In Venetian traditions

Makeup in Venice: the concept of female beauty in 18th century nobility

Who would be considered a beautiful woman in the 18th century Venice? It is a real joy to observe the paintings by Pietro Longhi or his son Alessandro, not to mention the delicate portraits by Rosalba Carriera. In these artists’ works we can see what ideals of beauty prevailed at their time. Museums in Venice of the kind of the Accademia Galleries, or the collection at the Querini Stampalia Foundation or the Ca’ Rezzonico palace will offer you a great slideshow in regards to beauty standards, makeup and fashion in the 1700s.

“Beautiful” is not a formula, rather it is that kind of allure which fascinates and may paradoxically depend on a detail of imperfection. Venusian strabismus, for instance. But if we playfully tear the object of desire in single “bits”, what was the “perfection” in the 18th century in Venice? What were the ideal mouth, eyes, hair, skin, cheeks, hands and nails looking like? And what did you need to do to stick to that ideal?

Paolo Veronese and his aristocratic beauty ideal

The first thing you notice is that there wasn’t much of a difference between the Rococo and the late Renaissance ideals of beauty. Giambattista Tiepolo’s female beauty echoed Paolo Veronese’s aristocratic noblewomen. That’s two hundred years before! A round face, rosy cheeks, blond hair, possibly gently curly and plaited to form two vertical golden horns. The pearl necklace, the pearl earring, pink, red and yellow flowers to embellish the forehead —camelia, roses… not to mention a shiny, soft and porcelain-like skin for the décolleté. 

Giambattista Tiepolo, The feast of the cross and Saint Helena, Accademia Galleries, Venice, 1740s, Detail

Orientalism and exoticism in the 1700s in Venice

While porcelain industry thrived and the color “white” became the “must”, the fascination for the Asian world would be present all over. Household furnishings and equipment, even if made in Venice, indifferently echoed Mongolia/China/Persia and Marco Polo’s memorable travels. Of course, nothing realistic, but who cares? Smoking opium, riding a camel, lavishness and luxury possibly combined with sensuality. And what about an exotic parrot from South America to be entertained by? Ah, the pleasant idleness. This life style reflected in the makeup and fashion, too.

Rosalba Carriera, Lady with a parrot, 1730 ca., Chicago, Art Institute

In her interesting booklet “Makeup in Venice” edited by Lineadacqua, Joan Giacomin relates about her long research on the subject and gives us a very detailed description of the best “bits”. In short, “Makeup”, she writes, “had to look anything but natural.” As a matter of fact, it was also called “painting” or “mask”. As if a woman’s face were the canvas to paint and makeup such as blush, lipstick and fake eyebrows, face patches and white powder was the painter’s palette.

Pietro Longhi, Makeup time, Ca’ Rezzonico Museum Venice, 1760

Makeup in Venice in the 18th century: pros and cons

It took hours and hours to a Venetian noblewoman to get ready for her social life. It was a duty, but, unless you were an impatient rebel against conventions, it was not so cumbersome to sit while your hairdresser took care of your hairstyle or wig.

Pietro Longhi, The hairdresser, Ca’ Rezzonico Museum Venice

Hairstyle in ancient Venice

But first of all you had to bleach your hair blond, should nature have not given you that golden nuance. Up on the “altana”, the roof terraces, you would go and sit for hours. You needed a special hat, which left the hair free while the face was kept in the shade and did not risk to get bronze with some sun tan. Sun tan was a distinctive trait of peasants and workers, certainly not nobility.

As Joan Giacomin discovered in her archive research, Venetian ladies in the late 1500s already used a mix of alum, black sulphur and honey. But also olive oil. Some other recipe included sodium carbonate and potassium. I had read about urine, but that’s fortunately incorrect!

The higher, the larger, the richer your hairstyle, the better. Wigs became more and more fashionable. I imagine carrying such huge hair architecture on your head (with precious stones, lace, pearls) must have been difficult and tiring. But who said looking beautiful is easy?

A white face, as white as porcelain, a mouth like a red rose

And what about the mix you put on your face to make it as white as the most fragile porcelain (and possibly hide the defects of your natural skin)? As painters used the white “biacca” for their art works, so women used the same for the face. Just, it happened to be lead… when they didn’t use mercury mixed with steamed vinegar. So toxic this mix was that they lost their eyelashes, eyebrows and hair, their eyes started crying, their teeth darkened. Paralysis and death could also be the effects. Same thing for the lipstick.

