Botticelli. Portrait of a young man. Fair use

Some time ago a British magazine was joking on the possibility that Italian men might spend more money on cosmetics than British women.

In an earlier post we had supposed a connection between artistic beauty and narcissism in Italian and Latin cultures.

Now an interesting passage from Jacob Burckhardt (1818 – 1897) on Italian outward refinement during the Renaissance.

“The outward appearance of men and women and the habits of daily life were more perfect, more beautiful, and more polished than among the other nations of Europe. The dwellings of the upper classes fall rather within the province of the history of art; but we may note how far the castle and the city mansion in Italy surpassed in comfort, order, and harmony the dwellings of the northern noble.

Botticelli. Simonetta Vespucci. Fair use

The style of dress varied so continually that it is impossible to make any complete comparison with the fashions of other countries, all the more because since the close of the fifteenth century imitations of the latter were frequent. The costumes of the time, as given us by the Italian painters, are the most convenient, and the most pleasing to the eye which were then to be found in Europe; but we cannot be sure if they represent the prevalent fashion, or if they are faithfully reproduced by the artist. It is nevertheless beyond a doubt that nowhere was so much importance attached to dress as in Italy.

The nation was, and is, vain; and even serious men among it looked on a handsome and becoming costume as an element in the perfection of the individual.

(…) We may note in particular the efforts of the women to alter their appearance by all the means which the toilette could afford. In no country of Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire was so much trouble taken to modify the face, the colour of the skin and the growth of the hair, as in Italy at this time.

(…) The use of perfumes went beyond all reasonable limits. They were applied to everything with which human beings came into contact. At festivals even the mules were treated with scents and ointments, and Pietro Aretino thanks Cosimo I for a perfumed roll of money.”

Note. Quote from Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878. Available as Gutenberg text.


If you want to know more:

Can Narcissism Partially Explain the Cult of Beauty in Latin Cultures?
Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

28 thoughts on ““Italy Was, And Is, Vain”

  1. Now, MoR, do not throw the gauntlet at me for I will not duel; I feel that all this Renaissance elegance was caused by a desire to emulate the Ottoman Divan. The Maures or the Sarracen as they were then called were always represented in sumptuous dresses and headdresses. Imitation is the best compliment they say. Perhaps Italy, most of it at least, was not conquered by the arms…but maybe by Fashion?


    1. Ah ah Paul, I like this twist of thought. Well, the Ottomans were very civilised at the time of the Renaissance.

      I’m sorry if you think I am polemical. But yes, sometimes I am, with a deluge of words.


      1. I don’t think that you are polemical. Logorrheic, maybe a tad wee bit but that is so charming. At any rate you stimulate reflections and that is no mean feat these days.


    1. Thank you Anil. I read at your blog that you “returned to Bombay from Goa.” I love Bombay, India and Goa, where I spent my honeymoon many years ago. Ciao
      Vanity may have some pros, but it’s nonetheless a weakness in character.


  2. Very elegant post, as usual.

    Coming here and sitting on the plush sofas, drinking lemon-scented tea and letting my gaze glide over the wall-to-wall book cases while I read your posts, is always so stimulating.

    The Botticelli portraits on the walls, the cultivated conversation and the sweet background jazz music add flavor to the visit.

    Thank you, G for these educating and thought-provoking topics, which you so majestically present. Ahimé raramente, però.



    1. Thank you Lola.

      I post once a week. I am a slow thinking person (even just this quote post it’s months I had it in mind) and I dedicate a lot of time to the dialogue with readers. I’m outdated also in this, the world running faster and faster (I wonder where to.)



  3. Hi ManofRoma

    Do you think that underneath those sumptuous gowns they were a tad on the nose and required the perfume so that they could get close to each other?

    Happy days


    1. Hi Delwyn,

      Renaissance people on the whole were surely not as clean as we are today (perfume surely had this function too, but not only I think.) According to Burckhardt Italians were among the cleanest. Even today Italians care a lot about personal hygiene, much less unfortunately about public spaces cleanliness.


  4. First arent Andy Garcia and Sophia Loren Italian? If there are men and women like them in Italy..they have a right to be vain! 😀


    1. Ah ah, so again to you narcissism is a consequence of beauty and not vice versa. Sophia Loren is Italian, but Andy Garcia is from Cuba. So I guess he’s of Spanish descent, hence a cousin to us only. 🙂


  5. @Paul
    As for Renaissance splendour, the connection between Europe and the Ottoman empire is stimulating. I have scarce knowledge. Renaissance Montaigne was not eurocentric, he admired the Ottomans, and he thought of Ottoman soldiers as models for French soldiers. One should research a bit.


  6. As Lola, when I come to your salon, I feel as though I’ve entered a sanctuary of sorts. Your knowledge stimulates conversation and research. I had never thought of the connection with the Ottomans as the possible reason for vanity in Italy. I rather think that we have always had a cosmopolitan appreciation of anything of beauty wherever we met it. We kept invading and adapting, bringing fashion, art and products to enrich our culture. Unlike many other conquerors who wanted/want to impose their tastes/customs, the Romans were satisfied with live and let live within the bounds of law.

    On another note, look at how Italians have distinguished themselves in the world. Not as conquerors, but as taste-shapers of the highest order.

    The idea of a beautiful man, cultivated, at ease in the company of women and children, dreaming, singing, teaching the world to do the same, being open to possibilities, accepting all aspects of humanistic manifestation, that idea has also made it possible for integration, preciation of differences.

