A name for extra fine face powder
Face or hair powder in Italian sounds “cipria”. The Italian word evokes the island of Cyprus where Venus, the goddess of love, came from. In Venice, Cyprus was also one of the most important colonial possessions of the Venetian Doge’s Republic after the Queen of Cyprus, a Venetian born lady, donated (or better said, was forced to donate) her island to Venice in 1489. Rich in olive oil, wine and sugar, one of the most expensive “spices” of the time, Cyprus also offered a great strategic position to reach the port of Beirut and then Damascus and eventually the silk road to Asia.
But “cipria” powder was not coming from Cyprus, it was just a successful trademark name echoing love and pleasure, promoting exoticism and orientalism. In fact, it seems the idea of turning fava beans into flour or using starch to create make-up powder was born in Italy and was then exported to France starting in the 16th century. Slightly perfumed, it was originally reddish or yellowish and was used to turn the hair or wigs blondish. Then, in France, it acquired the white colour we are used to today.
Being clean versus being orderly
In the 17th and 18th century Venice had become a centre for elegance and fashion. In those years the city produced excellent soap. It was a very important income source for its custom’s duties. The State designed strategies to protect the secret recipe similarly to what it was doing to protect the secrets of the glass making industry. Strangely enough, though, soap was not so much used to wash yourself, but rather in the woollen textile manufacturing process. So charm and glamour depended more on perfume and make-up. Powder, fake beauty spots, lipstick. White, black and red.
In Venice you could find Cyprus powder easily. So much loved it was! Coming from the Flanders or from Paris, it turned your hair soft, ethereal, pure, and helped you avoid washing it. White hair was therefore fashionable, unlike today when everybody prefers to look forever young. A sign of order and of high class, an aristocratic distinction, artificially hiding natural colours and creating a screen between aristocracy and the other classes. Extremely expensive, needless to say. So Venice started producing its own powder, too.
“Is there a fashion for us ladies that is ruled by reason? Cutting our hair short that once was a sign beauty for women? The crinoline that deforms us? The pain we suffer when we take the little hairs away from our forehead? Shivering in cold so as to show what we should keep hidden? My dear lady, this is all so crazy” (Carlo Goldoni, 1748 The cunning widow).
The lady’s servant
Hair-powder was however not just used by women. Children (both boys and girls) and men, too, would be conveying a sense of order as long as their hair was white. In Italy, however, there would be another figure that shared the lady’s make-up and would attend to her moral reputation. Have you ever heard of the “cavalier servente” or “cicisbeo”? The lady’s servant would accompany a married woman in all her mondane events, to the several parties or to the theatre. A personal assistant taking care of her make-up, helping her write letters, do shopping, visiting friends, gambling and playing. He would spend most of the day with her, praise her, sitting close to her at the banquets…. and the husband would make himself ridiculous if he showed to be jealous.
When Rosaura, the Cunning Widow in Carlo Goldoni’s theatrical piece reads that
“this person will be the most useful person to a good husband as he will be then relieved from many social burdens and moderate the unquiet character of a bizarre wife”,
she disagrees stating that a husband is a chain and to have a “cicisbeo” for a lady like her is only adding one more chain. Smart Rosaura, indeed!
Hair and wigs
Coming back to our powder, wigs replacing hair would also be turned white. And while poor people were bringing their hair to the Jewish pawnshops to get a loan, that hair was turned into wigs that reached even 60 centimetres of height for the Venetian aristocracy.
A room for powder and the “stansa dea cipria” in the theatre by Mattia Berto
How was powder poured over the wigs or hair, though? Cesare Cantù relates that there used to be a small room in the patrician palaces, like a boudoir, where powder was poured from above. Whoever wanted their hair or wigs to turn white with Cyprus powder would get in this little room with an open niche above, dressed in a bathrobe to defend themselves amidst all that powder. And get out ready for their social life.
I met Mattia Berto, a talented, young theatre director here in Venice as I had grown curious to learn how his project “Ea stansa dea cipria” was born — in Venetian dialect: “the room of the powder”.
What a great story and a great afternoon spent together! Bubbly and thought provoking, funny and genial, Mattia told me his idea started while talking to a friend, Andrea Dissera Bragadin. She said that when she was a little girl, she used to play in a place called the “powder room” in one of the palazzos in Venice. Likely the only “powder boudoir” still existing in Venice in the recent times, decorated in stuccoes, it had become a child’s playground.
The actors’ dressing room for normal people
Mattia realised the space had the aura of the actor’s dressing room. A place of transformation, where you play as well as where someone changes into an actor ready to play on a stage. A potentially ludic space, however subversive as it broke with the tradition or social rules established in the past. In his “stansa dea cipria”, Mattia Berto would not let an aristocratic pompous figure in. No actors either. But real people that, during the last edition of the Venetian Carnival, took the opportunity to interpret different characters in Carlo Goldoni’s home, now a civic museum in Venice.
Mattia and Nora have opened this room to normal people that transformed themselves choosing among four paper costumes as prototypes of theatrical characters. Four people every 20 minutes for 54 replicas for three days in a row.
“I am bulimic towards real life”
these are Mattia’s words when explaining he believes that citizens in Venice can feed the city, whoever they are, and that the theatre is definitely a means of aggregation. So while professional actors, in primis the actress Eleonora Fuser, can give their support, the result of their theatrical projects is to trace “anti-crisis constellations” for Venice, like in this “powder room”.
A true theatrical marathon that will certainly bring to more creative solutions. As powder keeps floating in Venice’s air.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
When visiting Venice, don’t miss the Casa di Carlo Goldoni museum, I will be happy to accompany you!