Symbol of charm, attractiveness, voluptuousness: perfume vaunts a rich history, characterized by stories and legends bound to alchemy and to sacred rituals that reinforce its almost magical aura of mystery, still present to this day.
The ritual function of fragrances has ancient roots. Part of the funeral ceremonies of ancient Egypt as essential component of the embalming process, perfume was also seen as a sacred offer in Christian rites and ancient Rome, mainly in the form of incense. It was believed that these aromatic fumes had purifying powers, and attributed character and typicality to the divinity they were offered to. Even today, rose water can be used to remove skin impurities before prayer practices in Islam.
The Arabs are undoubtedly the forerunners of the great European perfume trade of the Renaissance period, thanks to the development of alembic distillation. After the long, dark period of the Middle Ages, Spain and Italy were instead at the head of this opulent trade, which soon reached what is still considered to be one of the cradles of perfume production par excellence: France, thanks to the marriage between Caterina de’ Medici and the Duke d’Orsay.
In those times perfumes were very concentrated: it was common practice not to wash, since water was feared as a vehicle of bacteria and diseases. Perfume therefore had the all-important function of covering foul odours. It was not before the end of the 17th century that fragrances lightened, becoming more delicate: such is the case with Cologne water, the aqua mirabilis often attributed to the novice salesman Gian Paolo Feminis, although the paternity of the product is not yet completely clear. Adored by Queen Victoria, praised by Goethe, this “miraculous water” expanded its worldwide reputation by becoming what would now be considered to be a pop phenomenon; at one point, Kandinsky would even redesign the packaging of this incredibly popular product.
It seems to be no chance if, over the course of history, visual arts and smell have always gone hand in hand. The synaesthesia that takes place when sight is struck by something that is usually perceived by smell is exemplary. Paintings rich in flowers, such as those of the Lombard Baroque painter Vincenzino, seem to emanate the sweet scent of his carefully reproduced jasmines.
Several events have been organized following this intriguing concept. Two years ago at the GAM (Turin, Italy), a well-known London cosmetics brand was able to join a fragrance workshop with works from the Musée d’Orsay. Laura Bosetti Tonatto, a well-known name in the panorama of artisanal perfume production, creates perfumes inspired by works of art: such is the case with the fragrance inspired by Caravaggio’s lute player, characterized by floral notes and hints of wood.
It becomes clear, then, that the bewitching power of perfume is not only limited to history, but has instead influenced many spheres of art. Many are the mysteries and legends tied to perfume, enough to evoke esoteric and dark atmospheres. Patrick Süskind recalls this aura, transforming it into the turbulent bestseller Perfume. Placing the novel in a perfect historical and geographic setting for its gloomy atmospheres, Süskind combines in a disturbing, macabre and nevertheless perfect way the concepts of perfume and female beauty, murder and the eager thirst for power.
In Babette’s Feast, a story by Danish writer Karen Blixen, the characters are instead inebriated by the fragrance of the wonderful dishes prepared by the protagonist. Babette is a French revolutionary who, expelled from her homeland, finds shelter in Denmark at her two Puritan sisters’ house. There, she organizes a rich and sumptuous lunch, preparing typical French dishes; the guests, the few old inhabitants of the town, at first scared by the lascivious power of Babette’s dishes, soon indulge in the pleasures of food and celebration.
Perfumes, therefore, have always had the power to give objects, animals and people precise features; they can attract or reject; evoke memories and feelings. All of the world’s greatest fashion brands have learned this lesson and, along with their tailor-made collections, have been creating their signature fragrances often accompanied by extravagant TV commercials. As a response to these brands, that often rely on industrial companies for the production of their fragrances, there has recently been a comeback of traditionally-crafted perfumes; traditional production methods, niche products and an accurate selection of ingredients fascinate the modern-day consumer. The quest is one for uniqueness, in order to avoid being dispersed in mediocrity; because unique is the scent of the single individual.