Renaissance hair served dual functions. Hair was aesthetic and served to beautify the individual. Hair also indicated well-being and character. The length and style of hair was gendered, controlled, and performative in nature. Together with clothing, jewels, hats, outerwear, and accessories, hair signified status, gender, position, age, and place in society. Hair also was a sign of personality, health, and general constitution.
Because so little flesh was visible under yards of clothing, hair took on additional importance, especially for women. Male hair in the Renaissance is rather plain. In the fifteenth century a shoulder length cut, or a bowl cut for men was typical. Clean shaven faces were the norm. Only foreigners outside of Italy wore beards. Styles changed in the next century with more facial hair, beards, and sometimes shorter hair. This post will cover some examples from mid fifteenth century to the mid sixteenth century, primarily for women. However, the importance of hair and what it signified in terms of well-being and character applied to all people.
Excrement and Humors
Renaissance beliefs about hair seem odd and out of place to us today. How they understood why people had different hair color, curls or straight, fine or textured hair, were based on something called humoral theory. Hair functions in two ways, as an excrement and for beauty. Body hair was considered a growth, an output of the body, like nails, waste, or spittle. As an excrement, hair was used to diagnose the person’s health and whether the body was in balance or out of balance.
Based in ancient Greek thinking, the humors of the body consist of four fluids: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Humors refer to evidence of well-being, personality, and emotional state. These four liquids present in the body needed to be balanced in order for the person to be healthy. Hair, urine, skin color, mood, waste material from the body were all evaluated for the evidence of humoral balance or imbalance. If the humors were out of balance, they would manifest as fever, illness, psychological problems, or mood. For example, too much black bile and you were sad or depressed. Bloodletting was a common treatment for humors that were out of sync as were diet changes.
Overweight? Balancing the humors would help. Sit in the sun to dry out the body since excess humidity and water cause a buildup of fat. Conversely thin people suffer from dry humors and need a more humid environment to gain weight. Also helpful is good sleep, steering clear of melancholy, and eating almonds, sesame seeds and honey, and sweetened milk. Avoiding anger is helpful to balance the humors. The buildup of improper fluids in the brain was of particular concern. Humoral theory and its treatments persisted well into the nineteenth century.
Different hair types were explained by humoral theory. Black hair was the result of hot complexions and blood. Cool temperaments created blonde hair. People in southern Europe or Africa were hotter in temperature and produced darker hair. The ideal hair color was in between – a chestnut brown or auburn. Strawberry blonde was also a good sign of balanced humors. Bald men suffered from cold complexions; but a hot, dry complexion created very hairy bodies. Neither bald nor hairy were considered desirable. Hair was thought to be formed by moisture in the body evaporating and creating solid matter. Slightly wavy hair was more desirable as it indicated a well-balanced brain. Extremes of curls or straight hair indicated imbalance. Humoral constitution changed with age creating bodily extremes resulting in gray hair, no hair, or hair growing in new places like ears or noses.
Humoral theory also explained a common problem – head lice. Too much moisture in the body created lice along with suspect foods such as figs or chestnuts. They were not considered parasites, instead were a manifestation of brain and head moisture. Combing the hair opened the pores and let moisture escape from the body. Letting moisture escape and not build up in the body and brain was a good thing. Cures to remove lice ranged from treating the hair with the rue plant mixed with oil, or aloe, and yew tree gum. Grooming included a fine-toothed comb to remove the lice and nits, therefore, the evidence of excess moisture.
Hair and Beauty
Humoral theory preferred lighter colored hair as the ideal characteristic of balance and personality. Dark haired women put in a lot of effort to balance their humors and achieve ideal beauty by lightening their hair. Although the hot-blooded Italians had darker hair, blonde hair was all the rage. A cool-headed blonde woman would make the ideal wife. A curly dark haired woman would be too hot tempered and less likely to submit to her husband. How many dark-haired women are depicted in Renaissance paintings? Very few (Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa does have dark hair). Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is very blonde and there are countless blonde depictions of the Virgin Mary, and even Jesus appears with Northern Europe hair color. I suspect this was for fashion as well as not wanting to depict Mary and Jesus as unbalanced with dark curly hair.
