SOCIAL SCIENCES

How To Be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty & Female Creativity

Pegasus Jan. 2024. 336p. ISBN 9781639365906. $28.95. HIST
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Burke, a historian of Renaissance visual and material culture (Univ. of Edinburgh; The Italian Renaissance Nude), examines previously underutilized primary-source texts in this extensively researched scholarly analysis of beauty standards for women in Renaissance Europe. It’s also about the business of attaining an attractive visage via beauty tips shared between women. Beauty standards were mediated and propagated through the visual arts, with paintings and sculptures making clear which qualities were valued: which hair colors and textures, which particular proportions of face and body. Women’s often-undervalued knowledge of and experimentation in biology and chemistry—in the form of recipes for cosmetics and tonics, guidance on maintaining health, and instructions for treating illness or ending an unwanted pregnancy—were immortalized in writing and shared more widely via the printed texts that became accessible in the 16th century. Women had long been viewed as commodities, but the Renaissance saw women gain autonomy through acquiring and sharing such knowledge. Burke’s book includes extensive notes and historical recipes for cosmetics.
VERDICT This treatise on Renaissance beauty highlights similarities to contemporary beauty standards. There’s appeal for casual readers, but the real value is for academics.
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