As southern Europe cools down after its sizzling summer, the streets of Florence where I work part of the year have started to buzz with new arrivals out of the West: young men and women – though girls always outnumber the boys – on semester from American universities, eager to experience the city’s artistic past and its nightlife present.
The girls tend to travel in chattering packs. They stand taller than most Florentines, with long, sleek hair and wide generous mouths, moulded by years of orthodontic work to showcase the most dazzling smiles: teeth as white as sets of shining marble tombstones.
For moneyed Americans, perfect dentistry is a matter of course. When they venture out to local markets or mix with the older Florentines in bars or cafes I suspect they are taken aback by how other people’s mouths don’t come up to their standard.
Probably they don’t register how we (I include myself – for my teeth are a more European affair) – stare at them in similar disbelief.
She goes into a lot of psycho-social-sexual explanations regarding why older paintings don’t show people smiling with open mouths and showing their teeth — even going so far as to suggest a connection to vagina dentata(!) — which I had initially disregarded, but thought twice about. The simple explanation is that peoples’ teeth were generally so bad that no one smiled and the paintings are just reflecting reality. OTOH, much of painting is representing the ideal, certainly in the case of mythical persons (e.g., Venus), so it might make more sense that artists would give their clients or subjects the ideal of a beautiful set of pearly whites. Toothbrushes of some sort or other were known from Egypt, and I believe even the Romans were aware that rinsing one’s mouth with urine would whiten them (with the unfortunate side effect of weakening the enamel and causing eventual tooth loss even quicker), so I’m not ready to argue that nobody knew that a nice set of white teeth was even possible. So, hmmm, maybe she’s got a point in there.
Little simplistic in some areas though. It wasn’t precisely sugar — as in raw sugar — that caused a lot of dental disease in the form of caries and decay, but the more processed carbohydrate diets that came with agriculture. But even so, it’s not like our hunter-gatherer forebears were dentally distinguished: most of them they suffered from abscesses and exceptional tooth wear due to the hard, abrasive nature of their foods.
But an interesting article nonetheless.