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Anthony Easton / Flickr
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The First Female Jewish Skincare Mogul

Before Helena Rubinstein there was Anna of Rome, a 15th century cosmetologist

Marjorie Ingall
April 07, 2017
Anthony Easton / Flickr
Anthony Easton / Flickr

This week, the musical War Paint opens on Broadway. Starring Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole, it examines the decades-long rivalry between cosmetics entrepreneuses Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein. Both were savvy, self-made women from lower-middle-class backgrounds: Arden, a nursing-school dropout, was born in rural Ontario in 1878; Rubinstein, who insisted on being called Madame, was born Chaia Rubinstein, one of an unsuccessful merchant’s eight daughters, in Poland in 1872. Both were outsiders in the rarified worlds in which they hobnobbed. Rubinstein, who sold her business to Lehman Brothers in 1928 and bought it back for a pittance after the stock market crash, became one of the world’s richest women.

But she wasn’t the first female Jewish skincare mogul. That honor may well belong to Anna of Rome, a 15th-century purveyor of hope in a jar. In The Jews In Christian Europe, Jacob Rader Marcus’s scholarly-yet-fun 1938 collection of primary source materials dating from 315 to 1791 CE, you can read a letter from Anna to her client Caterina Sforza (1463-1509). (I’ve modernized the spelling of titles and used current place names.)

To the most illustrious Madonna, Caterina of Riario, Sforza Vice-Comtessa, Countess of Imola, my most honored patroness, wherever she may be:

Permit me, most illustrious Madonna, to commend myself to you and to send you greetings. Mr. Antonio Melozo, Esquire, has been here on behalf of your Highness to inquire of me if I will not give him as many kinds of facial cream as I have.

To begin with, I gave him a black salve, which removes roughness of the face and makes the flesh supple and smooth. Put this salve on at night, and allow it to remain on till the morning. Then wash yourself with pure river water. Next, bathe your face in the lotion that is called Acqua da Canicare [smoothing water], then put on a dab of this white cream; and then take less than a chickpea-sized amount of this powder, dissolve it in the lotion called Acqua Dolce [gentle water] and put it on your face—the thinner the better.

The black salve costs four carlini an ounce; the Acqua da Canicare, four carlini a small bottle. The salve—that is the white cream—costs eight carlini an ounce; the powder, one gold ducat an ounce, and the Acqua Dolce will cost you a gold ducat for a small bottle.

Now, if Your Illustrious Highness will apply these things, I am quite sure that you will order from us continually.

I commend myself to Your Highness always.

Rome, the fifteenth of March, 1508,

Your Highness’s servant,

Anna the Hebrew.

P.S. The black salve is bitter. If it should happen to go into the mouth, you may be assured that it is nothing dangerous; the bitterness comes from the aloe in it.

There is subtext to that postscript. “To poison one’s enemies was not uncommon then!” Marcus notes. In fact, Sforza herself—known as La Tigre for her fierceness—was once accused of attempting to poison Pope Alexander VI. She may or may not have been guilty.

In any case, she was a noted badass. She had eight children, was into alchemy, and loved both hunting and dancing. She did not love Cesare Borgia, of the noted poisoning family, with whom she fought for territory and dominance. After Cesare destroyed her fort in Imola—when the walls fell, she fought hand-to-hand until she was finally captured—she became his “guest” (prisoner) for six months. She was a known friend to Jews, having invited them into the city of Forli, which was under her provenance, at a time when other places in Italy were kicking them out. She allowed Jews to set up lending institutions even as the Church was trying to prevent people from doing businesses with Jews, setting up its own loan society, and fomenting anti-Semitism.

As a young woman, she was a stone cold fox. Botticelli frequently painted her. But by the time she wrote to Anna of Rome, she was 45, and in 1508, that was old. (She died the following year.) I sympathize. Aging sucks, and I would cut a bitch for Kiehl’s Midnight Recovery Concentrate.

Given that Caterina was probably in Florence at the time the letter was written, but sent an emissary to Anna of Rome, the Jewess’s fame and word of the quality of her products had evidently spread pretty far. Anna was big-time, but she wasn’t alone; a number of Italian Jews in that era were considered skin care mavens. Nevertheless, facial products were seen as tacky, low-class, and whorish. This was still true when Rubinstein and Arden began their empires; Arden helped popularize and elevate cosmetics by giving them away for free to suffragettes, and Rubinstein emphasized her products’ scientific benefits by wearing a white lab coat (her “training” consisted of a few months visiting spas in Europe), and talking about the beneficial hormones and “Carpathian fir tree bark” she used. Rubinstein certainly experienced anti-Semitism—even when she was rich and famous, a co-op board wouldn’t let her buy the apartment she wanted because she was a Jew, so she bought the entire building—but in Anna of Rome’s era, anti-Semitism was far more explicit.

In his “Satire V,” Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto sneers at the consumer of skin cream, who is clearly a dupe of those crafty disgusting Jews.

Non sa che ’l liscio è fatto col salivo
de le giudee che ’l vendon; né con tempr
di muschio ancor perde l’odor cattivo.

Non sa che con la merda si distempre
di circoncisi lor bambini il grasso
d’orride serpi che in pastura han sempre.

I couldn’t find an English translation of the poem (Ariosto lacks the crossover fame of his contemporary Niccolo Machiavelli, a man who was silent on Jews but not a fan of the Church…and a big fan of fellow ruthless person Caterina Sforza), so I asked a contemporary Italian translator friend to tackle it. She noted that the language was, and I quote, “ole-timey-ass,” and the grammar was tortured, but here’s what she came up with:

He doesn’t know that it’s made smooth by the saliva
Of the Jews, which he sells; nor that with quenching
Of moss it loses its bad smell.

He doesn’t know that with shit they soothe
The circumcisions of their babies, the fat
Of the horrid snakes that they keep in their pastures.

So that’s nice.

Anna of Rome used aloe instead of moss to eliminate bad smells (which I suspect did not come from her saliva, but hey, I wasn’t there) and Rubinstein used lavender and pine scents to hide the smell of lanolin in hers. Their products were adored. So tell me, unknown-outside-Italy poet, who got the last laugh? Anna of Rome (who sold small bottles of “gentle water” for a ducat, which, according to the British Museum, was then worth about £100, or $120, which is about the cost of an ounce of today’s cult product Crème de la Mer) and Helena Rubinstein (who had an empire spanning 14 countries and an zillion-dollar art collection)…or you?

Marjorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jewish Mothers Do to Raise Successful, Creative, Empathetic, Independent Children.