Women had a great deal of knowledge about herbs, plants, scented waters, oils, and their preparations for hair or skin. Knowledge of plant-based potions, conditioners, lotions, and balms were necessary to achieve desired beauty results and maintain health. Printed books were available with instructions and ingredients. If women were illiterate these texts were read out loud to share and pass knowledge, although most well to do women could read and write by 1500. Patrician women spent a great deal of time and money devoted to clothing, accessories, and hair. Women could create some small degree of individuality and self-expression in a male-controlled world through their clothing, hair care, and styling.
Achieving the much-desired blonde locks was difficult and time consuming. If a woman was poor and without servants and extra time, lightening hair was out of the question. The process for dyeing hair took place in warm months when the hair was dampened, treated with lemon juice, combed out, and allowed to dry in the hot sun. The process was repeated many times before the desired result could be achieved. Pale skin was preferred, so a brimmed hat which was open on the top allowed the hair to be exposed to the elements. The hair treatments took place out of public view in homes with roof tops, loggias, or balconies. Artists enhanced the blonde results in their portraits to please their patrons.
High foreheads were also considered beautiful. If not occurring naturally, the hairline was shaved or plucked back. In this Portrait of a Lady in Red she conforms to ideals of beauty with her light hair and hairline that recedes back almost in line with her ear. Most of her hair is covered by a jewel encrusted head piece. Pearls and gems form an intricate pattern. A transparent veil is attached to the top of her headpiece and falls over her shoulder.
Most likely she was painted as a wedding or engagement portrait demonstrating her qualities of beauty and character desirable as a wife. Women were painted as demure and reserved while men had attributes of virility such as armor or a sword. The small size, about fourteen inches by eleven inches, was common for personal family portraiture. Hair was orderly and under wraps with a veil as a sign of modesty.
Contained and controlled hair signified compliance, and elegance. In the case of Pietro del Pollaiuolo’s Portrait of a Woman, it also indicated wealth. Complicated hairdos with braids, buns, and attached hair pieces could not be achieved alone. Servants were needed to assist with the combing, braiding, and making the updo stay in place. Wigs and hairpieces were common, often made of horsehair. Sometimes poor women sold their hair so others could be fashionable. Illicit hair trade became a problem when hair pieces were in vogue. These women’s portraits are part fashion and part performance for the honor of their families, ensuring these brides are decent and worthy.
A different type of portrait emerged in Venice, called the belle donne, or beautiful women. Titian painted many beautiful women, and Violante is named so after the violet flower tucked into her shirt. Titian has finely rendered the textures of her hair, the fabrics of her blue dress and brown sleeves against the white chemise and dark background. The long, slightly curly blonde hair was notable for its looseness. Her hair is not totally out of control. It is smoothed on top and allowed to flow down her back. Disheveled hair was a sign of bizarre behavior. Witches and wild hermits were depicted with uncombed tousled hair.
Long ungroomed frizzy or curly hair suggested an unhealthy, untamed emotional state. A braided strand holds back Violante’s fine silky hair to demonstrate control of her emotions. Her low-cut shirt, seductive glance at the viewer, and flowing hair are part of a series of Titian’s women he painted in the second decade of the 1500s. They are meant to be sensual and sexy as an idealized beauty, not necessarily a commissioned portrait. Some scholars suggest she has the elements of a courtesan with her creamy flesh, shirt dipping off her shoulder, and her direct turn towards the viewer. The suggestive placement of the violet near the breast draws the eye to her bosom. No father or husband would allow a portrait like this of his daughter or wife.
