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Cosmetics, Beauty and the Nature of Renaissance Women

Research Seminar – Jill Burke

  • 20 March 2024
  • 5:00 – 7:00 pm
  • A Paul Mellon Centre Research Seminar by Jill Burke, University of Edinburgh.
  • Paul Mellon Centre and Online

In Caravaggio’s Martha and Mary (Detroit Institute of Arts, ca.1598), Mary’s vice-filled life is represented by a comb and cosmetic jar, set out on the table in front of her, as her sister Martha attempts to convert her to the virtuous path. The painting serves as a metaphor of the period’s starkly opposing attitudes to adornment of the female face and body. In 1575, the women of Cesena argued that if they were forbidden to beautify themselves, they might be forced to “wave goodbye to [their] families and break the chains of female servitude”. Other texts condemn women for their perceived love of clothing, cosmetics and jewellery – written both by early feminists such as Laura Cereta and by misogynistic churchmen who saw vanity as a particularly feminine sin. Men who used cosmetics were even more a focus for social disapprobation, decried for unaccountably behaving “like women”, the sex believed by many to be inferior in both physicality and intellect.  

The relationship between cosmetic adornment and gender, between artifice and nature, is culturally and historically contingent. Focusing particularly on sources written and made by Italian Renaissance women, this talk will consider how this period was a flashpoint for discussions about gender and bodily ornamentation. Encompassing a wide range of objects, images and texts from “ladies at their toilet” paintings to witch trial narratives, it will also explore why this may be, showing how even seemingly intimate choices – body hair removal, skin treatments, hair dye – were bound up with larger social and cultural forces in an age of burgeoning colonialism, scientific experimentation, religious division and social turmoil.  

Image credit: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, Martha and Mary Magdalene, ca. 1598, oil and tempera on canvas, 100 × 134.5 cm. Image courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts, Gift of the Kresge Foundation and Mrs. Edsel B. Ford (73.268)

About the speaker

  • Jill Burke is a cultural historian and professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures at the University of Edinburgh. Her most recent book, How to Be A Renaissance Woman (2023) considers women’s creative engagement with beauty cultures in early modern Italy. Jill has also recently worked on the historical reconstruction of Renaissance cosmetic recipes as the Principal Investigator of the Royal Society-funded ‘Renaissance Goo’ project. She was part of the creative team behind the ‘Beauty Sensorium’ installation, on display at the Wellcome Collection ‘Cult of Beauty’ exhibition (October 2023–April 2024). She has previously published books and articles on cultural understandings of nakedness and their connection to the development of the nude in Renaissance art (The Italian Renaissance Nude, 2018), and was on the curatorial team for the Renaissance Nude exhibition (London and Los Angeles 2018–19). Before this she published on the relationship between visual culture and social upheaval during the Italian wars. Her first book (Changing Patrons, 2004), analysed how patrons in Renaissance Florence used art commissions to forge their political and social identities.