A Crowning Glory continued...

"Take the dried dregs of white wine and chop them into olive oil. Comb this through your hair while sitting in the sun".
(Recipe for bleaching hair by Giovanni Marinello, 1562, "Gli ornamenti delle donne", quoted in Lives of the Courtesans by Lynne Lawner)

The remaining period of the sixteenth century can be looked at as a whole, for things are much the same at 1600, as they are in 1570.This woodcut and the accompanying description by Cesare Vecellio, circa 1590, demostrates the popularity of bleaching hair blonde in Venetian society at the time. The image shows a Venetian woman sitting atop her altana, "a bay window made out of the roof of a house" (Florio) during "the hottest moment of the day" (Cesare Vecellio, in Lawner, p19) bleaching her hair the requisite shade of blonde. It seems that to be other than blonde was to be unfashionable and out of touch with the ultimate expression of the Venetian ideal of beauty, and bleaching seems to have been popular for most of the sixteenth century. Indeed, the "Venetian fashion" of bleaching the hair blonde was seen "to confer an air of femininity and refinement, even nobility" on a woman. (Fonte, 1592, p234) Marinello and others such as Giambattista della Porta (1535-1615) wrote up many recipes for bleaching the hair, such as this one:

"To five glasses of Fountain water, add Alome-Foeces, one ounce, Soap, three ounces, Barley Straw, one handful.  Let them boil in earthen pots, till two thirds be boiled away.  Then let it settle.  Strain the water with the ashes, adding to every glass of water, pure Honey one ounce.  Set it up for your use." (Quoted by Davis, Ninth Book, Chapter I)

(Don't try this unless you have taken all safety precautions and have tested the concoction with a Ph tester. For more recipes for bleaching/dyeing the hair blonde see Some Primary Source Excerpts on Beauty - Hair.

Despite this popularity, there still existed the view that bleaching the hair, along with other beauty treatments, was a clear sign of vanity, which, as one of the "seven deadly sins", aided outward beauty, but did a disservice to the beauty of the soul. Beauty of the soul was a Renaissance ideal, but the twist was that outward beauty was thought to indicate a beautiful soul - hence the popularity of hair and facial cosmetics, no doubt. Even Veronica Franco, "honest courtesan" of Venice, was aware of this. In one of her familiar letters she writes:

"Where once you made her appear simply clothed and with her hair arranged in a style suitable for a chaste girl, with veils covering her breasts and other signs of modesty, suddenly you encouraged her to be vain, to bleach her hair and paint her face. And all at once, you allow her to show up with curls dangling around her brow and down her neck..." (Franco, p38)

A natural beauty was highly desirable, but if you didn't have natural beauty there were great inducements to fake it!

But bleaching was not the only thing Venetian women did to their hair, as we know. Braiding continues to be the most common method of dressing the hair. The most usual style is a centre parting and braid bun high on the back of the head, often decorated with individual, strands or strings of pearls interspersed or intertwined through the hair. In the case of the Veronese image on the right, a tear-drop shaped pearl drop dangles in front of the left ear, and many single pearls adorn the hair on either side of the part. The large dangling pearl worn in front of one or both ears was also seen in the previous period we looked at, in portraits by Veronese and Titian. As well as the braid bun, Venetian ladies could also wear their hair "braided in a circle" around her head, "a silken skein laced with threads of gold". (Lawner, p70)


This style remains the basically same for the rest of the century, with a gradual but important and crucial change. The hair that frames the face begins to be curled, the curls left to softly frame the face. This can be seen in the image on the left. This in turn seems to develop into a twist at the front, and then a twist and curl which has its ultimate expression as the horned hairdo that is synonymous with Venetian courtesans, although noblewomen also wore it.

The twist and curl developing........the twist gets higher...........and higher..............the "horns" of curls..........


