A hundred and thirty objects and art works have been assembled by the Musée National de la Renaissance
with the aim of restoring the full aesthetic and social dimension of the Renaissance toilet routine. Beauty sets, ointment slabs and perfume bottles, powder boxes, mirrors, combs, ornaments for hair and clothing are contextualised and exhibited next to paintings and sculptures. The confrontation between the sometimes idealised beauty proper to the artists of the Renaissance and items of everyday material culture help us understand the practices of a civilisation in which the role of appearances and grooming was far from negligible.
From public baths to aristocratic relaxation
Although the popular baths of the medieval era had not yet disappeared, bathing in the sixteenth century incarnated a new form of sociability reserved for the educated, cultured elite which was emblematic of aristocratic life in Europe. Paintings, drawings and engravings by Primaticcio, Jean Mignon and Luca Penni give a glimpse of the luxurious appointments of bathrooms at the time. The sober, impressive bathroom in the Château dEcouen, exceptionally open to the public during the exhibition, is an eloquent demonstration of gracious living under the Valois kings.
Cosmetology: treatises and beauty tips
Cosmetics complemented bodily hygiene. Thanks to the introduction of the printing press, cosmetic information and beauty tips circulated as never before. Modern cosmetology was only a collection of empirical recipes for ointments, lotions and powders. Advice on ways to avoid pimples (enlevures) or blemishes (macules), to cure ulcers and smooth away wrinkles was sought from friends. Their formulas are listed in an astonishing manuscript by Claude Gouffier, Master of the Horse, now in the French National Library. These recipes are all dated and identified by the names of the people who supplied them, such as Louise de Savoie or Catherine de Medicis.
Beauty routine and accessories
The ceremonial surrounding personal grooming and skin care became one of the privileges of refined court life in the sixteenth century, for men and women alike. A new pictorial genre developed: the nude portrait. Seated at her dressing table, naked in the familiar surroundings of her bedroom, a reception area rather than a private space, The Lady at Her Toilet (Musée des Beaux-arts in Dijon) is typified by her radiant beauty, inspired by antique canons, and her sacred, yet sensual body. The social function of the bedroom justifies the display of accessories made of precious materials on the dressing table: mirrors, brushes and combs, toothpicks and ear picks, ornaments for hair and clothing, an extremely rare casket and toilet kit from the Musée Historique de Bâle, rock crystal martens heads supposed to drive away fleas, and many more. The exhibition ends with an evocation of the fragrances used at the time, through a display of a range of luxury recipients: a delicate gold bottle set with opals on loan from the London museum, astonishing pieces of jewellery in the form of pomanders which fall open to reveal quarters containing perfume, rosary beads imbibed with fragrances. All these surprising, precious objects are evidence of the refinement of the most intimate aspects of Renaissance civilisation.