It is not rare to come across Renaissance paintings depicting women showing a very prominent forehead.
Poets’ descriptions of women’s ideal beauty in Renaissance literature played a huge role in shaping women’s beauty canons. Renaissance women worked hard to meet an impossible ideal of female beauty, always created by men. In some of his pieces, the poet Petrarch (1304-74) praised Laura, a young woman he loved. He eulogized her high and wide forehead. For the poet, this physical feature was synonymous with her spiritual beauty and purity. In Orlando Furioso, Renaissance poet Ludovico Ariosto (1474-1533) also describes a beauty’s forehead as ‘smooth ivory’. In the late 15th century, women’s physical appearance was thought to reflect their own soul.
European artists also tried to reinforce beauty ideals aforementioned by poets in their representation of noblewomen. Profile portraits of the late 15th century tend to draw attention or accentuate a sitter’s high forehead.
Women often tried to achieve bodily perfection. It was quite common for well-born European women to shave or pluck their hairlines all the way back to the crowns of their heads. Plucking hairs one by one proved to be a very long and painful process and women came up with very creative alternatives (quicker but not pain free either). There is an impressive number of depilatory recipes found in the 16th century Italian ricettari. Caterina Sforza shared in her manuscript Gli Experimenti (written before 1500) a recipe which makes hair go away. The title is ‘A far cadere peli che mai piu torneranno’ – ‘To make hair drop out and never come back’. This recipe incorporated egg whites, mastic, lead and bat blood. Caterina Sforza claimed that the hair will fall, leaving a beautiful forehead, broad and without marks.
With all that in mind, next time you lose a patch of hair remember you are on the road to classical greatness.
1. Florentine School, Portrait of a lady in red, probably 1460-70, National Gallery, London
2. Northern Italy, Profile portrait of a lady, c.1465-1475, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Felton Bequest, 1946
3. Benci Antonio known as Pollaiolo, Portrait of a Woman, c. 1475, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
4. Alesso Baldovinetti, Portrait of a Lady in Yellow, c. 1465, National Gallery, London