BBC History Magazine
Q Why were women in Renaissance paintings depicted with prematurely receding hairlines?
Renaissance women – A
like many of us today – suffered for their appearances. They were striving to meet an impossible ideal of female beauty, created by men. This was based on the writings of the influential poet Petrarch (1304–74). His works eulogise Laura, whom he loved but was unattainable because she was already married.
Petrarch praises Laura’s high, wide forehead – one of the physical features that for him evoked her spiritual beauty and purity. You can see this feminine ideal reflected in countless Renaissance images of women, such as Alessio Baldovinetti’s Portrait of a Lady (pictured above). As such, it’s highly unlikely that this particular woman would have closely resembled the portrait made of her in real life.
At this time, your physical appearance was thought to reflect your soul, so real women would have worked hard to achieve bodily perfection. They commonly shaved their hairlines, or painstakingly removed individual hairs with tweezers. This took time and was very painful, so some women resorted to treatments involving vinegar mixed with alkaline substances such as quick lime or cat poo. This removed hair, but sometimes it took off their skin as well. Being conventionally beautiful took time and money – as it often does today – but it was also damaging to Renaissance women’s faces and bodies.