‘Little Italy’ is in fact ‘Big’ in the Art of Making and Wearing Perfume

2022 . 04 . 28 | written by Laurence Arrigo Klove

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Esxence 2022

Essencional's original content



Italy has a rich yet unknown perfume past. The present is flourishing thanks to prime ingredients, artistic creativity, and a wide merchants base. It is no longer shy.

Indulging in the creative art of perfume

Italy has perfected the art of perfumes, not only making them as much as the art of purchasing perfumes and wearing perfumes. Nowhere else in the world apart from the Middle East is perfume so present in the landscape and on people’s skins. For a long time, it was believed that France was the cradle of perfumes. Well, think again. We give back the flame where it belongs, to Italy and we speak to an expert, Italian of course, Silvio Levi, who is going to tell us the real story. He draws comparisons and differences between French and Italian perfume heritages. He also underlines the specificity of the Italian perfume history intermingled with the power of the church, royals, trade routes and arts patronage. Ultimately, we learn the complex perfume game which can be dangerous. Now, you have been warned.

Laurence: please take us back to the beginning, to the cradle of civilization and of perfume; where are we and when is it?

Silvio: As the matter is quite complex, shedding some light in a short way is a tough task you hand over to me. I will try my best. I could give a lecture that could last hours, but I will summarise and censor myself, so be it! I may disappoint you by saying that perfumes come from Asia not from Italy. Perfumes were invented where ‘majestic’ flowers grew naturally; the rose grew in Damascus, jasmine and tuberose in India. Trade routes flourished during the Byzantine and Roman empire and thanks to them, silk, spices, incense, and perfumes arrived not only in Egypt but also in Venice and Rome, the capitals of the empire. In Athens, we know there was already a perfume market. The story says that before meeting her lover, Marc Antonio of Rome, the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, was using perfume as a way of amplifying her seduction. If we steer away from this glamorous duo, historians tell us that Romans as well as Babylonians were using rose water to wash their hands and to perfume home curtains. Rose petals were adorning banquets tables and perfumed oils were used in thermal baths. The perfume purpose was clear, and it was to wash and purify the body. It stayed close to this purpose all the way to the Middle Ages. In 1221 when l’Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella was founded, the convent rose water was meant to be drunk as medicine.

Laurence: Now, comes the time to ask you about the link between perfumes production and the Church in the Italian history.

Silvio: Quite right. The bond is strong indeed and it was a direct consequence of the barbaric invasions. The church’s intent was then to protect cultural treasures, alchemy, and laboratories from destruction. L’Officina was created by Dominican friars in Florence who deftly cultivated their precious gardens. At that time. life and death were closely interacting with each other, and monks started to produce scented waters. The waters had the power to keep away the ‘Black Death’ plague or so the story says. Their distilled ‘Acqua di Rose’ was used as a potent cure to kill germs in the air and inside the body, then swallowed with wine or in a pill. This is a key historical milestone when perfumes become part of the church heritage. Perfume is quite simply a cure, a powerful medication curated by convents or evil sorcerers.

The interior of the Officina Santa Maria Novella in Florence

Laurence: What do you mean, perfume was also used as powerful poison?

Silvio: Absolutely. A clever chemist could without raising any doubt create a lethal weapon disguised as a perfume. Such poison could be hidden in a ring, inside a dress and used to swiftly get rid of the identified target or enemy. In the 1500’s, at the time of Caterina de Medici, her personal perfumer, Renato Bianco, was notoriously using such fatal powers.

Laurence: So, what happens when Catherine de Medici arrives in the French Court and becomes Queen?

Silvio: if you are asking me how many people had a mysterious ‘perfume’ death. I cannot tell you. What I can say is that they were simply no perfumes in France at that time. Perfumes only arrived inside the luggage of Caterina de’ Medici when she married the king of France in 1533. Her perfume or ‘Acqua della Regina,’ a fresh and citrusy bouquet became immediately immensely popular in the French court. The success of perfumes lied primarily in its power to cover the stench, given the lack of hygiene, and washing back then. In the royal court, perfumes then became a way to be attractive and play the frivolous courting game. As perfumes were expensive, they only belonged to members of the court, the ‘courtesans,’ all based in Paris, precisely in Versailles.

Laurence: Is this Parisian centralization a strength or a weakness in the art of creating perfume?

