“The Alchemist’s Desire”: Recipes for Health And Beauty from Caterina Sforza

By Meredith K. Ray

In this blog post, I’m presenting material from my forthcoming book Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015). The material in this post is drawn from Chapter One, “Caterina Sforza’s Experiments with Alchemy,” and Chapter Three, “Scientific Culture and the Renaissance Querelle des Femmes: Moderata Fonte and Lucrezia Marinella.”

That Glamour magazine you’re reading in the airport, with advice for taking care of your skin, applying the right kind of makeup, and looking younger than you are? Those recipes have a longer history than you might think. Prescriptions for beauty and health were an important element of early modern scientific culture, when curiosity about the “secrets of nature” combined with a burgeoning enthusiasm for testing and refining through experimental techniques. Caterina Sforza (1463–1509), regent of Forlì and Imola in Italy’s Romagna region and progenitrix of the Medici grand ducal dynasty, is an emblematic example of early modern women as collectors of recipes.

Lorenzo di Credi, La dama dei gelsomini (presumed portrait of Caterina Sforza) Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Lorenzo di Credi, La dama dei gelsomini (presumed portrait of Caterina Sforza)
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

At the turn of the sixteenth century, Caterina recorded over four hundred recipes for beauty and health – along with a healthy sprinkling of alchemical formulas – in a manuscript titled Experimenti, or Experiments. Extant in a sixteenth-century transcription produced by Lucantonio Cuppano (1507-1557), the manuscript includes directions for making lip colors, lotions, and hair dye (with a distinct preference for a blond or red tint); prescriptions for treating ailments from fever and headache to epilepsy and infertility; and recipes for improving libido and “restoring” virginity (more on this in my article, “Impotence and Corruption: Sexual Function and Dysfunction in Early Modern Italian Books of Secrets”). Most valuable of all, it offers instructions for producing the transmutatory philosopher’s stone and quintessence: the elixir thought to cure all illness, protect against disease, and prolong youth (perhaps indefinitely).

Title page,  Experimenti de la Ex[ellentissi]ma S]igno]ra Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo inllux[trissi]mo S[ignor] Giovanni de Medici Image Credit: Private archive
Title page, Experimenti de la Ex[ellentissi]ma S]igno]ra Caterina da Furlj Image Credit: Private archive
Take, for example, this recipe for water of talc – a mineral-based solution produced through distillation, used by early modern alchemists for a variety of purposes – said to achieve several of these objectives at once:

Talc is the star of the earth and has gleaming scales; it is found on the isle of Cyprus and its color is similar to citrine; in a mass it looks green, and dissolved in air it looks crystalline; and it has the following virtues, not to mention others not noted in this book, which will be the alchemist’s desire to discover: First, to make women beautiful and remove all spots or marks from the face, such that a woman of sixty will appear to be twenty. . . . Also . . . mixed with white wine, its powder will cure one who is poisoned; and he who drinks the powder in white wine will be protected that day from poison and all disease or plague. . . . Also . . . this water turns silver to gold, and makes false jewels perfect and fine.[1]

Recipe for Water of Talc (from Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti ) Image Credit: Private Archive

Multi-faceted recipes such as this one, informed by alchemical practice, abounded in early modern scientific culture. They circulated in manuscript and print, among men and women, by word of mouth and through epistolary, commercial and courtly networks.

Privileging direct experience, observation, and application over study or theoretical explanation, the recipes contained in Caterina Sforza’s Experimenti reflect the empirical and heterogeneous character of early modern science. Like the printed books of secrets that would explode in popularity in the early sixteenth century (described in William Eamon’s Science and the Secrets of Nature), Caterina’s manuscript collapses boundaries between alchemy and medicine, practical and arcane, home and court. Her pursuit of secrets was not just recorded in her manuscript, which she bequeathed to her son (the condottiere Giovanni dalle Bande Nere, father of Cosimo I de’ Medici). She also discussed it in letters to her apothecary, agents, family members, and other alchemical enthusiasts throughout Italy.

Sforza’s activity situates her at the origins of a Medici interest in alchemy and experiment that would stretch well into the seventeenth century, while also positioning her within the wider panorama of early modern women’s scientific activity. She was not alone in this activity: women’s involvement in scientific culture was wide-ranging and diverse, and the language of recipes proved useful in a variety of contexts, including the Renaissance debate over women. By 1600, Moderata Fonte, in her dialogue, Il Merito delle donne (The Worth of Women), would contrast the efficacy and straightforwardness of certain medicinal and cosmetic recipes – capable of curing illness or transforming appearance – with the impossible task of finding a recipe for teaching men to respect women as their equals.

Notes

[1] Experimenti de la Ex[ellentissi]ma S]igno]ra Caterina da Furlj Matre de lo inllux[trissi]mo S[ignor] Giovanni de Medici, in Caterina Sforza, ed. Pier Desiderio Pasolini, v. 3, 617-618 (Rome: Loescher, 1893). Cuppano’s sixteenth-century transcription is held in a private archive.


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