Renaissance portraits of female sitters were the Instagram filters of their day. With the subjects staring enigmatically into the distance, with pale skin, high forehead and (usually) golden curls, they provided largely unattainable standards of female beauty for the women — and men — looking at them. And it wasn’t just pictures. Just as today, there was a whole industry of professional and amateur beauty practitioners, as well as numerous texts detailing tips and instructions. The goal? To improve every part of the female form.

Professor Jill Burke’s latest book, How To Be a Renaissance Woman, explores the lives of these women through an investigation of their beauty culture. By taking a fresh, women-led perspective, Burke highlights a rich tapestry of female experience that encompasses everyone from artisans to aristocrats. “A lot of women were talking about beauty all of the time,” she says.

It was Giovanni Marinello’s The Ornaments of Ladies, published in 1562, that started Burke on her journey through beauty culture. Containing 1,400 recipes, it divides the body into four sections from head to toe, addressing issues pertaining to the maintenance and embellishment of each part. Marinello notes that a “beautiful woman” has a high, broad, pale and clear forehead. Meanwhile, an essence derived from the leaves and flowers of eyebright (a grassland plant) can, somewhat unsurprisingly, be used to treat swollen eyelids.

Spoiler alert: her hair was probably dyed. The Birth of Venus, by Botticelli, at the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence.

Beauty texts could take different forms, from books such as Marinello’s to small pamphlets that could be accessed by those with less money. They were often written by men, but the target audience was women. Although female literacy in the Renaissance was perhaps higher than might be imagined, particularly among the mercantile and aristocratic classes, the inability to read was also no barrier to beautification. Many texts were meant to be read aloud.

The Venusta, dating from 1526, is the earliest known printed book of beauty tips (though by no means the earliest text on this subject) and specifies that its contents should be heard by an audience.

Although it may seem that these beauty pressures were imposed on Renaissance women by outside forces, the situation was more nuanced, similar to today. “The bulk of women are actually saying that we have a right to make ourselves beautiful. This is one of the ways that we get to express agency,” Burke explains. “[In the Renaissance] women were urged to look like these paintings and men were urged to find wives who looked a certain way as well.”

However, cosmetic remedies were also used to rebel against the status quo. “Particularly with hairstyles — women didn’t do this to please men, quite evidently. They were dyeing their hair all sorts of colors, often red, and cutting their hair in a way that didn’t necessarily show off their foreheads,” Burke adds. “Beauty culture is something that allows women to be creative.”

Some women criticized or opted out of the prevalent beauty culture, such as Laura Cereta, a 15th-century author. She saw beautification as a distraction, instead choosing to focus on what she considered to be intellectual pursuits. Others acknowledged the almost constant stress that beauty culture placed them under. The 16th-century Venetian courtesan and poet Veronica Franco owed her livelihood to her good looks and lively wit. When a friend wrote to her asking for advice on whether her daughter should become a courtesan, Franco’s response was: “It is a most wretched thing, contrary to human reason, to subject one’s body and labour to a slavery terrifying even to think of.”

Just as today, there was a whole industry of professional and amateur beauty practitioners, as well as numerous texts detailing tips and instructions.

One woman who wrote a text that included cosmetic recipes was Caterina Sforza, Countess of Forli and Lady of Imola (Emilia-Romagna), the daughter of the Duke of Milan and, via her third marriage, the grandmother of the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo I (Cosimo de’ Medici). Regent of Forli for her under-age son following the death of her husband, she bucked many stereotypes of Renaissance femininity. Among her interests were hunting, horse riding and alchemy, and she compiled her own book, Experiments.

Alongside alchemical formulas Sforza listed recipes to treat everything from malarial fever to fine lines. To smooth out wrinkles she advised boiling a quantity of chrysanthemum flowers with vinegar and applying the resulting liquid to the skin. While many of the beauty treatments are topical, including what we would consider to be toners, moisturizers and body scrubs, others could be taken internally. Drinking wine mixed with shaved sunflower root was recommended for bringing color to the cheeks.

High and broad foreheads were all the rage. Lady with an Ermine, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1489–90.

If you want to know how effective this approach is, Jill Burke is your woman. Alongside the soft matter scientist Professor Wilson Poon, Burke leads the Renaissance Goo research project, which explores and recreates early modern personal care recipes. Her book includes a variety of recipes for cosmetics from different sources. “Women were using natural ingredients to make the kinds of beauty products that are very similar to what we might use today,” Burke explains. There’s leave-in hair conditioner made from mallow, willow and psyllium husks, which “works surprisingly well”, while crushing hard-boiled egg yolk into honey creates a rich, creamy undereye mask.

It’s likely that Renaissance ladies experimented with ingredients until they got the result they wanted. “When you make a recipe, it involves constant creativity — adding things, taking things out,” Burke says. Surviving printed recipe books from the period often feature annotations, deletions and splotches on the page that suggest they were being consulted in progress. Recipes could also be customized to an individual’s tastes and budget. If, like me, you can’t stand the smell of roses, substitute another floral oil for the rose in Giovanni Marinello’s lip balm recipe from 1562.

Some concoctions destined for aristocrats and the rich were incredibly luxurious, both in terms of ingredients — marble dust, pearls, gold and ambergris — and the length of time and number of processes needed to produce them. However, for every woman such as Eleonora of Toledo with multiple ladies-in-waiting to help with beauty tasks, there were countless others of lesser means. “A lot of the recipes in the pamphlets use ingredients that would be found in the kitchen, for example mutton fat, which is used as a sunscreen and for rough hands.”

As Burke’s book stresses, the everyday women mixing their own beauty products should rightly be considered chemists and botanists. Successfully creating these cosmetics required knowledge of plants and their properties, as well as how to transform them via different techniques. Renaissance women had greater scientific knowledge and experience than they are often credited with.

Louisa McKenzie is an art historian at the University of London