Venice, 17 October 2022 - It is a new day in 18th-century Venice, the sun has risen and its rays light up the calli and canals of the lagoon city. In some far-away salon of a palace, a Venetian lady sits at her dressing table, carefully inspecting every inch of her face in the mirror. A long and complex ritual is about to begin, between powders, wigs, ceruse and fake beauty marks. Perfection is the goal. It is not well-known that, during the 1600 years of the history of Venice, a crossroads of cultures, fashions and commerce, the production of cosmetics and products for the care and beauty of the person was another speciality of the Serenissima. Calle dello Spezier, Sotoportego De Le Moschete, Corte de la Polvere: even today the city of the Doges remembers its particular history of makeup.
An expert on the subject is Joan Giacomin, a professional makeup artist, passionate about cosmetics and perfumery, as well as the author of “Piccolo libro del make up a Venezia” (in English: “The Little Book of Makeup in Venice”), a project born years ago from a curiosity.
“I realized that there was not something that explained what the beauty rituals of the Venetian lady were like – says the author – So I started my research at the library when I had some free time, putting the material together in a way that it could be true to reality, without being a college essay. While studying, I realized how unique Venice was in terms of female beauty and how women could assert themselves”.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of beauty followed very lavish and complicated canons. The rigid precepts of fashion and cosmetics were imported from Versailles, but in Venice – renowned to be a Mediterranean port where there were all the raw materials used for the creation of products for the care and beauty of the person – such rules were less coded and there was more freedom of choice. Following more class differences than gender, makeup became a social symbol of belonging to the more affluent classes and crept into the daily routine of ladies, gentlemen and all those who wanted to be in the latest fashion. A porcelain face was synonymous with nobility.
“You had to look young and beautiful – explains Giacomin – but since you were no longer young at 15, appearance was fundamental. First of all, the pallor: before Coco Chanel, tan did not exist, so at the time being as white as possible meant that you did not have to work, that you stayed at home embroidering. In those days, many diseases could be seen from the look of the skin, and having perfect skin meant not having any kind of disease. Same with being fertile: a beautiful complexion and beautiful skin represented an attractive woman able to have children”.
To achieve the most snow-white complexion possible, the Venetian ladies had a vast arsenal of scented-water recipes and beauty wraps. Among all these remedies was the cerusa, a compound based on lead white, a highly toxic and corrosive pigment that eliminated any imperfection, ensuring exceptional coverage and adhesion. This 18th-century “foundation” was then combined with rouge, a blush to colour the cheeks obtained with natural pigments or minerals. Lipstick, on the other hand, was not particularly loved.
“Some of the first tube lipsticks, similar to the ones we use now, were made with grease and coloured pigments: they were rolled up like cigarettes, and were used moderately because they had a very unpleasant taste”, says the professional makeup artist.
The favourite place of these preparation rituals was the dressing table, which very often had its own dedicated area inside the house. Here, helped by their maids, the Venetian ladies dedicated themselves to the creation of perfumes and mixed ingredients for cosmetics, previously purchased at their own trusted spezier.
A lady with porcelain skin, embellished with rosey cheeks: this was therefore the image, unique in Europe, of the Venetian woman, visible in many paintings of the time. A woman who had more freedom than her European contemporaries, and who, thanks to the power of makeup, found a space to be the absolute protagonist, not only as a consumer but also as a creator.