This genre was popular with private wealthy patrons, something like a toned-down version of 1940s pin-up girls. Sensual, but stopping short of soft-porn. Titian not only specialized in the belle donne but also racier types of paintings, usually mythological in subject matter. Mythological paintings took place in an imaginary world which allowed for more sexualized behavior and therefore more nudity. Venus was a particular favorite, or romping nymphs by a riverside. Mythological figures have head hair that is free-flowing and less constrained signifying their freedom from conformity. The loose long female hair signals a come-hither attitude, inviting a sensual playfulness.
Female mythological figures were scantily clad or nude with the pubic area conveniently covered. What is noticeable is the lack of body hair on these women. There is nary a hairy armpit or rarely even a glimpse of pubic hair. Botticelli’s Birth of Venus is a good example of pale hairless skin. Her incredibly long wavy complicated hair serves as a modest cover-up. The very essence of beauty, Venus serves as a prototype for the ideal Renaissance attractiveness. Her helper to the right holds a mantle to welcome Venus as she drifts in on her shell. The attendant has long blonde wavy hair with a long braid and braid across her head. The two mythological figures on the left helping Venus to reach shore are depicted with long wavy hair. The woman has blonde hair, and the man has chestnut brown flowing hair. The untamed nature of their hair gives them an exotic and other worldly feel.
Venus’ body is rendered pale and smooth, without a blemish or a misplaced hair. Health guides written at the time had plenty of suggestions for removal of body hair. Pitch was used like wax. Tree pitch was placed on fabric, applied to the skin, then removed, which must have been painful and very messy. Tweezers and razors were another method. Body hair was considered in the same way as head hair, as an excrement. Excess body hair suggested a complexion too hot and dry.
Washing hair was done with great caution. Combing was necessary for everyday grooming, especially in the morning to open the pores and let out the vapors that built up in the brain during sleep. Washing the body was done prudently in order not to disrupt the humors. Public baths were still used, but the wealthy could bath at home. Home bathing was expensive and time consuming. You needed servants to fetch the wood, start a fire, heat the water, haul the water to the bathing area, and clean it up. Skin was cleaned mostly with wet linen cloths used to rub the body instead of full immersion in water. Hair was washed perhaps once a week using a scented lye soap. Women carefully dried their hair to avoid illness as wet or damp hair was considered a health risk.
Men also put in some time grooming. Raphael’s portrait of Bindo Altoviti shows a sensual young male looking over his shoulder with his hand on his heart. His long blonde tresses cascade down his neck and back, with just the right amount desirable soft curls. Painted in his mid-twenties, Bindo was a banker to the pope and his court. A great collector of art and patron of the arts, he became the most important banker in Rome by 1528. Friends with Raphael and Michelangelo, he was influential with the elite and lender to popes, the Venetian government, and other European rulers. He has a hint of facial hair and engages with the viewer with his light-colored eyes. This may have been a portrait to commemorate his marriage.
Raphael prominently featured Bindo’s humoral balance as a level-headed blonde. It is unusual for a male to be depicted in a softer sensual tone. This portrait is more in keeping with a Venetian depiction than Central Italy. Portraits of powerful males are usually featured with expensive clothing, swords, or prestigious accouterments. For Renaissance male portraiture this is more gender-bending than the typical treatment of powerful men. Bindo’s good looks are the main attraction. Other portraits were painted of Bindo later in his life with a bushy beard and drawn face. He was at his height of charm and attractiveness in this painting – his beauty definitely faded.
Burke, Jill. How to Be a Renaissance Woman: The Untold History of Beauty and Female Creativity. Pegasus, 2024.
Moran, Megan. “Young Women Negotiating Fashion in Early Modern Florence.” In The Youth of Early Modern Women, edited by Elizabeth S. Cohen and Margaret Reeves, 179–94. Amsterdam University Press, 2018.
Snook, Edith, editor. A Cultural History of Hair in the Renaissance, volume 3. Bloomsbury Academic, 2019.
Stephens, Janet. “Becoming a Blond in Renaissance Italy.” The Journal of the Walters Art Museum 74 (2019).