    So, from vanity to global understanding. Quite a leap of faith.

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my blog.


    1. when I come to your salon, I feel as though I’ve entered a sanctuary

      That surprises me. Most of all I don’t want to sound elegant. I am a simple person. And I’m reminded daily by my wife that I speak and act like a porter.

      Unlike many other conquerors who wanted/want to impose their tastes/customs, the Romans were satisfied with live and let live within the bounds of law.

      Yes, the Romans were tolerant, provided tax and law were respected. I’ll add they were not brutish tyrants, or they would not have influenced the future generations so deeply. In the West provincials were conquered by example. They wanted to be more Roman than the Romans. France was romanized quickly with no organized effort.
      It is though fair to add that the West was backward compared to Rome. In the East and South Mediterranean, where civilizations were more ancient, romanization had less effect.
      When Islam arrived it was embraced heartily. It meant continuity and connection with something more ancient than Rome.

      So, from vanity to global understanding. Quite a leap of faith.

      Beauty and la dolce vita (‘taste-shaping’ you call it) can be important on a global scale. And I really think that humanism can still be valid today as an antidote to intolerance and racism.

      But self-indulgence is a weakness and it’d be nice we worked a bit on that.


  7. I’m convinced that the universal infamous mother’s warning of making sure you wore clean underwear (in case of an accident-you being exposed) was originated by an Italian mother.
    Don’t you love how I always tend to bring that tasteful touch of class to your blog? LOL
    My Aunts and grandmother always made sure they looked perfect before going out in public. “You never know who you might meet!”, they would say. And we don’t want to mess up our destiny, do we? 😉


    1. Ah ah, that’s another twist, Maryann, you know how much I like them!

      Yes, being ‘perfect in public’ was, and is, important here. Fare bella figura.
      And I think it was a good advice from your women. Destiny or good fortune must be helped a bit, in case they’re willing to send us a kiss.


      1. There’s no doubt invaders of Italy and its “fashion” have left a mark. For example, the Spanish use of the color black to project power (even if empty) left a mark on southern Italy. Muslims too have had an impact (diet for example again in the south) but I think it hit a limit with fashion.

        Which brings me to Paul’s comment about the Ottoman’s. It’s funny, while I’m not an expert, the bulk of my history knowledge (interest) lies within the Renaissance. So I know all about the “philosophical” debates regarding it. I even took a “Fashion in history class” but I never came across the notion the Italians emulated or copied the Turks.

        There’s no doubt “borrowings” of cultures takes place and Italy is no exception(think of all the Byzantine and Arabesque architecture found in Venice) to this fact but I’m wondering if you have sources for this. I’d be interested.

        MOR, I have a few Burckhardt books in my collection including the one you mentioned. I even posted about him.

        Ciao a tutti.


  8. @exposrip

    Welcome back, I was missing your comments.

    Who’s the real expert here? That’s the beauty of blogging: exchanging fake knowledge and confusing people’s minds 🙂

    As far as I know, the Turks were immensely civilised in 1400-1500, even though they were about to decline. The splendour of their costumes might have had an influence, but I have no information about it. Paul might have.

    As for the big picture, it is well known that contacts between East and West had always been present. It suffices to consider the role of trait-d’union, among all Mediterranean areas, played by the Repubbliche Marinare (Maritime Republics) during the late Middle Ages: Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa, Venice, Gaeta, Sorrento, Dubrovnik, Molfetta, Trani etc.
    Also the Crusades were important, in which those Republics had an active role.

    It’s hard not to be influenced by Eurocentrism. Our mental categories are shaped by generations of historians who love(d) to trace everything to the Greeks and to the Romans, seen as the ‘first Europeans’.

    I try to escape this temptation, but it’s not easy, the theme of this blog being Rome and its survivals in the present day.


    1. My remark about Ottoman influence was pure speculation based on some common clothing traits between the people of the time and their more ancient use by the Asians, nothing more. As for the Turks they would be Asians had not Greece lost part of it’s territory to Turkey in various treaties. On the other hand Turkey was once known as Anatolia and it was part of Greater Greece,,,but that was some time ago, Eh!


      1. Yes, some time ago Paul 🙂

        Surely Renaissance clothes didn’t come from nowhere. And Anatolia-Turkey was linked to Greece and later to Europe, up to WWI when Turkey fought such a brave war, and to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s secularization and Turkey’s desire to enter the EU.
        Now things have though become more complicated.


        1. Oh! Man of Roma, from 1912 my father fought against brave Turkey and was wounded in 1916 by Turkish fire. Of course you guys are used to wars. I understand Europeans have even turned soccer stadiums into war zones.
          Canadians have fought for others on foreign soil but the last war on our soil was fought against the USA in 1812…they never tried again after the drubbing they got.


        2. Amazing. For which country did your father fight?

          Turkey was on the losers’ side in WWI but fought bravely a four-front war. After defeat Ataturk secularized Turkey. Now with fanaticism growing they’re getting back to a religious state.

          Yes, soccer like war. Europeans are always against one another. The Germans have preferred to give Opel to Russians and to Canadians rather than to Italy. We have preferred to give Alitalia to Berlusconi’s friends rather than to France.


          1. He was in the Greek army. When he came to Canada in 1924 he was still a reserve Captain. My mother prevented him from getting involved in 1939. It was the beginning of their estrangement as they say in distinguished circles.


  9. Perfume & scents for Mules!!!

    How cruel! Height of Narcissism!! here I am with an empty Deodorant!! 😥


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