Skincare and Beauty Junkies--Then and Now.

Here's a satirical poem by the Italian poet Luigi Pulci from 1472 about beauty supplies required by the 15th-century young and glamorous Nannina de' Medici and the ladies who orbited her court. It is an exaggerated (and yes, misogynistic--but before you write me about this, the poem dates from 1472)  historical perspective to those of us who have tried, are willing to try, or are at least somewhat curious about a lot of products and techniques that might raise another's filled in and/or threaded eyebrow.  


 Nannina as Madonna in Botticelli's Madonna del Magnificat, 1481

A while ago, I posted an instagram detailing a few delights from the poem, but here it is in its entirety from Early Modernist Allison Levy's: "The Plastered Female Face in Fifteenth-Century Florence: A Translation of Luigi Pulci's 'Le galee per Quaracchi,'" in Kristische Berichte, 2017. In its early stages, I had the pleasure and honor of contributing to her translation.  

Enjoy and do your double takes, but really: some of the things we take as normal now are equally odd...are they not?



Bee on Lips, Irving Penn, 1995


 The Galleys Bound for Quaracchi

The galleys bound for Quaracchi

set sail to the winds

and reached safe harbor—

despite the cargo within—

thanks to some Jack,

from Contraband City,

and two local bosses,

who gave the order

to ferry the booty

straight to the border.

The clerk from Capalle

made a very long list

of all of the lading,

which went something like this:

For the head and the hair

first a vat full of bleach,

so filled to the brim

I sunk an arm in;

enough aquavit to flood a canal

and for facials, a mortar slosh;

but I can’t understand the rationale

behind the banana squash!

Nor that unsavory solution

of brown water and broom—

it could only have come

from a sewage room.

Who knows how many lupins,

seemed an entire collection,

said to soften wrinkles

and cure bad complexions;

plus two casks of astringents,

both filled to the top,

for tightening pores

and for lightening one’s mop;

huge barrels of sulfur,

both yellow and black,

to mix up solutions

for unsightly attacks;

for still other ablutions,

so much purified soap

that counting it all

was a forlorn hope.

With horsehair by the handful

and gum to make things grow,

thicker manes

they said would show.

Oh, come on now!

Must I write this stuff down?

For itchy scalps and dandruff,

they had whole jars of snake oil—

and lizard lard, too.

Plus heaps of ground goose fat,

powder puffs, and poufs.

So blanched in a talc

of lily and squid,

these dainties must have emptied the kegs

then—heaven forbid!—

scavenged the dregs.

To rinse the paste,

which slims the face,

were a good six casks

of lemon, melon,

and cantaloupe water;

plus pumpkin and white figs,

wild bush and vines;

add to that fava,

flowers, and pine;

twigs thick as branches,

and sprigs and shoots;

extract of pimpernel

and other juice:

tonics of mallow and burning bush,

of elder flower and elm;

one could do a field report on each cask—

I was thoroughly overwhelmed!

They brought dishrags and greases

to fill in the creases

caused by Old Man Winter,

who’d left their little faces

all dried up and splintered.

They packed boiled must and fresh cheese,

iris, peach pit, and broad beans;

gypsum by the jug

to whiten the mug;

twelve gallons of lotions

and various potions

to cure the pox

and other eruptions;

to skip the infirmary,

they brought their own gurney

and loaded it down

with sea salts and mercury.

Six boxes overflowing

with camphor and borax

kept skin calm and brightly glowing.

Rosacea they quelled

with a balm of lily and

powdered eggshells.

You wouldn’t believe it—

the concoctions they shipped;

it’s truly a wonder

the boats didn’t flip!

To redden the cheeks

of those of green or yellow cast,

there was a huge ball of rouge

and two or more of witch grass.

These ladies weren’t kidding!

There were stone flowers galore

and ten barrels of red dye, horseradish and borage,

and pumpkin leaves, more

than any herd could ever gobble.

To depilate their brows,

they brought a wondrous assortment:

razors and shards,

pumice and orpiment.

Mixing pots

held preparations

for poultices

and other applications;

I saw a serum of egg whites

and dried snail shells,

to polish and buff

all that was rough;

but did they really need

a hundred vials of the stuff?

And there for the taking

was a forbidden fat—

suet concealed in ampoules,

said to impart a pearly luster

and to banish ugly pustules.

Acacia gum by the keg gave me pause—

there was enough to feed an army—

used, I was told, for applying gauze

to turkey necks and

similar wrecks.

For smallpox scars

and other defects,

donkey milk by the drum;

and to clean one’s teeth—

as a rule of thumb—

if ground coral and brick

didn’t do the trick,

they brought piles of pesto

made from a mash

of carnations and sage,

sour grapes and antler ash.

There were baskets full

of secret agents:

rosemary, honey, and garden patience.

Sponges by the dozen

and cotton pads—

but surgical dressings?

These women were mad!

Little pieces of felt

and stacks of cork

went under the heel,

to rise like a stork.

Still other strange tools

were shipped by these fools:

pharmaceutical wrappers

and medicine jars,

flasks, vials, and mirrors—

truly bizarre!—

plus boxes and bowls,

and glasses and basins.

There were broaches and combs

and I hasten

to add: hairpins and earrings,

some shaped like half-moons,

plus wigs of every color

to be worn by these loons.

To decorate the head

there were plenty of inventions,

like paper ribbons

and goat hair extensions;

garlands and hats

and other toppers,

so large and so many

they were held in huge hoppers;

hair ties and rubber bands

to control loose strands;

plus add-ons like braids

and other pieces they’d made.

Not to mention the pile

of hemp and textiles,

which rose—God help me—

as high as the sky!

I thought we would drown

from the weight of the crowns,

the tails and the bonnets,

the trinkets and bling,

and the thousand other

frivolous things.

O poor husbands,

you blind buffoons!

Give these girls a kick—

send ’em straight to the moon!

For I know well from where I speak;

it’s three days in and all they’ve done

is dress up and giggle and gossip and squeak.

One day they sailed along the shore,

a scene that was hardly serene;

for with all of their humming,

the whole world heard them coming.

But then,

at the end—

it felt like a dream—

all of a sudden

they ran out of steam.

They no longer cared

about the flies in the air,

nor bee stings nor bites,

nor disheveled hair.

Why the dismay?

Their cosmetics used up,

they could no longer play

Miss Priss or PinUp.

So take my advice:

steer clear of a wife.

But if you’ve already fallen

into her trap,

curse her often

and give her a slap.

The galleys bound for Quaracchi.



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