Sunday, June 11, 2017

Belladonna Eyes

You may remember my recent visit to my highly talkative, slightly eccentric eye doctor during which we discussed his checkered dating history and current plan to “recycle” old girlfriends (See “Love Recycled -- Can You Move Forward by Going Back?”).  We did, of course, eventually get around to talking about my eyes.  The good news is that my cataracts are no worse; the bad news is that my eyesight is.  No longer will I be able to get away with drugstore cheaters.  I need honest-to-goodness prescription glasses now, just like I did when I was a child. 

And Your Point Is?

Of course, I only need to wear them if I want to read, which means I don’t have to wear them all the time.......for now.  At least that’s what I keep telling myself.  And, of course, my distance vision is no longer what it was.  What is?  Oh well….

As I put on my sunglasses to leave, I mention how I always hate the look of those black, dilated eyes when I leave his office.  He laughs and says, “During the Renaissance, women put drops in their eyes to get that look.  It was considered beautiful.  Haven’t you ever heard of ‘Belladonna’?” 

Immediately, the little light bulb over my head went off, although I had to avoid looking directly at it with my dilated eyes, and I remembered a passage in a book on Queen Elizabeth I of England that discussed the beauty standards and rituals of the time.    

The Virgin Queen is one of my favorite biographies of one of my favorite women, and one that I reread every so often with relish.  Elizabeth II currently holds the title of the longest reigning monarch, a title previously held by Queen Victoria until her great-great-granddaughter broke her record.  Elizabeth I comes in at Number eight, but in terms of historical significance, I would definitely put her at or near the top. 

Queen Elizabeth I in her ermine-trimmed coronation robes

By today’s standards, 25 is considered young, but Princess Elizabeth had already led a tumultuous, uncertain and dangerous life from the moment her mother Queen Anne (the notorious Anne Boleyn) was beheaded when Elizabeth was just three years old.  During her half-sister Mary’s reign Elizabeth had been imprisoned in the Tower of London and never knew from one day to the next whether she would follow her mother to the scaffold.  She was, in fact, still under house arrest when news reached her of Mary’s death.  She was now the Queen of England at the age of 25. 

Princess Elizabeth by an unknown artist (c. 1544)
Young as she was, by the time she became Queen, Elizabeth was already a seasoned survivor.  Not only did she have her father’s (Henry VIII) handsome Tudor looks, but she also inherited his brains, his guts and his grit, all of which she used to great effect.  Note the full title of Christopher Hibbert’s book The Virgin Queen – Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age.  She was and remains not only one of History’s most fascinating women, but one of its greatest monarchs. 

She never married and never lacked for suitors. 

“It was said that even the Pope, Sixtus V, … had his eye on her …  ‘Just see how well she governs!’ he was said to have exclaimed, ‘She is only a woman, only a mistress of half an island, and yet she makes herself feared by Spain, by France, by the Empire, by all… Our children would have ruled the whole world.’” (Quote from The Virgin Queen, p. 80)

Now, back to the subject at hand -- Belladonna. 


Agnolo Bronzino(1503-1572) - Renaissance Portraits of Women
The ideal Renaissance beauty had white skin and fair hair with barely-there eyebrows and lashes, which they plucked out to enhance the effect.  In addition, they often lined their eyes with kohl and enlarged their pupils by adding drops of Belladonna, which effect was considered to be very striking and beautiful. 

Belladonna (“beautiful lady”) comes from a plant called Deadly Nightshade because it can be poisonous.  You will find it today in creams designed to kill pain.  Your hemorrhoid medicine probably contains it, and when your eye doctor dilates your pupils, he is using a form of Belladonna called Atropine.  It works by blocking certain functions of your nervous system, such as the contraction of the pupils of your eyes. 

Some of the other beauty treatments resorted to by Renaissance ladies were even more deadly, such as the various mixtures used to bleach and whiten the skin -- lead and white vinegar, mercury and turpentine, and borax and sulfur (with its accompanying odor of rotten eggs).  The damage done to their skin over time must have been horrific. 

And don’t think the craze for teeth so white they glow in the dark is purely a modern obsession.  In those pre-Crest White Strips days, Renaissance ladies vigorously rubbed their teeth with various mixtures including powdered pumice-stone and bricks. 

So the next time you pick up a new face cream to try, you can be pretty sure that the worst that will happen to you is a break out or mild irritation.  Count your lucky stars that beauty products have come a long way since the days of mercury and Deadly Night Shade.



  1. The well-read cat is gorgeous!
    Sometimes I wonder how far we've progressed. Lead, mercury and Deadly Night Shade are no longer components of make-up, but some of our modern day lotions and makeups still contain nasty ingredients. Unfortunately the price we pay for these products isn't an indication of the quality of their ingredients.

    1. I so agree, Elizabeth. I'm not even sure we can trust what they put on the labels. Fortunately, there are more safeguards in place these days should there by a problem. Cosmetic companies are as afraid of lawsuits as all other businesses.

      Bises, M-T

  2. I am near sighted, so can get away with not wearing glasses unless I drive. Years ago I was tempted to have my eyesight corrected, but was told if I did I'd have to wear reading glasses a lot sooner than if I left well enough alone. I do need glasses to see at a distance, but you notice the need for glasses more if you are farsighted, I think.

    1. I wore glasses as a child as a result of measles, which left me w/an astigmatism. As I got older, I needed my glasses less and less, to the point where I didn't wear them for years. But my eye doctor always said that I would need them again at some point, first for reading and then for distance. He was right. The time has come. Oh well......

