5 October 2006 -
7 January 2007

At Home in Renaissance Italy

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Recipe Book Recipe Book

Recipe Book (I Secreti della Signora Isabella Cortese)
1561, Venice; printed by Giovanni Bariletto, Paper
Full title, 'The secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese. In which are included mineral, man-made and alchemical things and many [things] concerning the art of perfumery, suitable for any lady'
British Library, London


Many treatments and remedies were made in the home. Printed recipe books offered advice on how to concoct medicines, cosmetics, perfumes, insecticides and an ink that disappears after 40 days. Supposedly written by a Venetian woman, 'The secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese' (Venice, 1588) was widely circulated and often reprinted.

This book included medicinal recipes, such as blending sweet almond oil and milk into an ointment and applying it to a wound for several days until the signs of the wound had disappeared.

A formula for soft and beautiful hands included the roots of yarrow and wild cucumber, the alum of wine sediments, burnt white tartar and broad beans. These ingredients ground and dried could be mixed with egg white and, after drying again, powdered and used with clean water to wash your hands.

There was even a form of invisible ink that was supposed to disappear after 40 days. This combined oak-apple [oak gall] and gum arabic with more hazardous ingredients like vitriol [sulphuric acid] and sal ammoniac [ammonium chloride]. Please don't try this at home!

There was also a method for dyeing your gloves yellow, something you may wish to try. We don't hold ourselves responsible for the results so please don't use your best white gloves!

"Take those little yellow flowers that grow amongst the roses and crush them with water, then place the mixture on the leather for making gloves three times. Mix together a very well beaten egg yolk, normal olive oil or mastic oil [made from mastic gum] and the dust of a cochineal. Place this gently on the leather and leave it for a day and a night. Wash it off with a sponge and allow it to dry and it will be done."

Perfumes and cosmetics were an essential part of beauty rituals. Books like Giovanventura Rosetti's 'Remarkable secrets of the art of perfumery' (Venice, 1555) were popular sources containing a wide range of recipes, including hair dyes and breath fresheners.

To make your hair 'blonde like threads of gold', you were advised to take soda water, into which you placed the plant pennyroyal, and bring it to the boil. The book suggested that you wash your hair with the resulting liquid and leave it to dry in the sun. The results would be visible within a very few days.

For lozenges that gave you fresh breath and kept your mouth in an excellent state the formula included an ounce of each of the following ingredients: fine Muscat wine, lavender spikes, cedar bark and aloe wood. Added to this was an eighth of an ounce of fine musk. This mixture was to be made into coin shapes and stored in a scented glass container in a cool place. You were to take one before you went to bed, placed under the tongue until it dissolved, and another in the morning, to be repeated as you pleased. Apparently these lozenges would soothe both the stomach and the mind as well as give sweet smelling breath.