JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 463
Did teeth exist in the Renaissance? Well, while breezing through a bunch of art monographs for that period, it struck me that the tooth wasn’t making its way from the artists’ palettes to the canvas. Not only that, it also occurred to me for the first time that people—in the large part—weren’t even opening their mouths. I don’t know how that escaped me; perhaps it is because there are other more interesting things to look at in paintings and consider—even looking at the found flora or table settings is far more useful and interesting than choppers. Oh yes, and there’s all that color and perspective stuff too.
But in looking at Big Names in the early and late Renaissance I wasn’t finding teeth. Fra Filippo Lippi’s “Vision of St. Bernard”, the “Madonna and Child with Angels”, the “adoration of the Magi”, feature subjects with not a single tooth. Paintings by (earlier) Masaccio have the same result, as does Benozzo Gozzoli. Pollaioulo’s features numerous saints with very tightly closed mouths, as does Ghirlandaio’s massive fresco of the "Life of St. John the Baptist", straight-lipped all. Piero de Franscesco (‘Baptism of Christ”), Domenico Veneziaio “Madanno and Child with Saints”, Pietro Perugino (“Lamentations over the Dead Christ”), the beautiful Fra Angelico (“Descent from the Cross”, 1453) Lorenzo di Credi (“Adoration of the Shepherds”0, and on and on, vast canvases filled with people with nothing but lip. Even the lamentations of the group in Raphael's “Entombment” are done with nothing but closed mouths, teeth hidden even under the vast experimentation in pigment and paint of the quattrocento and cinquecento. Earlier works, as in Giottos’ “Betrayal of Christ” (1305), the “Lamentations over the Dead Christ” (ca. 1305), the “Nativity” and soon there exist barely a parted lip, just as in Simone Martini’s “St. Louis of Toulousse” (1317).
What comes first to mind though in all of this, apart from very straight mouths, are the very famous closed mouth portraits of Leonardo (“Mona Lisa” and one that I used to see all the time, “Ginevra de Benci”).
It wasn’t as though tooth health wasn’t unknown in the Medieval or Renaissance periods. For example, we have the following recipes for tooth and mouth (and breath) care, beginning with Trotula’s wine rinse and herbal chew found in his 11th century On Women's Cosmetics (book 3); Hildegarde of Bingen’s water rinse (Physica, 1158); Gilbertus Anglicus’ 11th century wine washes and tooth rubbing recipe; the Rosemary charcoal tooth rub found in Bankes’ Herbal (1525); Gervase Markham’s (,The English Housewife 1615) sage tooth whitening scrub (using an abrasive of salt, chlorophyll of herbs freshen the breath, and sage is a somewhat astringent/antiseptic); and Plat's anise, caraway, fennel “comfits” in Delightes for Ladies (1602), just to name a few. (A very interesting website testing these notions can be found HERE.) That said, it doesn't mean that people actually took care of their teeth, and that, maybe, people simply had really bad teeth. On the other hand, the unsmiling folks presented in this artwork were being shown in created or mythological or supposed scenarios anyway, so the artist could have as easily granted a good smile as not.
The more I looked around a few of the first monographs, the less I saw of teeth—how is this possible? Were teeth so unimportant to the painters?
It took another dozen or so books to start to even out the dental playing field, although the math of teeth versus non-teeth was still 20:1 in my coca cola-driven search. I was determined to keep the thing to under an hour of poking around, so this is hardly an academic consideration. But, all in all, it is curious how few toothsome smiles/grimaces are found in these hundreds and hundreds of images.
I did find a very exposed, realistic portrait painted by Giogione (Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco) of "La Vecchia", ("The Old Woman"), who holds a rolled paper with the words “Col tempo”, translated as “with age”, written on the paper. Her smile is like a skyline more than anything else and is beautifully realistic. There’s also Lucas van Leyden, Pisanello’s “Saint George” fresco, a number of later Mantegnas, some Leonardos, Beccafumi, and of course a whole lot of big and usually broken teeth in the Bruegels and Caracci.
All in all, I guess that observations on teeth in paintings of the Renaissance doesn’t really contribute anything to anything, and is probably just a real old-fashioned mud-caked wheel-spinner. Thinking about it though does make me think about the Encyclopedia of Stuff that I’ve Missed and Don’t (and Will Never) Know; but it does make for some good practice in looking for something that I don’t know I’m looking for.
The most elegant explanation for not smiling has come to me from my friend and my wife's business partner, Seattle-based artist/director/writer David Robinson. I asked him his opinion of the issue and he immediately said that the lack of smiles was caused by the same reason that early photographic portraits generally show unsmiling, Lincoln-lipped people: the smile was too hard to hold for a long period of time. In photography, the exposure was long and the person who didn't keep their same smile for a period of a minute or more chanced the ruining of the portrait. David says that this principle could be applied to models not having the stamina to hold a smile for a long period of time for the artist. This is an explanation that I can live with: short, sweet, simple. And probably correct.