As printing became easier and less expensive in the sixteenth century, pamphlets with beauty advice and recipes began to spread quickly and were available to all, regardless of class.
The invention of the printing press would be the first step toward changing this forever. The earliest known system of printing was invented in China around AD 1041, but it was the invention of the printing press with movable characters by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany around 1450 that heralded a sea change in the exchange of information. For the first time, ideas from science and politics to literature could be shared among a wide audience. Of course, this included information about the production and use of cosmetics. Beauty secrets and recipes would have been passed down through the female members of a family or kept by the village wisewoman, and handmade with ingredients sourced and grown locally. After the invention of printing and publishing, this knowledge spread like wildfire.
During the Renaissance in Italy, a culture emerged in which cosmetics were widely promoted on the streets, with recipe secrets sold for the equivalent of a flash of wine in other words, they were exceedingly cheap. Pamphlets were circulated among communities, and some featured beauty advice and recipes sold by peddlers who offered the ingredients as well as the instructions.
These manuals evolved to become a popular genre, known as secrets of secrets medical handsecrets with a domestic slant (instructions for preserving food might sit alongside a recipe for rouge) that encompassed science, magic, and religion. The most famous of these manuals, and one of the earliest examples of this genre itself part of an older tradition going back to the twelfh-century Trotula, and further back to ancient Egyptian texts such as the Ebers Papyrus is Gli Experimenti, a collection of recipes and experiments collated by Italian noblewoman Caterina Sforza around 1500. This text is extraordinary for many reasons, not least the fact that it was written by an educated woman whose life we know something about, which was very rare; in fact, it is the first beauty secret that we are able to definitively confirm as being female authored. Like other secrets of secrets, Gli Experiments content appears to have been drawn from the traditions of the community around Sforza as well as knowledge gleaned from classical medicine (like the teachings of Galen, for example). A modern-day beauty guru, Caterina established one of the earliest known beauty communities, writing and receiving letters from many sources to discuss, exchange, and collect recipes for Gli Experimenti. Jacqueline Spicer, an academic who has translated Gli Experimenti, points out that though 66 of the 454 recipes are classified as cosmetic, the actual number of recipes concerning beauty and cosmetics from making skin clear and blemish-free to dyeing hair is much higher at 192. Spicer also notes that the non-cosmetic recipes range from making things look like gold, to poisoning people, showing the author’s eclectic range of talents and interests.
Later titles followed Gli Experimenti, such as The Secrets of Lady Isabella Cortese (1561) rare in that, like Sforza’s work, it was (purportedly) written by a woman which was so successful that it reprinted six times, indicating a public hungry for this community-sourced miscellany of medical and cosmetic knowledge. Since female authors were not the norm, it also seems correct to assume that the vast majority of these beauty pamphlets would have been written by men.
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