Museo Lorenzo Villoresi: The Art of Perfume
2023 . 02 . 23 |
It was a beautiful October day in Florence, Italy, with the temperature topping 25°celsius. However, this wasn’t a day for a leisure stroll around town: I had a destination in mind, a haven for fragrance lovers. Navigating the circuitous streets of the Renaissance city, I crossed the river Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, pleased to see the number of tourists had greatly diminished since my September trip. I turned up a side street and made my way to Via de’ Bardi, 12, the location of the Maison Lorenzo Villoresi. Having interviewed the maestro a month prior, I was happy to return, this time for a guided visit of the museum, Dottore Villoresi’s passion project.
The City of Flowers
The expression “a Renaissance man » refers to someone who is knowledgeable and skilled in many fields, particularly the arts, writing, science, and even athletics. Likewise, Florence pays tribute to its heritage, cultural diversity and expertise by boasting a whopping 70 museums (in comparison, Paris has 61), running the gamut from Renaissance art to plaster casts and even soccer – meaning there is something for all interests. How fitting that the birthplace of Catherine de Medici, the 16th century French queen recognized for introducing perfumery into France, would also be the home of a fragrance museum!
Commonly known as “the city of flowers”, Florence, in the Middle Ages, adopted a floral emblem which is seen on many coats of arms, on statues, on flags, in paintings and on buildings. The origins of this symbol are debated. At once called the “Giglio”, which means lily, it is also known as the “Iris Florentina”, perhaps in reference to the abundant fields of the flower which were found in and around town. In either case, it further solidifies the reason why a museum dedicated to ingredients and scent should find its home here.
But I digress….
Arriving at the Villoresi palazzo I was greeted by Ilaria Guasco who has been greatly involved in the creation of the Museum. After passing through the garden then descending a short set of stairs to the museum, I thought of what Howard Carter said when he discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb. “Do you see anything?”, he was asked. “Yes, wonderful things.” I knew I was about to smell wonderful things as well. Covering nearly 1000 square meters, the museum provides a multi-sensory journey to discover the world of perfumery. It is at once enlightening, interactive and educational. As Ms. Guasco explained to me, the museum offers at least three levels of information: a basic level for the novice, an in-depth level for the knowledgeable visitor and an advanced level for noses and professionals. Our first stop focused on animals where we learn (or re-learn) that animals have many different ways of smelling. Snakes may have nostrils but they get more sensations by using their tongues. Flies and other insects have sensory hairs on the equivalent of their feet, so consider when they flit on your picnic spread, they may be doing a tasting. Certain fish have what looks to be whiskers growing near their mouths: these act like a type of antenna that detects scent…..and the fun facts go on.
All Over the Map
Next, we moved on to learn about the trade routes, helped by maps that chronicle over 2500 years of commerce. Trade routes extending to Africa and the Middle East ran through the Republic of Venice which reached its height in the 14th century. To the north, Antwerp built the first commodity exchange in the 17th century. Raw materials, spices, and various ingredients were highly coveted precious cargo, and of course, all were used in the creation of perfumery. I saw a mention of the ingredient Nard which appears in the Bible but is little spoken of today. Due to its romanticized reputation of being a sweet smelling nectar I was curious to learn more. Ms. Guasco told me that Nard had a medicinal, and hence, economical value, which positioned it for exchange on a global basis. Also known as spikenard, it comes from a flowering plant in the valerian family, and the rich aromatic essential oil is derived from crushing and distilling the rhizomes of the plant. The Ancient Romans used it to flavor their wine and to create perfumes. One of the most famous mentions of Nard is the following Biblical quote:
“…Then Mary took a pound of fragrant oil—pure and expensive nard—anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped His feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil.” John 12:3 *
The Heart of the Museum
We had now entered the heart of the museum, the Osmorama, a library of over one thousand smells, both ancient and modern, natural and synthetic. Like a kid in a candy store, the visitor can follow his nose to smell a plethora of flowers, spices, herbs, woods and aromatic substances. I marveled at the scope of the inventory and how such a range, especially ancient ingredients, could be sourced. Dottore Villoresi had told me that ancient ingredients still used today are available from some suppliers in the world, but sometimes in the form of aromatic plants or spices rather than extracts. (Later in the visit I was able to see a selection of aromatic plants from all over the world in the garden and on the terrace.) He mentioned that he has been able to acquire certain captives produced by multi-national oil houses that typically are used internally, including new ingredients coming from the world of flavors which are used in creating gourmand notes.
A Wealth of Information
Moving on, Ms. Guasco showed me a touchscreen program where the visitor can search for native ingredients by country and even region. The wealth of information provided in terms of the origins, myths, legends, history and usages of each ingredient featured is phenomenal. It is a testament to the hours of painstaking research and organization the Maison’s team has taken on, under the aegis of Dottore Villoresi, to create an extraordinary resource. Beautiful images accompany the text and are extremely helpful to visualize the appearance of each raw material as well as learn how it is treated to render its fragrant output.
We then came to a section entitled the “Impossible flowers”, so called because it’s not possible to obtain a natural extract from any of the flowers in this group, regardless of the technical process employed. The list is surprising because each flower is quite fragrant in its ability to scent our home or garden: lily of the valley, lilac, wisteria, gardenia, honeysuckle and hyacinth. This is a key point at which visitors will learn to appreciate the skill of the perfumer who, by carefully blending ingredients both natural and synthetic, will produce an end result that will mimic the scent of the resistant flower. And speaking of the perfumer, next we moved forward into a space that described the profession with a general overview of how the perfumer works and how a fragrance is made.
An Interactive Journey
Scent must be experienced, and the museum has successfully created a series of olfactory stations, interactive tools, films and multisensory means of doing exactly that. The scientific and technical side of fragrance is made approachable and even fun, meaning the visitor will leave with a greater understanding of the variety of ingredients, of the creation process and hence a newfound appreciation for the art of perfumery. After a visit, the world of fragrance becomes more accessible and less mysterious, but no less magical.
Visits to the museum are by appointment only, accompanied by a knowledgeable guide. For more information visit: