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Thursday, September 5, 2013

Venetian Ceruse

Today women are scrambling for products that promote skin whitening, to remove blemishes, scars and unevenness of the skin tone. Much of the skin flaws are caused by acne, accidental scars, and too much sun exposure. Few know that this cosmetic was in use for centuries by many types of people, especially the wealthy.


During ancient Egyptian, Greek & Roman times, women were shielded from the sun using parasols and generally staying indoors away from the rays of the sun. The look of lighter, brighter and whiter skin made them appear more wealthy, because their skin wasn't tanned by the sun like peasants, the poor and fellahin. Only the working class who had to work outside would get a sun tan, so alabaster skin showed that you did not have to work, and were therefore important. But some women took this step a bit further by using harsh chemicals such as lead.

Fucus was a general term that referred to Roman makeup. After a thorough cleansing and moisturizing, a foundation layer of white paste was applied. The rich favoured a foundation made from white lead, which gave the desired effect, but is extremely toxic. Safer alternatives include chalk and orris-root. Also, recent analysis by the Museum of London has revealed that a paste of fat, starch, and tin oxide makes a very effective foundation.

A deathly pallor of the skin was also popular, and women would draw blue onto their veins to make their skin look translucent. In Egypt, women traced the veins in their temples and breasts with blue paint and tipped their nipples with liquid gold. Chalk and the orris root was also used to make foundation pastes and a mixture of fat, starch and tin oxide was also used.


Venetian Ceruse, also known as Spirits of Saturn, was a 16th century cosmetic used as a skin whitener. It was in great demand and considered the best available at that time, the first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1521. [Middle English, from Old French, from Latin c russa.] ceruse [səˈruːs. ] A notable user of this type of cosmetic was Elizabeth I of England. Though early uses of the lead makeup paste were made by the Romans who called it Biacca.

Venice, the fashion capitol of the Renaissance, specialized in the sale of Venetian ceruse, which was made of white lead mixed with vinegar and was poisonous when absorbed through the skin's pores. The product which hearkened back to a Roman recipe, contained a pigment composed of white lead, which was understood to cause lead poisoning that would eventually damage the user's skin complexion and cause hair loss. Male as well as female courtiers used face-paint in the Jacobean period.


The women who wore the make-up were not ignorant of the danger that their make-up posed. Physicians at the time warned them of the danger of the ingredients in their make-up, and even the Church preached that they were punishing themselves for their vanity, but for the women wearing the make-up - only being fashionable mattered. Pliny the Elder's Natural History recognizes that ceruse is "a deadly poison" whose mineral form is used to paint boats.

Venetian ceruse had the effect of making women's skin look like a ghastly, white mask, as if the women had been coated in plaster. The women who wore it usually just kept adding the mixture now and then rather than wash the old layer off.

Queen Elizabeth herself was reported by the Jesuit priest Anthony Rivers at Christmas 1600 to have been painted 'in some places near half an inch thick' (Foley, Records of the Soc. of Jesus,ii; and Nashe in the 1594 Preface to Christ's Tears, ridiculing Gabriel Harvey's style, had compared his vainglory to a mistress 'new painted over an inch thick' (Nashe, ii.180).


The white lead rotted the wearer's teeth (creating terrible bad breath in the process) and turned their skin yellow, green and red. Hair could fall out, the eyes would swell and inflame, watering often in agony. The mouth and throat would become affected and the lead would gradually destroy the woman's lungs. If the product was used over an extensive period of time it could cause death.

The damage caused by the white lead in ceruse actually gave rise to the fashion of fake ‘beauty spots’ in the 18th century – velvet patches to hide scars. See my article on Beauty Spots & Patch Boxes.


The first record of this skin-whitener was found in 1519 in Horman's "Vulgaria puerorum", and by the time of Elizabeth's reign was well-established as an essential item for the fashionable woman. Naturally, spreading lead upon one's skin caused a variety of skin problems; some authors of the time warned against it, describing how it made the skin "grey and shrivelled", and suggesting other popular mixtures such a paste of alum and tin ash, sulphur, and a variety of foundations made using boiled egg white, talc, and other white materials as a base. Egg white, uncooked, could also be used to "glaze" the complexion, creating a smooth shell and helping to hide wrinkles.


Giovanni Lomazzo, A Tracte Containing the Artes of Curious Paintinge, Carvinge and Building:
"The Ceruse or white lead which women use to better their complexion, is made of lead and vinegar; which mixture is naturally a great drier; and is used by chirurgions to drie up moiste sores. So that those women who use it about their faces, doe quickly become withered and gray headed, because this dowth so mightely drie up the naturall moysture of their flesh."

Thomas Tuke,A treatise against Painting and Tincturing of Men and Women
"The ceruse or white Lead, wherewith women use to paint themselves was, without doubt, brought in use by the divell, the capitall enemie of nature, therwith to transforme humane creatures, of fair, making them ugly, enormious and abominable....a man might easily cut off a curd or cheese-cake from either of their cheeks."

Recipe taken from Ruscelli:
Recipe for Ceruse (white foundation): "take talcum and burned tin, heat them together in a glassmaker's furnace for three or four days, and mix the resulting ashes with green figs or distilled viniger."

Venetian ceruse was still being sold as late as the 19th century. Despite growing medical knowledge, dangerous cosmetics continued to be used into the Victorian era. Whiteners, still quite popular, contained substances such as zinc oxide, mercury, lead, nitrate of silver, and acids; some women even ate chalk or drank iodine to achieve whiteness.

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