In the times of the Caesars, in the world’s capital, an enormous quantity of infinitely varied perfumes and essences were made. Criton, doctor to Empress Plotine, gave as many as twenty-five different perfume recipes.
Roman ladies made an immoderate use of perfumes of all kinds, and spent incredible sums of money for this luxury item. According to Pliny, they used so much of it, that a lady’s approach could be sensed from far away, by the odours exhaled from her hair and clothes.
In the evening, before bed, a Roman lady applied to her face a paste made of bread soaked in donkey milk, an invention of Poppae, Nero’s wife.
This famous courtisan, endowed with great beauty, used on her face a sort of creamy makeup, which formed a durable crust. It only came off after being washed with a great quantity of milk, which detached it in pieces, leaving behind an extremely white skin.
Poppae made this new makeup fashionable, giving it her name, Poppaeana pinguia, and even used it during her exile, where she took a herd of female donkeys.
For the application of makeup, many people were necessary. There was a slave for each part of the body. Those charged with holding the colours, also applied them to their mistress’ face. Then came those who combed the eyebrows, and those who cleaned and fitted the teeth.
A powerful hierarchy ruled the servants and slaves in charge of cosmetics. The Cosmetes formed a separate group, and were not to be confused with those who tinted hair or combed eyebrows.
One of the Cosmetes, holding a bowl full of still-warm donkey milk, gently removed with a sponge the cataplasm adhering to her mistress’ face. Once this was properly cleaned, another Cosmete stepped up to apply the colour.
Before starting this operation, the slave had to blow on a metal mirror, which she then held out to her mistress. The mistress smelled it and recognized by the odour whether the slave’s breath was healthy and perfumed to her taste by the lozenges which had been given to her for this purpose. The colour was crushed and mixed with saliva before being applied.
At this time, white lead, or ceruse, chalk and mercury were known. Mixed with saliva, mercury gave a mixture used like rouge. However, people preferred to use less nocive products like sorrel or orcanetta, or others, not so agreeable.
Some reds were made from sheep droppings. In particular, from those attached to their wool. Crocodile excrements were also collected as well as cow dung, from which a highly recommended powder for chapped skin and freckles was made. Ladies smeared it over their faces without the slightest repugnance.
Makeup excesses were often mocked and condemned by poets. Petronius, in his Satyricon, said: “On her forehead bathed by sweat, streams of makeup flowed, and in the wrinkles of her face there was such a quantity of chalk, that you would have said an old, decrepit wall worn down by rain.”.
The use of all these colours to hide the stigmata of time was also the target of satyrists, like the unforgiving Juvenal: “That caked face covered by so many drugs and on which the lips of unfortunate husbands get stuck, is it a face or a wound?” But it was no use trying to reform habits and, in spite of Properce’s wise advice, “the most successful face is still the one given by Nature”, the ladies of Rome continued to use what Cicero calls the “medicines of white and red”.
Women’s use of makeup and perfume ceased to be highly respectable in the Middle Ages, but this was only partially widespread. As most ladies of the manor led very retired lives and rarely went to town, where perfume shops were to be found, travelling haberdashers furnished them with all of their toiletries.
Here is a list of the necessities of the time: razors, tweezers, mirrors, toothbrushes, toothpicks, headbands, hair irons, plaits, combs, hand-mirrors, rosewater, cotton, makeup. These objects were kept in a little piece of furniture called “demoiselle a atourner”, which was a little table with a head and two arms.
The cosmetics and perfumes were placed on the table. One of the arms carried the mirror, the other, the combs and pins. On the head, rested the headdress. This little piece of furniture was usually made of wood. For ladies of high rank, they were of solid silver.
Women embellished their faces with colours. Egg yellow, vine water, balms and ceruse composed the makeup, which melted, according to Olivier Maillard, at the first ray of sunshine. The other parts of their skin displayed in public, such as arms, neck and breast, were also made up.
This would all be incomplete if Madame did not add a few “odorous things”, as Jean Cleree says, to perfume her body. Musk, for example. Or some “powders to provoke lust”.
Nothing seems to be too expensive for the enhancement of a lady’s charms. Neither the objurgations of the husband, nor the declamations of the fashionable preacher, would make her renounce anything capable of making her more attractive.
However, the excessive use of colour was not appropriate at this epoch, for very white skin was recommended. Women also seemed to be more attached to the ornamentation of their clothes than to makeup.
At this time of free preachers, the elegant lady is recognized by her narrow headdress, armed with long ears like horns, which balances on the summit of her head. It is the hennin, which obliges women to stoop to pass through doors. Preachers rant against it, and it disappears, only to return, even more provoking.
A wide forehead, plucked if necessary, with hair hanging in tufts, complete the picture. If age thins the hair, it is supplemented by hair from cadavers or condemned people.
Third part tomorrow.