Venetian Ceruse

Venetian ceruse was a 16th-century cosmetic product used as a skin whitener.
[Queen Elizabeth I in her later years]

Not surprisingly, the Romans had already invented a similar product, which they called bianca ('white'). It predates ceruse by several centuries. Both bianca and ceruse were lead pigments. The pigment led an uneventful life for centuries. However, the Venetians found a new market it and launched an even more potent version with the highest content of ceruse in 1521.

The recipe for basic ceruse is white lead powder and vinegar heated together in a furnace for three to four days. In Venice, glassmaker's furnaces served a dual purpose: producing glass and ceruse. The Venetian version had the highest concentration of the whitest lead powder. The resulting concoction was then mixed with the ashes of burned green figs and made smooth with a little distilled vinegar. The finished paste was opaque. When spread on the face, it made a satin finish that covered unevenesses of your facial skin, such as smallpox marks, scars or other skin problems. Women never wiped it off, but added layer upon layer.

Over time, a woman's face took on a grey cast. The skin dried out, wrinkled, and aged prematurely. The skin changed colour from yellow, green to purple. Teeth and gums started to rot, followed by bad breath, hair loss, acute abdominal pain, chronic kidney disease, muscle paralysis, mental confusion, uncontrollable convulsions, and eventually death by lead poisoning.

Everyone knew (or should have known) the dangers: people were warned of its evils by physicians, and the church said that women were punishing their vanity with the product. Pliny the Elder (AD24-79) already called bianca a deadly poison.

So, why on earth would you want to have a ghostly white skin that would eventually kill you? The usage of Venetian ceruse in the pursuit of a fair complexion was largely driven by its associations with high status and wealth. This was because everyone who performed outdoor work under direct sunlight often had a tanned skin, whereas individuals in higher positions within society had the luxury of staying indoors and would not be 'tainted' by direct sunlight.

Queen Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603) was always depicted with fair white skin. Which was the result of Venetian ceruse, and it emphasised her nobility and high status.

Upon her death, a post-mortem was performed. Elizabeth’s make-up was said to be more than two centimeters thick.

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