      Just ordered two pair (distance and reading) and decided on fun frames. I went for red for reading (Marc Jacobs) and blue for distance (BCBG). I'll take pictures when I get them. If you have to wear them, you might as well have fun.

      Picking out frames was actually more fun than I expected - definitely a lot more fun than trying on clothes. Frames have gotten a lot more expensive than the last time I purchased them years ago, but they're also a lot cuter.

      Thanks for stopping by, as always.

      Cheers, M-T

    2. I remember when I had to buy new glasses, and suddenly all the eyeglasses had designer names with designer prices. Can't wait to see yours, Marie-Thérèse! They sound stylist.

    3. I chose the two frames w/out even knowing the "designer" or the "cost" Ouch!! Still, of all the frames I tried on, and I probably tried almost 100 different frames (slight exaggeration), they were the ones I liked best. Interesting that one is from an American designer and the other from a French designer. That's so me, isn't it?

      As we say in French "Le hasard fait bien les choses." Rough translation: Fate knows best.

      Cheers, M-T

  3. I love history too M-T. Find it all quite fascinating. Mary Queen of Scots being one of my favourites. How ruthless there were.......

    As for the lotions and potions of the time - I'm not sure how many common folk had such 'beauty' routines. I imagine they were more concerned with survival. Also interesting as to what constitutes 'true beauty' - both then and now.

    As for prescription glasses to read, I've needed them since my 30's and my eyesight (and hearing) has indeed deteriorated further over the years. It does come in handy to be blind and deaf at times! :)

    1. Like you, EB, this period in history has always fascinated me. Mary Queen of Scots is also one of my favorites. What a tragic life she did lead and such a sad end.

      As for beauty routines, your comment about the common folk being more concerned w/survival than beauty, so very true. These were brutal times and life was cheap, even if you were a member of the nobility. They could never be sure of keeping their heads on their shoulders.

      I also agree w/you on being blind and deaf at times. My house looks a whole lot cleaner and I look a whole lot younger when I take off my glasses. Something to be said for that.

      Always enjoy your comments. Thanks for stopping by.

      Cheers, M-T

    2. Just thought you'd enjoy this post I did a few years back on a Donizetti opera about Mary Queen of Scots -- "Baritones and Battling Sopranos - Can We Talk?" Here's the link:


  4. Dearest Marie-Thérèse,
    Well, I've also noticed that my eyesight is not the same anymore... I still keep one pair of reading glasses that is I believe a 1.5 that I once found at Neiman Marcus Last Call, in a handy beaded tube. As it is so sleek, I could carry it in the smallest purse for reading the menu at a restaurant. But for real reading, I cannot use that anymore!
    But let's face it we are shifting numbers in age as well. Let's hope we manage for some 20 more years as it would be awful if we could no longer read.
    Love the humor of your eye doctor and yes, we know the Atropine very well.
    Talking about skin whiteners, I've had to warm our foster-daughter who is selling cosmetics and does the bridal makeup in her beauty shop, for NOT using any products from China. She too was using the skin whitener, they think it is beautiful... just the opposite from the Western women at present day. You can do a lot of damage to your skin if there is some Mercury or else inside. One cannot trust China on that!
    Can you imagine plucking your eye lashes out?
    Interesting to see the changes over the ages, what was perceived as beauty then and now.
    Sending you hugs,

    1. Dearest Mariette,

      If only my drug store reading glasses were sufficient at 1.5, I could keep wearing them, but, alas, even 3.5 is no longer strong enough for me to read small print and restaurant menus. Time to bite the bullet and get prescription glasses.

      I'm amazed that young women are still trying to "whiten" or "lighten" their skin. I'm always trying to add a little color to my pale skin. And, no, although I plucked a stray eyebrow hair here and there when I was younger, I can't imagine plucking out my eyelashes -- OUCH!!

      I wonder what the beauty standards will be in another 50 to 100 years?

      Grosses bises, M-T

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  6. I need my glasses for reading, but keep them off the rest of the time. I suspect, however, that things would be a bit clearer if I left them on all the time. Not ready for that yet. And several family members have mentioned I need my hearing checked. What?! They just all mumble (haha). Hope you're enjoying the summer M-T. xo Deborah

    1. I just picked up my new prescription glasses this afternoon -- one for reading and one for distance. I did once try transition lenses and found myself getting dizzy looking up and down trying to find the optimal way to look through them for close, near and far. And when I looked down as I went down the stairs, I fell headlong down the stairs. I never could get used to them. So, I decided on two pairs of glasses, which gives me more flexibility.

      The reading glasses are great, as long as I don't look in the mirror while wearing them. It's amazing how much younger we look when we take off our glasses.

      I have a feeling my distance glasses will become my go-to glasses. We'll see. I promised to post some pictures w/me wearing my new glasses, but selfies are always awful. Still, I did promise.

      It's been a very hot, very wet, very quiet summer so far.

      Always love hearing from you, Deborah.

      Cheers, M-T

      P.S.: My husband is the one who should have his hearing checked, but then husbands do have a way of tuning us out, don't they???

  7. The following comment was sent to me by my dear friend Anna and published with her permission:

    “Loved your blog. The Tudors are my favorite subject and read many books about them. I also like to read about the same person by different authors. Wonder what the belladonna did to their eyes?

    Did you know black teeth were the fashion in Japan?

    About glasses, I have been wearing them since I was a kid. Then came contact lenses. Fun time with the different colors. Was very upset when I could not wear them anymore. You are right about getting something fun.”

    xoxo, Anna

  8. I couldn't refrain from commenting. Perfectly written!

  9. Thanks for sharing such beautiful information with us. I hope you will share some more information about eye. Please keep sharing.
    Health Is A Life


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