The Role of Female Beauty Standards in Renaissance Italy | History Hit

The Role of Female Beauty Standards in Renaissance Italy

Titian's Venus of Urbino (1538)
Image Credit: Public Domain

The latest episode of Not Just the Tudors explores exactly how a woman could achieve the desired standards of beauty during the time of Renaissance Italy. It also explores some of the rather more bizarre pseudo-scientific advice and remedies women used to help to achieve their beauty goals.

We’re bombarded with images of perfect body types today, selling us cosmetics, clothes, and diets to make ourselves more beautiful. But how did the women of Renaissance Italy view beauty, and what were they expected to conform to?

Beauty as a woman’s duty

The so-called ‘woman question’ was something debated by men from the 15th to the 17th centuries. What should a woman be, they wondered? What was a woman’s nature? Were they more pious than men? More stupid? More emotional?

Beauty also featured as a topic of debate, with many arguing women should strive to be beautiful simply to please men. Rather than attractiveness being deemed a quality which some women possessed, the achievement of being beautiful was increasingly seen as a woman’s duty. If she didn’t maintain standards, then men deemed this to be a serious failure of the marriage.

Whilst contemporary beauty standards weren’t as insidiously presented to Renaissance women as they are today, they were still present and societal pressure was very much there.

Rigorous beauty standards

Renaissance ideals of female beauty were no less stringent than those imposed on women today. The perfect woman was supposed to have long, wavy golden blonde hair, dark brown eyes and a high white forehead.

White skin was fashionable, but it should have hints of pink in the form of rosy cheeks or similar. Fleshy arms and legs, broad hips and a round stomach were also all considered desirable – thinness was something of a problem in Renaissance Italy.

Physicians were on hand to offer helpful tips on how to achieve these desired attributes: from putting ink in your eye to change the colour of your iris to the foods to eat to fatten yourself up, there was a plethora of advice available, some of it ranging from sound advice, but mostly had the potential to be quite damaging to a woman’s health. Tips and recipes for versions of shampoo, conditioner, moisturiser, anti-wrinkle cream and make-up were compiled into books for women to buy.

Find out more about beauty in the Renaissance – and the means women would go to in order to achieve it – in this episode of Not Just the Tudors with Jill Burke, Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures at the University of Edinburgh and Suzannah Lipscomb.

What was the 16th century ideal of beauty? How can you become a Renaissance woman?
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Sarah Roller