How to be a Renaissance Woman: Read an Extract

31 July 2023

‘Lively and intriguing … You’ll never look at Renaissance portraits in the same way’ Maggie O’Farrell

Plunge into the intimate history of cosmetics, and discover how, for centuries, women have turned to make up as a rich source of creativity, community and resistance

The Renaissance was an era obsessed with appearances. And beauty culture from the time has left traces that give us a window into an overlooked realm of history – revealing everything from sixteenth-century women’s body anxieties to their sophisticated botanical and chemical knowledge.

How to be a Renaissance Woman allows us to glimpse the world of the female artists, artisans and businesswomen carving out space for themselves, as well as those who gained power and influence in the cut-throat world of the court.

In a vivid exploration of women’s lives, Professor Jill Burke invites us to rediscover historical cosmetic recipes and unpack the origins of the beauty ideals that are still with us today.

Read an extract below.



There is an astounding amount of cultural amnesia in relation to the history of hygiene, beauty and cosmetics. People from all periods in history who worry about the pressure to look good tend to talk about it as if it’s a new thing; it’s been brought about by the emergence of women’s literacy, or women’s magazines, or social media. Of course all these things change how we understand our appearance; but, historically speaking, Instagram, selfie culture and so on are just the most recent flashpoints in a long saga. Debates over female beautification have tended to be complex and seemingly self-contradictory, on one side insisting on women’s freedom to adorn themselves as they choose, and on the other arguing that beauty culture is nothing more than another pressure on women to conform. As we’ll find out in this chapter, women themselves have been arguing about beauty’s oppressive and empowering potential for at least 600 years…

Many women argued that the problems they had being understood as equal weren’t because they spent too much time on thinking about appearances, or how they wore their hair, or the money or time they spent on cosmetics – to the contrary, their appearance was one of the few areas where they had some agency. They argued that the problem was not with women’s attitudes to beauty. The problem was men. Even now, some men are baffled when you explain to them that women’s interest in clothes and make-up isn’t simply to attract male attention. Christine de Pizan (1364–1431) was probably the first woman to discuss this issue. She was a Venetian-born physician’s daughter, who moved with her father to the French court when she was a little girl. Widowed at twenty-five, and facing destitution, she started to make a living for herself as a writer. In 1405, she authored two texts that were to become landmarks in the history of feminist thought, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies.10 Her character ‘Lady Rectitude’ answers a question from the author about whether it’s fair that ‘women who love wearing pretty clothes and accessories receive a great deal of criticism, because people say they do this in order to seduce men’. Presaging much feminist criticism since, Rectitude suggests that although being overly interested in one’s looks is a flaw, she also wants

‘to make sure that women who look pretty are not excessively criticised – I assure you that not all women do this to seduce men. Some people, both men and women, are just naturally inclined to enjoy elegance and attractive, rich clothing, cleanliness and the finer things in life’.

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