“Beauty is health; health beauty”: Humoural Beauty in Early Modern Europe

Claire Litt //

Greek Attic Urn, Acquired in 1816. British Museum: 1816,0610.116. Sculpture

In May 1819 Keats wrote Ode on a Grecian Urn, a poem that culminates in the urn’s triumphant declaration that its form, which was perfect and unchanging, had bestowed upon it eternal ascendency. “Beauty is truth; truth beauty” says the Grecian Urn, “That is all ye need to know on earth, and all ye need to know.” Keats describes the urn’s “Attic shape”, referring to a Greek oratory style that used plain and sober language to achieve a moderate tone of rhetoric. The vase’s lack of stylization produced its enduring classical aesthetic. Beauty was, therefore, truth – virtuous moderation enveloped in form, re-realized repeatedly by viewers over millennia. The idea that beauty was the manifestation of the virtue of moderation would not have been lost upon Keats’s early modern predecessors in the connoisseurship of beauty, who were no doubt enthusiastic participants in classical revivalism. However, where Keats’s Grecian Urn suggested virtue as a schema for eternal beauty, early modern Humoural Theory offered an interpretative framework for the discovery of virtue, and therefore beauty, in living, corporeal beings – for whom there were not thousands of years over which their beauty could be confirmed.

     Humoural Theory, the prevalent system in the early modern era for understanding health, stipulated that the healthy body was a moderate one in which each of the four humours (Sanguine, Yellow Bile, Black Bile and Phlegm) existed in harmony. Each humour was associated the qualities of either hot or cold, and dry or wet, and a colour: Sanguine was hot, wet, and red, Yellow Bile was hot, dry and yellow, Black Bile was cold, dry, and black, and Phlegm was cold, wet, and white. Doctors used two terms to describe individuals’ humoural states: humoural predisposition, based upon age, gender, and the astral influences at the time of birth, and complexion, which literally took the colour of an individual’s face to indicate their humoural state at that very moment. A healthy person’s complexion was not besmirched by any inner turbulence or external influence that might produce excessive humours and an unbecoming pallor. Rather, a healthy person balanced their humours though a moderate lifestyle. Beauty was, therefore, the wholesome glow of balanced humours that composed a healthful complexion and recommended the underlying virtues of an individual by reflecting their prudent sensibilities.

     Red, yellow, black and white comprised the colour palette for health and beauty, and were used in particular to described feminine beauty (Sammern, 398). In 1548 the Florentine literati Agnolo Firenzuola published a discourse, Dialogo delle bellezze delle donne (Dialogue on the the Beauty of Women), in which he imagined his ideal woman. In addition to a predictably detailed scrutiny of each body part, Firenzuola describes his ideal lady as having “white, as in […] [her] hands”, “black in the eyebrows, red in the lips, yellow in the hair” (Firenzuola, 36). It was a colour palette that by no coincidence made perfect use of the humoural palette. Moreover, Firenzuola expressed his desire that this lady would display a “perfect tempering of the humours, and the whole complexion”, explicitly linking a tempered humour – describing both mood and bodily composition – with the appearance of her skin (Ibid, 35).

     An unsightly complexion was directly linked to a bodily imbalance caused by humoural excess. The building up of surplus humours under the skin caused individuals to appear unwell and unbecoming. In his 1489 work, De triplici vita (Three Books on Life) the Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino sought to create a health manual for scholars – who, he claimed, would be the happiest of people were they not dreadfully inclined towards melancholy (Ficino, 113). Ficino proposed that the very act of thinking drove the spirits inwards, where they condensed and took on an earthy, cold condition similar to Black Bile. Ficino further observed that scholars tended to lack physical exercise, which he believed was beneficial for the eradication of Black Bile. As scholars slumped into sluggish melancholy, Black Bile percolated under their skin, giving it an earthy, dark tint (Ibid, 117). The Milanese painter Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo was also intrigued by humours for the reason that they altered the complexion of his subjects. Lomazzo confirmed, in his tract on painting, that Black Bile was caused by anxiety (Lomazzo, 11). He added that a bright red complexion was caused by “Desire and Love”, which was presumably an excess of the ‘hot’ and ‘red’ humour, Sanguine (Ibid).

     The pervasiveness of the beauty-health connection was not limited to philosophical treatises and painter’s manuals, but rather regularly abided by in health regimens of educated individuals.  In May 1624 the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, Christine of Lorraine, secluded herself in a Medici villa to undergo a round of purges. Her son-in-law, the Duke Francesco Gonzaga, who was present at the time, wrote home to Mantua to his wife, Caterina de’Medici. In his letter he complained, “par a me che ne habbi poco bisogno se pure non lo facessi per quel aforismo d’Hippocrate che insegna a minorare la complessione che tende al habito ottimo” (For me, there seems to be little need of it [purges], if not for the aphorisms of Hippocrates who instructs us to minimize the complexion to tend towards the best habits” (BIA: MAP Doc ID#7114). Purges may have referred to vomiting, bloodletting, or taking laxatives. To say the least, it was an unpleasant experience that Christine underwent in order to ‘minimize’ colours in her face and achieve the ‘best habits’ of virtuous moderation – or at least the appearance of it. Not only was the complexion the outcome of underlying health, but doctors actually used it to identity illness. Ten years earlier, Duke Cosimo II de’Medici’s doctors diagnosed him with a “dangerous complexion”, and induced vomiting in order to “give these black materials […] an escape” (BIA: MAP Doc ID#24649).

     Although the complexion – the changing undertones of the skin- were a vital component of beauty according to the Humoural system of health, the conceptualization of beauty was hardly skin-deep. Instead, the complexion was itself a form of virtue-signalling; a composition that sought to replicate the effect that the Grecian Urn achieved through its classical form. Beauty might be truth for a Grecian Urn, and health for early moderns – but in both cases,  “all ye need to know” to find beauty is how to recognize, in understated forms and dispassionate colours, the conveyance of the virtue of moderation.


BIA: MAP, Doc ID#7114 (ASF Volume 6109, not numbered folio): “par a me che ne habbi poco bisogno se pure non lo facessi per quel aforismo d’Hippocrate che insegna a minorare la complessione che tende al habito ottimo” on May 24th 1624, Francesco Gonzaga reports to his wife, Caterina de’Medici-Gonzaga, that her mother Christine of Lorraine is taking purges.

BIA: The Medici Archive Project, Doc ID # 24649 (State Archives of Florence, Mediceo of Principality 6021 , not numbered folio , not numbered transcribe folio) 1614 November 16 Christine de Lorraine to Bourbon of Monte Santa Maria, Francesco Maria (Cardinal del Monte).

Ficino, Marsilio, Carol V. Kaske, and John R. Clark. 1989. Three books on life. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies in conjunction with the Renaissance Society of America.

Firenzuola, Agnolo. 1892. Of the Beauty of Women, Ed. Theodore Child. J.R. Osgood. Harvard Collections.

Greek Attic Urn. Acquired 1816. British Museum: 1816,0610.116 Sculpture: 2415. https://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=406188&partId=1&searchText=Greek+Urn&page=1.

Keats, John. 1819. “Ode on a Grecian Urn”. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44477/ode-on-a-grecian-urn

Lomazzo, Giovanni Paolo. 1598. A tracte containing the artes of curious paintinge, caruinge & buildinge. Translated by Richard Haydock. Oxford. 11.

Sammern, Romana. “Red, White and Black: Colors of Beauty, Tints of Health and Cosmetic Materials in Early Modern English Art Writing.” Early Science and Medicine 20, no. 4/6 (2015): 397-427.http://www.jstor.org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/stable/24760388.

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