Death in Venice
Venetian ceruse (also known as spirits of Saturn) was the most fashionable, expensive, and toxic skin whitener available during the sixteenth century, from the city famous for heavily painted women as well as for the finest ceruse or white lead, a basic ingredient for face-painting.9
It has always been unclear to me what exactly made Venetian ceruse any different from regular ceruse. It’s my belief that there was very little difference between them, and that Venetian ceruse was in fact the first upmarket makeup brand marketed as being better, more exclusive, more expensive, and more desirable than other very similar (if not identical) products. A secret originally published in 1688 contains a recipe for ceruse called Magistery of Saturn or Lead.10 After describing a mixture of water, vinegar, and lead, which is dried and washed, the author states that this product is a simple ceruse used as makeup. Later, he cautions the reader to choose their ingredients for the recipe carefully: be sure to chuse a true Ceruse of Lead, such as we call Venetian Ceruse, and not that which is counterfeited, as being mixed with Chalk, Whiting, or other like Substances, having neither the brittleness, weight, nor whiteness of the true Ceruse, or that of Venice.n
This suggests that ceruse is the name of the actual cosmetic and Venetian ceruse is the main ingredient (and also the finished product): a pure white lead powder, not a mixture of lead and other white substances. So, essentially, Venetian ceruse and ceruse contained the same ingredients, but Venetian ceruse possibly contained a more intense, concentrated form of lead in the same way as expensive face creams today might boast they contain a higher dose of active ingredients.
Mainly favored by European aristocracy, who would’ve been able to afford it, the purity of the lead in Venetian ceruse, along with its opacity and satin-smooth finish, made it the ultimate and most desirable white foundation. The trouble was, the more one used, the more one needed to cover up the ill effects it caused. With long-term application, skin became discolored, gray, and withered with hints of yellow, green, and purple so one ultimately ended up looking like dried-up, old fruit. Continued use also rotted the wearer’s teeth, produced bad breath, and caused hair loss and even permanent lung damage. Venetian beauties of the time, including the grand dame of the fashion world, Queen Catherine de’ Medici of France, were also fond of the brightening combination of mercury (the go-to ingredient for fading spots and erasing freckles) and arsenic, pepped up with a touch of animal musk. Ironically, musk and its components can actually trigger hypopigmentation showing yet again that the more money one had to spend on beauty products, the worse one could ultimately look.
Venice was the epicenter of fashion at the time, and the naming of Venetian ceruse is perhaps the first example of a product being connected to a desirable location through its name.
This location-based trend first appeared in ancient Egypt and continued throughout the classical civilizations. Interestingly, despite Paris later becoming the focal point of the beauty world, Venice retained its appeal, as shown by the fact that hundreds of years later Elizabeth Arden marketed her first range of expensive cosmetics as Venetian.
The decadent parties of sixteenth-century Venice and the excessive makeup worn continues to fascinate makeup artists, filmmakers, and fashion photographers to this day.