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All Walks Beyond the Catwalk


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Paris Bordon, Venetian Women at the Toilet, c. 1545. 


Three women seem to be surprised whilst dressing. A north-African maidservant (or possibly slave) with facial tattoos holds out a mirror for the woman in the centre. Dressed in sumptuous cut crimson velvet and boasting elaborately-braided blonde hair, this woman bares her breasts and shows off her white linen underclothes (known as a "camicia"). Her chest and cheeks are apparently daubed with rouge to point up the whiteness of her skin, presumably applied with the sponge on the bench nearby, next to an ointment jar. The other young woman glances at us, whilst pulling up her velvet robe. Her ornately dressed hair falls over her white shoulders and her cheeks also seem artificially reddened.


This painting was made in Venice around the 1540s, and would have been recognisable to contemporary viewers as a scene of two courtesans and their servant getting ready in a chamber. The two women display the fair hair, clear pale skin, rosy cheeks, apple-like breasts and fleshy bodies that were universally praised as beautiful in renaissance texts. Their older servant, with her darker, marked skin is a foil to show off their 'superior' beauty. Using cosmetics to enhance their looks was not unusual - many popular  books about self-improvement, health and beauty were printed in renaissance Italy.


Want to find out more? Useful links to outside sites:

Traditional facial tattoos in North Africa

Slavery in Renaissance Italy

Italian renaissance cosmetics

Fashion of the Venetian courtesans

Renaissance women's underwear

Paris Bordon at the Scottish National Galleries


NG 10

Paris Bordon, Venetian Women at their Toilet, about 1545. Oil on canvas. Scottish National Gallery

(Purchased by the Royal Institution 1830, transferred 1859). NG10.

Image (c) National Galleries of Scotland.