Skin Deep

By Evelyn Welch, King’s College London

Writing in 1665, the English physician and author Nicholas Culpeper mused how ‘The Skin of the Face, is the Looking-Glass wherein are seen the Diseases of the Body, especially of the Liver, Spleen and Lungs’.

To modern readers this may not seem surprising. The skin as a mirror is a common trope, one so ubiquitous that it has given rise to a growing body of work that associates it closely with subjectivity and the self. Writing in 2004, the cultural historian Claudia Benthien described skin as a ‘cultural border’ between the self and the world, linking its rise as a cultural focus to the emergence of modern ideas of individuality and subjectivity. Around the same time, Steven Connor suggested that the visibility of skin was a peculiarly modern preoccupation. At first glance, Culpeper’s text appears to bear this out. But neither Culpeper nor the French surgeon Jean Riolan, whose work Culpeper was translating, invoked the mirror to talk about self, interiority or even beauty; their focus on skin was based on other considerations. The quote cited comes from A Sure Guide, or, the Best and Nearest Way to Physick and Chirurgery and, as the title of the book might suggest, for Culpeper and Riolan the metaphor of the skin as a looking glass was not (primarily) about self or beauty. Instead, it was concerned fundamentally with disease.

The idea of skin as a mirror in this sense relied on a basic tenet of early modern medicine: an explanation of the body in humoral terms. This dominant medical model was based on the writings of Hippocrates, Galen and later medical authors, in which the health of the body depended on the correct individual balance of four humours. Within this framework, skin was understood as a ‘fisherman’s net’, a term invoked by the sixteenth-century Italian physician Girolamo Mercuriale to describe its porous quality. According to Mercuriale, the primary function of the skin was to act as a receptacle for waste. Its porosity facilitated bodily excretions, such as sweat, tears and hairs. But this very nature also left skin susceptible to penetration. This could have medical benefits, as in the cutting of the skin to provoke bleeding in order to balance the humoral temperament. But it could also be dangerous and difficult to regulate, particularly when considering bad air, cold or miasmas, as well as other vehicles for contagion. Concerns relating to this were particularly acute, as so many diseases from smallpox to the ‘new’ disease of syphilis were characterised mainly by their symptoms on skin.

Over the course of the seventeenth century, innovations such as the microscope allowed physicians to look at the skin in new ways, gradually clarifying the identification of pores, glands and other skin elements. But rather than changing significantly with the development of the ‘new sciences’ in the seventeenth century, writings about skin by physicians and other scientific thinkers remained preoccupied with excretion and porousness. In 1665, Marcello Malpighi wrote that ‘Sweat is secreted throughout the entire body by glands so diffuse and in addition so small […] Hence sweating is copious where touch is exquisite’. In 1683, Anthony Leeuwenhoek elaborated a series of observations on pores but framed his findings largely in light of sweat, stating that ‘From hence also may be gathered, that there are no pores in the cuticula for the conveyancing out of sweat, because that may ooze out from between the scales’. Both Malpighi’s framing of the skin as constituted by the ‘exquisite’ sense of touch and Leeuwenhoek’s likening of the texture of skin to fish scales suggest a rich and imaginative world for the medical concept of cuticula. We see then how explorations of the body were deeply influenced by a curiosity about the emotions, the senses and the relationship of human to animal. Writing about chameleons in his 1669 work (see Figure 1), Charles Perrault noted that their changing colour

was in accordance with the skin receiving a humor capable of making it change colours, as certainly occurs when joy reddens the face of man […] the two colours that the chameleon normally takes when he is in the sun, where he is happy, are greenish-grey and yellow.

By the late seventeenth century, at least for learned physicians, the image of the porosity of skin had changed from that of a fisherman’s net to being one of a glandular surface populated by geometrically shaped micro-glands.


Figure 1: Folio from Charles Perrault, Description anatomique d’un Cameleon, d’un Dromadaire, d’un Ours, et d'une Gazelle (Paris: Frederic Leonard, 1669)
Figure 1: Folio from Charles Perrault, Description anatomique d’un Cameleon, d’un Dromadaire, d’un Ours, et d’une Gazelle (Paris: Frederic Leonard, 1669)

How did these medical ideas of skin relate to people’s experiences of health, disease and the self? And did they change? As medical ideas of skin came to be articulated in new ways, the question remains, how did people acquire familiarity with the skills necessary to interpret skin? While medical explanations for skin resisted reading it as a surface, cultural practices around skin increasingly contributed to its function as a reflection of inner character and social mores.

