Medieval Observations On Makeup as Art

This post is dedicated to my friend N.S. who reads this kind of literature for fun.

I saw this quote on a Russian blog this week and it took me a while to find an English translation of the Tales from Sacchetti written in the late 1300’s by an Italian poet and novelist Franco Sacchetti. I am pretty sure only few if any of you will make it to the end of the quote, so I highlighted the relevant parts which could have been written today and still be true, although comparing a woman to a beetle would probably not go over very well. So forgive the author or the English translator, who transcribed this book in 1908, for not using the correct terms but read on to appreciate the 600-year old insight.

Annunciation, Padova, Scrovegni Chapel ©Giotto di Bondone

Maestro Alberto proveth that the Florentine women in their shrewdness are the best painters in the world and that it is they who turn each diabolical form into an angelic one and marvellously straighten deformed or crooked faces.

In the city of Florence which hath always been rich in extraordinary men there lived formerly certain painters and other masters, who were employed at a place outside the city which is called San Miniato a Monte, executing paintings and work which had to be done to the church. When they had dined with the Abbot and had eaten well, and drunk well they began a discussion and amongst other questions, one whose name was Orcagna, and who was the head builder of the noble oratory of Our Lady of Orto San Michele, asked who was the greatest master of painting, not reckoning Giotto. One said it was Cimabue, another said Stefano, another Bernardo, and another Buffalmacco and one mentioned one man and one mentioned another. Taddeo Gaddi, who was of the company, said: “Of a certainty there have been many very great painters who painted in a manner which is impossible for human nature to surpass, but this art hath become rare, and is dying out more every day.”  Then said one whose name was Maestro Alberto, * and who was a great master of the art of carving in marble: “It seemeth to me that ye are all greatly mistaken and I will certainly show you that nature hath never been so clever as she is today and especially in the art of painting and in that of making living carvings.”

On hearing this, all the masters laughed as though they were out of their senses. Alberto said: “Oh ye may laugh! I will prove it to you, if ye wish.”  One, whose name was Niccolao, said: “Yes, i’ faith, prove it for my sake!”
Alberto answered: “That will I do, since thou desirest it; but ye must listen unto me.” (for they were all cackling together like hens). And Alberto commenced and said:

“I believe that the greatest Master there ever was for painting and for the composing of His figures, is our Lord God; but it appeareth that many persons have found grave defects in the figures created by Him, and that at the present time they are correcting them. Who are these modern painters and correctors? They are the Florentine women. For was there ever a painter who put white upon black, or turned white into black, except these?  There is born many a maiden (and perhaps the greater number) who looketh like a beetle; they rub them here, they chalk them there, they put them in the sun and make them grow whiter than a bean.  And what artist is there, what painter, or even what dyer, who can turn black into white? Certainly not one, for it is against nature. Yet should there be a pale and yellow face with artificial colours, the women make it into the likeness of the rose. She who, through defects or her age appeareth withered, is made to become blooming and plump. I do not except Giotto or any other painter when I say that none ever coloured better than these women. But what is a much greater thing is that a face, which is badly proportioned, and hath goggle eyes, is immediately given eyes like a falcon’s; if the nose is crooked, they immediately straighten it; if the jaws are heavy, they immediately adjust them; if the shoulders are too high, they immediately flatten them and, if one is higher than the other, they make it level with padding that they may look rightly proportioned and of a correct shape.  And thus with the breast and with the hips; they achieve without a chisel what Polycletus himself could not have achieved with one. Therefore, to make my discourse short, I tell you, and I affirm it again that the Florentine women are the greatest artists of painting and carving there have ever been, because as may clearly be seen, they supply what nature lacks. And if ye do not believe me, search through all our land and ye will hardly find a woman who is dark of skin. And this is not because nature made them all white, but because through cleverness the darkest have become white. And so it happeneth that their faces and their bodies and all they have, whether naturally straight or crooked or distorted, with much ingenuity and art are by them reduced to the fairest proportions. And if I must speak the truth, then I say, the work doth honour to the master!”  And turning to the company he asked, “And what do ye say?”

Then they all acclaimed him loudly crying: “Long live the master who hath judged so excellently!”  And in that meadow close by. having decided the question. they elected Maestro Alberto to be their leader; and they sent for wine from the cask, with which they made very merry, saying unto the Abbot that upon the following Sunday they would all return to tell their opinions upon the subject concerning which they had already held discourse. And thus upon the following Sunday all together they returned to dine with the Abbot in the same way as they had dined that day.

* This was Maestro Alberto Arnoldi a famous sculptor of Lombard origin; he was a pupil of the school of Andrea Pisano and spent all his life in Florence, where he worked lor the Cathedral from the year 1362.