"How to Be a Renaissance Woman" is not really a how-to book (but you guessed!).

No, Jill Burke's sprightly cultural history, subtitled "The Untold History of Beauty & Female Creativity," is a window on the lot of women in early modern Europe. Also, a gentle reminder that, as complicated as things are for women of the TikTok generation, threading their way between Barbie and Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian and Moms for Liberty, it's nothing like the fraught terrain confronting the Renaissance woman, who was subject to perilously exacting — and contradictory — standards of attractiveness and modesty.

Cultivate a pale, smooth complexion by rubbing your face with lead, mercury, asbestos and ... bran? But eschew all artifice, lest your suitor be deceived. "Miserable you, if you attract a husband solely through makeup! Because then when you have washed it off how will he feel about you?" Juan Luis Vives chastised his reader in his 1524 bestseller "The Education of a Christian Woman." Keep your long hair, preferably blond ("red hair 'demonstrates ignorance, pride and betrayal'"), elaborately styled but also covered, as "[t]he more hair on show, it seems, the more sexually available you were deemed to be."

Against the injunctions of the male gaze, set out in disapproving tracts and dialogues, Burke marshals the advice contained in books like Giovanni Marinello's "The Ornaments of Ladies" or the earliest known printed book of beauty tips: "A Pleasant new work which teaches how to make various perfumed compositions to make every woman beautiful." Then she introduces us to women who, through luck and force of will were able to parlay their talents, skills and, inevitably, beauty into successes as painters, writers, performers and courtesans. And it says something about what rare birds these were that Burke is able to identify virtually all of them in one brief book.

Among these women the perennial dilemma emerges: Rebel against the physical ideals, imposed upon the female sex by men and society, or embrace the tools of beauty and sexuality as a means to power: Betty Friedan vs. the Cosmo Girl, Renaissance edition.

Of course, there is no answer. And in a world where violence against women is both endemic and sanctioned ("Violence was actually recommended in many contemporary books on marriage — this was a lawful way for husbands to express authority"), how much agency can a woman, however lucky or gifted, really have? Burke celebrates the female artists and intellectuals, but there is no avoiding the fact that they were only as successful as male society allowed.

Women of the 15th and 16th centuries may have been accomplished and enterprising — and Burke includes a slew of recipes for cosmetics and medicines as evidence — but with one accusation of witchery they could be undone.

If you were wondering how to be a Renaissance woman, the answer, Burke's book perhaps inadvertently tells you, is: Just don't.

How to Be a Renaissance Woman

By: Jill Burke.

Publisher: Pegasus, 336 pages, $28.95.