Venetian ceruse

Venetian ceruse, also known as blanc de ceruse de Venise[1] and Spirits of Saturn,[2] was a 16th-century cosmetic used as a skin whitener. It was in great demand and considered the best available at that time. It is similar to the regular ceruse, although it was marketed as better, more exclusive and expensive than the regular ceruse variant.[3]

Pale-faced Elizabeth I of England has been thought to wear Venetian Ceruse

A 1688 record detailed a recipe, which described the cosmetics as a mixture of water, vinegar, and lead.[3] The cosmetic's use of white lead as a pigment caused lead poisoning, damaging the skin and causing hair loss. Usage over an extended period could cause death.[2]


Elizabeth I of England is popularly imagined to have been a notable user. An account stated that after she died and her mask removed, the cosmetics used were revealed.[4] Critics such as Anna Riehl and Kate Maltby have argued that little historical evidence exists to support this claim.[5][6]

Ceruse was also blamed for the death of Maria Coventry, Countess of Coventry, aged 27, in 1760. Coventry had been a frequent user of ceruse, and is believed to have died of lead poisoning.[2][7]

Another devout user of the cosmetic was Isabella d'Este and her appearance demonstrated how ceruse caused permanent damage and premature aging. In 1534, an account by Pietro Aretino described her "smeared face" as "dishonestly ugly and even more dishonestly made up".[8]

See also

  • Cerussite
  • Fashion


  1. Eastaugh, Nicholas; Walsh, Valentine; Chaplin, Tracey; Siddall, Ruth (2007). Pigment Compendium: A Dictionary of Historical Pigments. Burlington, MA: Elsevier Butterworth-Heinemann. p. 44. ISBN 9781136373855.
  2. St. Clair, Kassia (2016). The Secret Lives of Colour. London: John Murray. p. 45-46. ISBN 9781473630819. OCLC 936144129.
  3. Eldridge, Lisa (2015-10-13). Face Paint: The Story of Makeup. Abrams. ISBN 9781613128183.
  4. Johnstone, Michael (2003-12-05). Most Amazing Mistakes!. Arcturus Publishing. ISBN 9781848584334.
  5. Riehl, A. (2010-05-10). The Face of Queenship: Early Modern Representations of Elizabeth I. ISBN 9780230106741.
  6. "Why is Elizabeth I always depicted as a grotesque". Kate Maltby. 2015-05-25. Retrieved 2019-10-05.
  7. Stewart, Susan (2017-12-15). Painted Faces: A Colourful History of Cosmetics. Amberley Publishing. ISBN 9781445654003.
  8. Condra, Jill (2008). The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing Through World History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 35. ISBN 9780313336621.
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