Silvio: The French court had one centralised high purchasing power, but it was a monolith. It lacked the healthy competition game between different Italian regional kingdoms rivalling for being the best one. In Italy, innovation kicked off when perfumes got outside of the hands of the Church during the ‘Rinascimento’ or Renaissance period. During that time, a multitude of patrons, bankers, heads of kingdoms or members of rich families members funded art and inventions of masterminds such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio… Leonardo da Vinci himself was cultivating a garden in Milano and was working on perfumes as reported in his ‘Codice Atlantico’ manual. Experiments, innovations boomed, and creators moved around geographically to seize the best patronage offer. In Italy having a pot-pourri of a variety of cultures and influences, Spanish, French, Arabic, Austrian…, allowed diversity to express itself freely. This in turn fuelled creativity, richness. Unification between the different kingdoms happened late in 1861, so that Italy is the youngest country in Europe and where ‘being different’ is like the norm. Divisions meant positive competition between kingdoms and merchant cities.

Art and creativity, come out of diversity

Venice, the ‘Serenissima’ merchant city

Laurence: Can we go back to the Italian merchant cities that prospered in the art of making perfume?

Silvio: I must add the impact of major adventurers and innovators. Marco Polo in the late 1200s came back from China with incense, a perfume ritual extensively used in Asia. By the way, burning wood oud is a deeply rooted tradition in Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam… But let us go back to the Italian merchant cities, Venice, Genoa, Florence, Pisa... In Venice, the most powerful one of all, spices, fabrics, and perfumes were intensely traded. Other industries blossomed as a ripple effect. Glass blowing in Murano developed healthily as bottles were essential to preserve perfumes. Another factor to fuel trade was the presence of multiple Jewish communities in Italy whom as we know were dealing with money loans that Banks were not involved with. They were critical in the funding and development of trade.

Sunrise above the trading city of Florence

Laurence: In addition to merchant cities, Italy also has regions producing natural perfume ingredients. Tell us about this second map of the country.

Silvio: Absolutely. Italy is blessed with fantastic weather and a variety of soils where native flowers and aromatics grow. Lavender in Piedmont, iris in Tuscany, bergamot in Reggio di Calabria, orange in Sicily, lemons in the vicinity of Naples, rosemary, basilic, myrtle in Sardegna… In Sicily there is an ancient tradition of producing orange scented water, called la ‘Zagara.’ In Tuscany, tanning leather became a very prosperous business which was only made possible thanks to usage of perfume oils. The horrific odour had to be removed and local perfumes came to rescue. To this day, Italy remains one of the world biggest producers of bergamot and other citrus fruits.

Zagara from Sicily, giving orange scenter water

Laurence: What about Italian perfumers, are there not as many as French ones and if so, why?

Silvio: one thing is for sure; Italy does not have one perfumery school when France has ISIPCA and the Grasse institute of perfumery. This is a real shame and I hope the future will see the opening of an Italian school. Having said that, there are brilliant Italian perfumers such as Lorenzo Villoresi, Luca Maffei, Maurizio Cerizza, Laura Tonatti, and more. Only they are more in the shadow in comparison to the French perfumers. I guess this will change over time on par with the growth of Italian perfume brands.

Laurence: You are right, let us fast forward to today. Italy is big on the perfume map.

Silvio: Absolutely. Italy is the market with the highest number of perfume boutiques in the world. There is a total of 6’000 point of sales, and a niche fragrance brand typically selects a generous 100-200 range. If we take the overall perfume mass market turnover in Europe, Italy is as important as France or Germany. However, if we isolate niche perfume sales from the rest, Italy comes first, ahead of Germany with a turnover of 250 M euros. If we take Esxence, the international exhibition for niche perfume brands, there are now 40 Italian niche brands participating.

Italian are masters in the creative seduction play.

Laurence: Italians love perfumes as a full expression of their style but Silvio there is also something special to reveal.

Silvio: Shall I? The weather, not too hot, not too cold, has once again a major positive contribution to the perfume olfactive experience. The perfume composition, with its mix of head, middle and base notes, beautifully shines through. Each nuance can be enjoyed thoroughly. That is not possible when the weather is too severe, with temperature extremes.

Italy is Shining and the Place to Be.

I found an excuse to what Jean Cocteau being married to an Italian said, "French people are Italian people in a bad mood.". Italians have the sun which makes them smile and shine. Italy is no longer shy about its history and its current achievements. Certainly not regarding perfumes. Italy is big in the art of making and indulging in perfumes.

The charm of Venice and Italy is eternal