I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese (The Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese, 1561) belongs to the genre known as “books of secrets” – collections of medicinal, cosmetic and alchemical recipes that circulated with enormous popularity in the sixteenth century. Cortese’s text – which seems to be the only such printed work ascribed to a woman author– offers advice deemed useful to “every great lady” (ogni gran signora): recipes for medicines, cosmetics, and household management, along with alchemical recipes for the transmutation of metals. 

The volume met with great success:  it had seven editions by 1599, and Cortese’s name is among the professori di segreti – “professors of secrets” – listed by Tomaso Garzoni list in his encyclopedic Piazza universale (1589). Although the authorship of the Secrets of Signora Isabella Cortese is contested (no concrete biographical information about Isabella Cortese has been uncovered, and the name “Cortese” may be a play on the work’s aristocratic audience, or even an anagram for the word “secreto”), the work’s deliberate invocation of a female audience is not.


Recipe for face color:

Take two pigeons with white feathers and feed them on pinenuts for eight, or rather fifteen, days; then butcher them and throw away the head, feet, and guts; put [the rest] in an alembic and distill with half a loaf of sweetened bread and four ounces of true silver, three gold ducats, four heels of white bread that has been left to soften in goat’s milk for six days . . . distill all of this over low heat, and it will produce a most perfect water to give color to a pale complexion.

Ricetta per il colore faccia:

Acqua che fa colorita la carne a chi è pallida. . . . Piglia due piccioni di penne bianche, e per otto dí siano cibati de pignoli overo per quindeci dí, poi squartagli e getta via la testa i piedi e le bidella, poi mettigli a lambicco a stillare con mezzo pane di polvere zuccarina et iv once d’argento fino, tre ducati d’oro, quattro molliche di pane buffetto bianco che sia stato sei giorni continui a molle nel latte caprino . . . tutte queste cose lambicca a lento fuoco, e n’uscirà acqua perfettissima per incolorir la carne pallida.” 

(I secreti della signora Isabella Cortese (Venice, 1561, 196)


Beauty Water for the Face:

Take lemons and dried beans and combine in white wine; add honey, egg, and goat’s milk, and distill it all together; and this water will make the face beautiful.

Beauty Acqua per il viso:

Piglia limoni, fave secche et mettile a molle in vino bianco, e metti mele, ova, e latte de capra, e poni ogni cosa a distillare, e quest acqua fa bello il volto.