Friday, March 24, 2006

Oh, Mr Porta, what shall I do?

This is me all over: because I once supervised a postgraduate working on cosmetics in English Renaissance Drama, and because I can do anybody’s work but my own (and then only years after it would have been useful) some more cosmetic practices. These are from the English translation of Giambattista della Porta, Natural Magick (1658) an encyclopaedia of wonders (he claims he wrote the first of its many editions when he was 15), with a ninth book ‘How to adorn Women, and Make them Beautiful.’ This was not a book aimed solely at women – the cosmetics chapter ends with a section on how to play jokes on women who have been painting themselves (see below). Della Porta had once fallen foul of the demonologists, who accused him of being a magician and conjurer. Much of the cosmetics section has a resemblance to the grimoires, books of spells, which often seem to me to have been self-validating by means of specifying unobtainable ingredients or unendurable processes. For instance, if something like the Petit Albert tells you that to procure impotence in a man, as your first ingredient you need the foreskin of a freshly-killed wolf, the spell makes itself un-falsifiable, safe in the realm of ‘it might work’. A mystique is preserved, the crucial gosh-wow factor for your reader. Meanwhile, any potential user of a book like this thinks, ‘Leeches steeped in red wine for 60 days might do the job very well, but I want to get rid of these grey hairs I’ve just noticed right now’, and opts for something that comes to hand.

Conversely, serious suffering to be beautiful clearly did occur. Maybe Della Porta’s wildly hazardous remedies spring from their belief that God created everything for human use, so, as even poisons are there for some good purpose, you just have to use them wisely. You see glimpses too of that profuse natural world, where getting hold of lots of leeches, for instance, might not be the stumbling block to a remedy (I think of Wordsworth’s ‘Leech-Gatherer’ struggling to collect his stock-in-trade). Here, that early modern world, thick with flora and fauna, is slowly being replaced by our world, rich in substances. The alchemists are turning up elements and compounds, new materials are coming in from observation of medical practices in the New World: the modern pharmacopia is starting to overtake the natural cornucopia; 'Art' on that engraved title page is starting to usurp the multi-breasted 'Nature'. But to such as Porta it is still all to be called ‘Natural Magic’, benign to mankind, its hazards foggily conceived and side-lined. A dream of beneficial results still tends to occlude even known hazards (rub oil of vitriol on your teeth, and they will be very white, but so will your gums be if you rub too far).

The author begins with the usual quasi-moral rationale for actually allowing cosmetics:

“When God, the Author of all things, would have the Natures of all things to continue, he created Male and Female, that by fruitful Procreation, they might never want Children: and to make Man in love with his Wife, he made her soft, delicate and fair, to entice man to embrace her. We therefore, that Women might be pleasing to their Husbands, and that their Husbands might not be offended at their deformities, and turn into other womens chambers, have taught Women, how, by the Art of Decking themselves and Painting, if they be ashamed of their foul and swart Complexions, they may make themselves fair and Beautiful.”

Here’s the recipe for ‘hoary hairs’ (there's a way to make going grey sound even worse!):

“It is worth the while, to shew such as are ashamed to seem old, how to dye their hoary Hairs black. How Gray Hairs are dyed Black. Anoynt your Hair in the Sun with Leeches that have lain to corrupt in the blackest Wine sixty daies, and they will become very black. Or else, Let a sextary of Leeches stand in two sextaries of Vinegar in a Leaden Vessell to corrupt, for sixty daies; and as I said, anoint your Hair. Pliny saith, It will dye so stongly, that unless they hold Oyl in their mouths, when they dye the hair, it will make their Teeth black also…”

~ I like the way Porta just leaves that problem mentioned by Pliny hanging: just imagine, you have had your leeches rotting in red wine for sixty days, you are ready to rediscover that younger you – but do you or do you not have to have a mouthful of oil while you apply?

Here’s a gem for the dissatisfied new mother: you’ve had a baby with staring blue eyes, when you wanted a baby with nice dark ones:

“But if you would Change the colour of childrens Eyes, You shall do thus: anoint the fore part of their Heads with the Ashes of the shells of Hazel-nuts and Oyl…There are many experiments to make white and gray Eyes black, and alter the colours. But I shall let them pass, because those that want them will not so lightly endanger their Eyes…”

~ again, his non committal way of dropping a question (just how dangerous is this?)

As in my previous posting on cosmetics, the helpless squalor of early modern life sometimes speaks loudly:

“Ringworms will so deform the face, that nothing can do it more: sometimes, they run upon other parts of the Body, as the Arm-pits and Thighs: there drops forth of them, a stinking water that will foul the cloths.”

And, again, he gives only recipes to minimise breast growth, none to maximise it:

“Chapter XXVI To hinder the breasts from augmenting Amongst the Ornaments of women, this is chief, to have after Child-bearing, round, small, solid, and not sagging or wrinkled Brests. Bruise hemlock, and lay a Cataplasm thereof with Vinegar to womens brests, and it will stay them that they shall not increase; especially, in virgins.”

~ I like the way that the remedy sets off with its usefulness after childbearing, and ends by saying that this works very well in virgins.

But it is the slopping around of hazardous chemicals that amazes. Here’s the start of a recipe for spots: To take spots from the Face Put Quick-Lime into hot water; mingle them, and stir them for ten days…” ~ I promise I have not altered that quotation.

Or: A common Depilatory, Which men use commonly in Baths. It consists of Quick-Lime, four parts made into Powder, Orpiment one part: boyl them. Try with a Hens Feather; when that is made bare with it, it is boyl’d: take heed you boyl it not too much, or that it stay not too long upon you skin, for it will burn.”

~ yes, it would, wouldn’t it?

Della Porta is keen on quicksilver:

“I said, that there was nothing better than quick-silver for womens paints, and to cleanse their faces, and make them shine. Wherefore, I shall set down many ways to prepare it, that you may have the use of it to your desire. Take one ounce and half of pure quick-silver, not falsified with lead: for if there be lead mingled with it, all Your labour is lost…"

But some will not away with quick-silver, by reason of the hurt it commonly doth to the teeth: but use other water. Yet there is no better water … and the face anointed with it, shines like silver: it draws the skin handsome, and makes it soft.”

~ But can this be the same writer who lets slip this in giving his list of dentifrices?

“There is nothing held more ugly then for a woman to laugh or speak, and thereby to shew their rugged, rusty, and spotted teeth: for they all almost, by using Mercury sublimate, have their teeth black or yellow.”

His book concludes with ‘Some sports against women’: jokes to play on women. They include sub-Middletonian tricks that will let you know if a woman has been painting on her ‘complexion’ or not. This one relies on her face having ended up being so chemically primed, that you can trigger a precipitating reaction on it:

“If you would know a painted Face, do thus: Burn Brimstone in the room where she is: for if there be Ceruse or Mercury sublimate on her Face, the smoak will make her brown, or black.”

I can imagine the chemistry working, but doubt if anyone ever pulled off this stunt - it has to be a joke, derived from an observed process, solemnly reported. Nice idea, though.

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