Even a cursory survey of the art, literature and material culture of early modern Europe suggests a phenomenal variety of goods, practices, fashions and trends dictated by and geared towards the maintenance of the skin’s porosity. Tessa Storey and Sandra Cavallo have recently explored many of these in their wonderful book, Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy (Oxford University Press, 2013). They show how aspects of interior design and household practices, such as furnishings, perfuming, burning incense and bathing, were all dictated by early modern individuals’ concerns with excretion, bodily waste and the body’s porosity. Across early modern Europe (and beyond), combing, perfuming, dressing, masking, adorning the body and the use cosmetics were all practices tied to managing and preserving the integrity of skin.

Figure 2: Frontispiece of Richard Saunders, Physiognomie and Chiromancie, Metoposcopie (1671). Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.
Figure 2: Frontispiece of Richard Saunders, Physiognomie and Chiromancie, Metoposcopie (1671). Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

It was the increasingly popular adoption of such practices, rather than high-level medical theory, that led to changing concerns about skin as a mirror of one’s character and the body. In his book on Renaissance practices of identification through the skin (scars, birthmarks, etc.), Valentin Groebner argues that prior to the sixteenth century the body was ‘opaque’. Groebner suggests that the development of the concept of complexion, temperament and humoral balance underwent a fundamental shift in the sixteenth century. In this period, complexion became the formula for ‘personality’ and migrated from the internal balance of bodily elements to the outside of the body, and thus transformed into a congenital category. In this process, the connections between the surface of the body and the inner physical and moral make-up of the individual became stronger. Indeed, Richard Saunders’ work Physiognomie and Chiromancie, Metoposcopie: The Symmetrical Proportions and Signal Moles of the Body (1671) purported to offer a full and accurate explanation of the lines, marks and proportions of the body (see Figure 2). In essence, teaching its audience how to ‘read’ the body (see Figure 3). This was one of several works on the ‘new sciences’ of the seventeenth century that linked bodily appearance (specifically concerning skin) to moral character in new ways. As Saunders wrote in the case of the L-shaped lines on the hand ‘if it be in the Wrist, advancing without the thumb, it denotes unclean Love, as Incests, Sodomies and against Nature’. In this regard, the link between skin and beauty was key – not just from a practical standpoint, but from an increasingly moralistic one too. The lessons in this growing genre could be deeply gendered. John Bulwer, better known as the author of one of the earliest texts on sign language, had less positive things to say about the use of cosmetics and the relationship between female skin and immorality. In Anthropometamorphosis, he contrasted the ‘regular beauty and honesty of nature’ with cosmetics, perfumes and women’s skin, fulminating about the increasingly dissolute nature of English society.

Facial illustrations for physiognomie and chiromancie from Richard Saunders, Physiognomie and Chiromancie, Metoposcopie (1671), 212. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, CC BY
Facial illustrations for physiognomie and chiromancie from Richard Saunders, Physiognomie and Chiromancie, Metoposcopie (1671), 212. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection, CC BY


How do we reconcile the underlying continuity of medical theory about skin with its many cultural roles? What roles do smooth or scarred and broken skin play in the building and breaking of emotional communities?

 ‘Renaissance Skin’ is a five-year, Wellcome Trust-funded project based at King’s College London, which seeks to explore the meanings and practices of human and animal skin in early modern Europe. We are currently almost 18 months into our five-year project and so our findings at this stage remain tentative. But what we have found is that the tension between what skin should mean and what it often did mean was not just incidental – it played an important role in shaping the matrix of early modern ideas about surface, interiority and meaning. Complex ideas about skin existed in early modern Europe before ideas of emotion, subjectivity and individuality took root in the body’s surface, and they continued to exist long after they were thought to be established.

To learn more about our project and follow our research as it develops, visit our website and twitter profile @RenSkinKCL.


Evelyn Welch is Professor of Renaissance Studies and Provost (Arts and Sciences) at King’s College London. She has been researching how we learn from things that were made in the past for many years. Writing about clothing, politics and social order, she uses sensory information as well as archival documents to explore the ‘period body’ in early modern Europe. She is the author of Art in Renaissance Italy (Oxford University Press, 2000), Shopping in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2005), The Material Renaissance (Manchester University Press, 2007), Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence (Rodopi, 2011) and Fashioning the Early Modern: Dress, Textiles and Innovation in Europe, 1500–1800 (Oxford University Press, 2017). Evelyn has led a range of major research programmes, including The Material Renaissance (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Getty Foundation), Beyond Text: Performances, Sounds, Images, Objects (a £5.5 million AHRC strategic research programme which ran from 2005-2012), and the project Fashioning the Early Modern: Creativity and Innovation in Europe, 1500-1800 (funded by Humanities in the European Research Area from 2010-2013). She currently holds a Senior Investigator Award from the Wellcome Trust for the project Renaissance Skin, which runs from 2016-2021.

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