final products.

The project was born out of an extensive study of cosmetic recipes that were recorded in Europe between 1500 and 1700. These recipes came from a variety of sources, including medical and surgical texts as well as herbals, “books of secret”, cosmetic recipe collections, and family manuscripts.

Published in 1526, a book with cosmetic recipes. Author provided

Our study is not comprehensive because there is so much material. We have instead focused on skin recipes that claimed to “make the skin beautiful” (a promise common in the recipes of the period) and those claiming wrinkle removal and skin rejuvenation.

Many of the recipes that we studied were taken from earlier sources. Ancient Egyptian papyri as well as Roman, Byzantine, and medieval sources were also consulted in order to establish patterns and track changes over time.

Senior researchers and students work together in an integrated approach, which combines history and science, library and lab, recipe text and formulas. Students in their first year of chemistry and graduate students collaborate with researchers who have expertise in the analytic, synthetic and physical areas of chemistry.

Ruth Cink, a chemist working on Beautiful Chemistry. Author provided

Researchers will guide students to recreate Renaissance beauty recipes in the laboratory or at home. They’ll document their process, thinking and results.

The School of Chemical Sciences uses laboratory techniques to analyze the recreated formulas. In the Photon Factory, the University tests the products’ effect on skin quality.

How to make a recipe

The Renaissance cosmetics recipes are usually short and vague. Ingredients, measurements, and even processes are not always obvious.

Consider, for instance, a recipe that we developed, which seems simple: rosemary flowers in white wine. This recipe was recorded in the bestselling book “Alessio Pimontese” by a pseudonymous author, published around the time Titian painted Venus at Her Mirror.

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