The horned hairdo seems to have been in favour from the 1570s to the end of the century. I have yet to discover a contemporary document which reveals the secret of exactly how this hairstyle was acheived, yet there is at least one such document that give us a tantalising clue. A foreign visitor to Venice is quoted as saying "Venetian ladies wear....their blond hair...delicately braided and lifted up in front to form two tall horns almost half a foot high. These are kept in place by artful twisting alone". (Lawner, p19. Emphasis mine.). It is interesting to discover how contemporary Venetian women may have thought and felt on the subject. Venetian writer Moderata Fonte wore this very style in the woodcut of her likeness for the frontispiece of her book, "Il merito delle donne" (The Worth of Women) in 1592. It is a dialogue between seven fictionalised Venetian women, three of whom speak here:

"That's all very well," said the Queen, "but how about those curls, those horns, that men are always carping about: what do you say to them? I can't say I'm particularly keen on the fashion."

"I'd say," said Corinna, "that that style too is something that should be not merely tolerated, but accepted and praised, just as much as any other feminine adornment. Because this is nothing more than a fashion, a custom, and a pastime of ours; and when it is done judiciously and with moderation, it sets the face off very charmingly....."

"There are women who don't look good with their hair dressed that way," said Lucretia. "But I don't think the style can be blamed for that: it's more a matter of those individuals' lack of judgement and the fact that they don't dress their hair in a manner that suits their faces." (Fonte, 1592, p235)

It sounds as if some men didn't like the style, so much that the "Queen" says that men are "always" carping about it. The women, however, were divided on it, and were aware that just as not all colours suit all women, so the horned hair style did not suit all faces. We know that noblewomen and courtesans wore the style, but did any other member of Venetian society? This was the question that occurred to me upon reading this:

"Following the visitation of San Zaccaria in 1596, the patriarch got wind of the fact that some of the young nuns, who had tamed their hairstyles for the visitation, went back to adorning themselves after the visitation." (Laven, p21) Nuns with horns? it seems likely, given the fact that "locks on the temples, and curls on the head had been forbidden", and their "locks, curls and frizzes" were seen as "inventions of the devil". (Laven, p4).

Last, but not least, there is the velo - the veil. It is difficult to know for sure how and when during the sixteenth century this item was worn. It is not consistantly displayed in sixteenth century portraiture and painting, either as being worn exclusively outside or inside the house, but there is enough documentation in art to suggest that, when it was worn, it was worn outside of the house. It is first seen as a small square of white cloth, but by the end of the sixteenth century it is long and wide, large enough to enclose the wearer behind and in front, although it never completely encloses the body. The "foreign visitor" to Venice tells us that,

"on their heads they wear only a veil of black crepe falling below their shoulders. However, they take care that this veil should not hide the beauty of their hair, their shoulders, and above all their breasts: in fact, they show themselves nude almost down to their stomachs!"

Vecellio mentions that "courtesans especially favour[ed] these head veils fastened with buttons and bows". (Lawner, p19) Widows appear to use them to cover up more of themselves, as the image from Album Amicorum of a German Soldier (at right) demonstrates.

Likewise it is largely thanks to Vecellio that we know that virgins/unmarried women covered their faces and shoulders completely when venturing forth from their homes. "When they go out of their houses, which happens rarely, they wear a veil of white silk on their heads, which they call a handkerchief, one so large that is covers their entire face and breast..." (Vecellio, in Rosenthal, p290) And this, true in the 1590s, was also true in the 1490s: "the marriageable girls dress in the same way, but one cannot see their faces for all the world. They go about so completely covered up, that I do not know how they can see to go along the streets." (Casola) It is possible that they also wore black veils, as seen in the 1595 image (at left) of an "unmarried Venetian woman" from Album Amicorum.

The most notable thing about depictions of the veil in all of the Venetian art I have so far collected, is that it is invariably worn by a woman when she is depicted outdoors. I have yet to see an image of a woman wearing one indoors, be she virgin, married woman or widow.

Up-swept, or down, braided or curled, with a hat or not - whatever your preferance, or not, for head wear, there is a period and place in sixteenth century Venetian society to suit you. Enjoy.


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2001 - 2010 Anabella Wake (Known in the SCA as Bella Lucia da Verona) I hold copyright on all information on these pages, and on all images of clothing/costume that I have made. You are allowed to make one facsimile copy for your own use provided that this notice is included on each page. Please ask permission to copy, disseminate and/or distribute my work - I would like to know when and how you are finding this information of use.