The Beauty Secrets of Lucrezia Borgia

Here she is holding a dagger.
Battista Dossi, 1486

The Borgias were a prominent family in Renaissance Italy who are remembered in infamy to this day. Although they produced two popes (Callixtus III and Alexander IV) and contributed to the Renaissance as major patrons of the arts, they are remembered for the crimes there were accused of committing, including but not limited to: adultery, incest, murder, bribery, simony, theft, and poisoning. The lives of the family of Pope Alexander IV were so sensational, in fact, that Showtime made a series about them (If you enjoy good looking men in leather trousers running about garroting people, it’s on Netflix).

Pope Alexander IV’s daughter, Lucrezia (1480 – 1519), was a renowned beauty and may have been the subject of many great works of art, although she only has one confirmed portrait. She was described as having “heavy blonde hair which fell past her knees; a beautiful complexion; hazel eyes which changed color; a full, high bosom; and a natural grace which made her appear to ‘walk on air.’” 

She was blonde, but she was Spanish by descent and the rest of her family was dark, so how did the most famous femme fatale of the Renaissance lighten her hair before there was Clairol?

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, detail


It’s generally believed that this color was achieved by rinsing it in a mixture of lye and lemon juice before exposing it to sunlight. The longer it was exposed, the lighter it would become. This process would take a long time for anyone, but imagine how much longer it would take if your hair fell past your knees. To give you some idea, there is an account that on one occasion, Lucrezia postponed a journey for days just to wash her hair. (1) 

Days. 

She wasn’t the only one doing it, either. Bleaching recipes were common in medieval cosmetic texts, and most of them include using lye or ashes in a rinse. There must have been something to it, because the practice of lightening hair with lemon juice has remained popular to this day. Elle Magazine even has a helpful guide to lightening your hair with lemon juice and sunlight a la Lucrezia Borgia, only they’ve replaced the lye with chamomile tea for a less caustic rinse. Whether you want to follow in the footsteps of your smokin’ hot foremothers or you’re just curious, you can read their recipe here

A lock of Lucrezia’s famous blonde hair is kept in the Ambrosian Library in Milan to this day.

(1) Pointer, Sally. The Artifice of Beauty. Sutton Publishing, 2005. 

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2 thoughts on “The Beauty Secrets of Lucrezia Borgia

  1. This was really interesting to read! Can't wait to see what comes next! We recently learned in homeschool that the Vikings also washed their hair with a lye mixture to create lighter colored hair.

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  2. Thanks, Jaime! That's an interesting fact about the Vikings! Lye was definitely used in medieval cosmetics recipes, especially in soap and hair care products. I wouldn't want to try it myself! 😉

    Like

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