Pietro Longhi, The morning of a Venetian lady, Accademia Galleries, Venice, 1741, Detail

Makeup and sensuality: the dilemma between seducing or being seduced…

The more you look at Pietro Longhi’s paintings, the more the characters portrayed look as if they were living in a doll’s house. But, there are certain gestures and looks that clearly refer to the art of seduction. Some kind of a buzz can be felt when the gentleman is observing with a magnifying lens the décolleté of a lady, or while she looks at the gentleman wearing the mask cleverly using her fan. Is she really naive and who is leading the game?

Pietro Longhi, The geography lesson, Querini Stampalia Foundation, Venice, 1750-52

Makeup is about hiding, choosing what to show and when to show what… and “deforming” what you show. With a risk, though, that of ending up all look alike.

Gender fluid or social snobbishness?

When it comes to fashion and makeup in Venice in the 18th century, you notice there is no clear distinction between genders.

Alessandro Longhi, The Procuratore Pisani Family, Accademia Galleries, Venice, 1758, Detail

Alessandro Longhi, The Procuratore Pisani Family, Accademia Galleries, Venice, 1758, Detail

Sure, men were wearing a waistcoat, culottes and a long jacket and women would wear their long skirts with the “paniers” and a cage underneath, but the feeling is that men’s fashion reflected the role of men as “seducers” rather than reflecting military or political roles. So lace, pastel colors, glass crystals, elegant embroidery, buttons covered in gold yarn or silk stockings would be featuring in men’s fashion, too. 

Not just gender fluid, but also age fluid, because young children would dress like the grown-ups and the elderly.

Alessandro Longhi, The Procuratore Pisani Family, Accademia Galleries, Venice, 1758, Detail

Pietro Longhi, The tailor, Accademia Galleries, Venice, 1741, Detail

Easy to explain: showing off you belonged to the Venetian oligarchy would be the goal of makeup and fashion. What mattered was social distinction. While nobility members all looked alike, they had to look like creatures of a separate world. For the other ones, sorry, no option to rise socially.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

On the cover: Rosalba Carriera, Portrait of Caterina Sagredo Barbarigo, 1735-1740, Dresden, Gemäldegalerie

Joan Giacomin, The little book of makeup in Venice, edited by Lineadacqua, Venice 2022

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Showing 5 comments
  • Gail

    Very interesting, thanks Luisella! Do you think the children in the paintings, with the very pink cheeks, also wore makeup?

    • Thank you for asking! Just a little, but yes, they also would wear makeup but in a very light version. Even the grown-ups were not always covering their skin with a heavy layer of makeup if they planned some gallant meeting!

  • Luigi

    “It took hours and hours to a Venetian noblewoman to get ready for her social life”, haha even today, some women take several hours to prepare for social life 😉

    However, makeup and wigs are a kind of masks that can be seducing but they can also hide something unpleasant. They say that the reasons why there was such a change in the ideal of beauty at the end of the Renaissance were medical. In 1492 the Americas were discovered and a new disease started spreading through Spain and France. The so called French disease or syphilis came to the Italian peninsula during the Italian Wars (1494-1530) and greatly weakened the effectiveness of the Venetian army, for example. In 1499, it was reported that a Venetian galley at Corfu was unable to set sail because the crew was infected with the French disease.
    The initial symptoms of syphilis, among others, include hair loss and bloody head sores. Open ulcers on the head had unpleasant smell. This led to the use of thick layers of makeup, scented powders and wigs. Sometimes even fashion can be seen as a symptom of a disease…

    Otherwise, thank you so much, Luisella, for the link to “The little book of makeup in Venice” edited by Lineadacqua. I checked out their website and their twitter account. They publish amazing stuff, sell beautiful paintings too. It’s good to see that Venice is not just living in the past. I’d like to visit their shop sometime.

    • Thank you for such a great contribution! How interesting!!! And yes, when you come to Venice, do pay a visit to Lineadacqua, I am sure you will find their editorial choices very interesting. They also run the bookshop “Stadium” next to St Mark’s square.

      • Luigi

        Thank you for the tip, Luisella. I would definitely stop by. Bookshops are my favorite places when wondering through foreign cities and to be honest I have not visited many of them yet in Venezia. Venezia used to be famous by its publishers. I think it’s where Mattioli published his beautiful Herbarium in the 16th century. I need to do a kind of “bookshop” tour one day there…