Monday, March 22, 2010

A Closer Look At: Face Screens

Am SO excited about today's entry, which opens a door to a realm of domestic history I hadn't encountered before.

The round screen above, currently up for auction on eBay, originated in Venice. Unlike most of the handheld fans we know, it was not used to cool the face by displacing the air. Instead, it shielded the face from the direct heat of a fire, which, not too long ago, was the only way to keep a house warm.

A fire could redden the carefully cultivated pallor of upper-class women--and worse. The caption that describes this pair of puzzle-inscribed face screens (from the Puzzle Museum) elaborates the extent of potential damage:

"200 years ago, most of your makeup was wax based. If you warmed up your face, your make-up will run and you will look like a mix between a zebra and a strawberry-slice. So these face screens were invented for when your neighbour came round for a girly chat. Using them you could protect your face from the direct heat while the rest of you kept warm; and at the same time you could solve the puzzles."

How inviting is the idea of hanging around in front of a cozy fire with your friends, gossiping and playing guessing games . . . according to the seller, the Venetian screen's conversational prompts were the figures depicted on it. Virgin Mary in the middle is easily i.d.'ed thanks to her blue robe, but as for the rest, especially the little guys with the shears . . . perhaps an early-19th-century Italy expert could write in.

Just as evocative, in a different way, is the wonderfully shabby floral on the reverse of the fan, reminiscent of lush Venetian velvet tapestries that have withstood centuries of rising damp and fog . . .

(with many thanks to the Puzzle Museum and especially to Anti-qs for providing the wonderful photos of the Venetian screen.)


  1. The face screen is beautiful, and I recognize Beatrice Cenci (lower left on screen, this image usually attributed to Reni) -- a young Italian noblewoman who conspired with other family to have her cruel father murdered, and was later executed by beheading in Rome. No doubt a great topic for a fireside chat!

  2. How interesting. I'd never read about these before. Still, I imagine that fans were more practical because they could cool you off, and you could hide behind them.

  3. Thanks for the information, anon, that is JUICY. I really hope the screen goes to a good home, it is so cool.

    Hey Belle, not one for LA, for sure! Which reminds me, I need to do a post on the language of fans . . . have a great day, ladies.