We recreate Renaissance beauty recipes in the modern chemistry lab

The desire to appear young and beautiful has given impetus to extraordinary chemical experiments with cosmetics for millennia. Historical cosmetic recipes list a panoply of plant, animal and mineral ingredients ranging from roses and rosemary to donkey’s milk and calves’ hooves, gold and sulphur.

The beauty industry developed dramatically in Renaissance Europe from around 1500. Recipes were widely published and recorded in manuscripts. And there was ready availability of a range of ingredients and pre-made formulas, some of them marketed as ‘secret’.

The recipes claimed to treat a whole arsenal of beauty concerns, including hair dyeing, waxing, teeth whitening, blemish removal, and wrinkle removal. While women were the primary audience for these beautification recipes, there were also recipes for men to cure baldness and facilitate beard growth.

Titian, Venus at the mirror, around 1555. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

Renaissance works of art provided models of ideal beauty – especially associated with women and the classical figure of Venus. The recipes offered the possibility for the user to look as beautiful as she did.

(It’s no coincidence that Gillette makes a Venus razor and shaving products – Venus was usually depicted with soft, smooth skin without body hair.)

It’s remarkable how parallel the beauty ideals of the Renaissance — and aggressive marketing strategies promising cures — are to those of today. The principles for treating these concerns and the ingredients used in historic beauty recipes are the same as they were hundreds of years ago. And yet other ingredients seem to have been forgotten or abandoned over time.

Venus at her toilet, circa 1525 – 1550. Photo credit: Musée du Louvre/ Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

We would therefore expect a wave of scientific research on historical cosmetics. And yet despite some scientific interest in historical cosmetics, there has been a dearth of scientific, academically rigorous and laboratory analysis.

make it beautiful

In the nice chemistry projectwe recreate and analyze popular beautification recipes recorded in Renaissance Europe: the ingredients, working processes and end products.

The project grew out of a study of cosmetic recipes recorded between 1500 and 1700 across Europe from a range of sources: medical and surgical texts, herbs, popular ‘books of secrets’, collections of cosmetic recipes and household manuscripts of recipes family.

A book containing cosmetic recipes, published in 1526. Photo credit: Author provided

There is a colossal amount of material so our study is not intended to be exhaustive. Instead, we focused on recipes for the skin that promised to “make it beautiful” (a common promise in recipes of the time) as well as those claiming to remove wrinkles and rejuvenate the skin.

While the recipes we are studying were recorded in European sources in Latin, Italian, French and English, many recipes were based on earlier sources. Thus, ancient Egyptian papyri, Roman, Byzantine and medieval sources were also consulted to establish patterns and trace changes in recipes through the ages.

We take an integrated approach that links history and science, library and laboratory, recipe texts and recipe formulas, and involves senior researchers and students. First-year chemistry students and graduate students work in collaboration with postdoctoral researchers with expertise in the analytical, synthetic, and physical fields of chemistry.

Chemist Ruth Cink working on the Beautiful Chemistry project. Photo credit: Author provided

The approach is to identify commonly recorded Renaissance beauty recipes and have enthusiastic students – alongside and guided by researchers – recreate them in the lab and/or at home, carefully documenting every step of their thinking. , their work process and their results.

The recreated formulas are then chemically analyzed using laboratory analysis techniques at the School of Chemical Sciences, and the effect of these products on skin quality is tested in the university’s Photon Factory.

make a recipe

Renaissance cosmetic recipes are often frustrating and vague. The nature of the ingredients, the measurements and even the processes are rarely obvious.

Take, for example, a very popular recipe we worked on, which seems simple: rosemary flowers boiled in white wine. This version of the recipe is recorded in the best-selling secrets of the pseudonym “Alessio Piemontese”, published around the same time that Titian painted his dazzling Venus in front of his mirror.

The recipe is called, A distant bella facciaor, to make a beautiful face: “Take rosemary flowers and boil them with white wine and with that wash your face very well, and drink it too, it will make your face very beautiful and your breath good. “

For a cultural historian, the recipe leads to questions about the textual tradition of the recipe, the perceived properties of the ingredients, the role of smell, the power of beauty.

For a scientist, there are so many variables: quantities, mode and duration of boiling, type of white wine and equipment used. Also note that its beautifying powers are not only obtained by applying it to the skin, but by drinking it and making your breath sweet.

Boil rosemary flowers with white wine. Photo credit: Author provided

Variations of the Renaissance formula included soaking and boiling rosemary flowers and/or leaves in white wine. When we recreated these steps and analyzed the resulting mixtures, we found that both methods extracted a wide variety of essential oils, amino acids, and sugars.

These included many chemicals, such as camphor, eucalyptol, and linalool that could be found in modern skin care products. Today we know that these substances can have antibacterial, moisturizing, collagen growth stimulating, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, brightening and soothing effects.

Renaissance experimenters blended concoctions of powerful, often seemingly unusual ingredients in their quest for beauty. By recreating their experiences, we can see how modern beauty standards and practices date back hundreds of years.

Erin Griffey is an associate professor of art history and catherine simpson is Professor of Physics and Chemical Sciences at the University of Auckland.

Michel Nieuwoudt is a senior researcher in chemical sciences and Ruth Cink is a Teaching Professional Fellow at the same institute.

This article first appeared on The conversation.

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