THE ITALIAN APPROACH TO PERFUMERY: AN EXPERT DISCUSSION

2022 . 05 . 05 | written by Karen Marin

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Italy is a reference point for art, culture, film, cuisine, la Dolce Vita and the love of beautiful things. What is much less known, and will be explored in this article, is the importance of Italy to the world of perfumery. Several months ago I wrote about the German approach to fragrance* which was enlightening, and now it is time to put the focus on the Bel Paese, to shed light on a country that has made significant contributions but that has not been in the limelight. To investigate the role Italy has played over many centuries, I sought out several industry experts who kindly provided insight and shared their knowledge on this fascinating topic.


FRAGRANCE HERITAGE AND ORIGINS

Fragrance usage in Italy goes back to antiquity, where the culture of perfume was established amongst the Greco-Roman civilizations. After all, the word perfume comes from the Latin term “per fumum," meaning “through smoke.” The Romans burned leaves, crushed flowers, and used wood shavings and aromatic resins as sacrificial offerings to their gods, but they also used oils and essences to perfume both their hair and their bodies. By the 13th century, the travels and discoveries of Venetian merchant Marco Polo bolstered the spice trade in Europe and paved the way for new scent options. In fact, it’s amazing to learn how much of the roots of fragrance go back to Venice. Nicola Pozzani, Creative Director for the Merchant of Venice explained, “Different trade routes all passed through Venice and different ingredients came from each route. Venice was the epicenter for spices, ingredients, refined goods, everything. Venetians are traders at heart, so although they weren’t growing ingredients, they were trading them".

Marco Vidal, CEO of Mavive, pointed out that “Venice was the first to absorb the culture of perfumery from the Orient and in particular from the Byzantine Empire and Constantinople where it was central to the life of science, commerce, aristocracy and religious worship.

Venetian trade routes
Venetian flacons
Nicola Pozzani
Marco Vidal

By the middle of the 14th century all of Europe, including Italy, was battling the plague, and water became viewed as a transporter of disease. Even the clergy spoke out against the use of water for hygiene. Florentine monks created tonics and aromatic concoctions used for health and medicinal purposes. People believed pleasant scents had disinfectant properties and could protect them from disease. According to Zisis Kapsalis, specialist for AquaFlor, Italian noble ladies in the Renaissance used perfumes but in different ways then we know today. “They used essences and dried herbs to perfume their linens, their clothes and even their homes. At the time it was very common in Florence to use the bussolotto, or a pomander, which contained waxes, essential oils, and fragrant ingredients. Ladies would hang them from necklaces and hold them up to their nose to sniff the scent and disguise unpleasant smells around them.”

The most famous, pivotal moment was in 1533 when Catherine de Medici came from Florence to France to marry the dauphin, the future King Henri II. Mr. Kapsalis recounts “She was very young and she brought her entourage with her including her perfumer Renato Bianco, later called René Le Florentin, who established perfumery in France in the way we know it today. Some say he was an orphan, that he grew up in a convent, but he did work as an apprentice to a “speziale”, a person who worked with all aromatic substances. He created l’Acqua della Regina for her based on the citrus scents she liked. People wanted to imitate the queen, and they started wearing versions of this scent.” The perfumer is in fact linked to Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and the oldest fragrance of the renowned Italian brand is Acqua della Regina, noted to have been commissioned by Catherine for her wedding.

Of course, there were also somewhat sinister allegations associated with both the queen and her perfumer as Stefania Giannino of Nobile 1942 points out. “I like discovering the legends around Caterina de Medici, and certainly my favourite story is about her arrival at the French Court where she was not welcomed. She came with her perfumer who minced, mixed, filtered, and distilled fragrant herbs and precious essences for Caterina for fragrance, but also to impregnate fabrics and to perfume the leather of gloves. But they also say he made poisons, and his experiments were tested as ways to get rid of people she didn’t like. He had developed an odorless and lethal substance in which to immerse clothes before perfuming them. It is said that the Queen of Navarre, with whom there was bad blood, died two weeks after receiving a gift from Catherine. Truth or fiction? Who can tell. But the tradition of scented gloves began thanks to her.”

Indeed, Renato’s citrus formula is cited as the inspiration behind the “acquae mirabilis” which gained popularity throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Stories vary, but as evaluator, editor and fragrance industry consultant, Ermano Picco explains “Of course I love the fabulous story of the origins of the Eau de Cologne, which was actually born in the late 17th century in Italy in Piemonte. Giovanni Paolo Feminis, who is behind the iconic fragrance, moved from his native Santa Maria Maggiore near the Italian Alps to Cologne in Germany to make his fortune.” Eau de Cologne, a light citrus scent, gained wide acclaim and was used by the royal courts of Europe. And of course citrus influenced perfumery in a huge way. As Kapsalis observes, You wouldn’t be able to make chypres without citrus, and it would be difficult to make an oriental in the classic French way without citrus.”

Catherine De Medici, Francois Clouet
4711, an eau de Cologne
Zisis Kapsalis
Stefania Giannino
Ermano Picco

ITALIAN APPROACH & CULTURE

There was a general consensus among the group I interviewed that Italy’s wealth of home-grown ingredients and top-quality raw materials has had a significant influence on the Italian approach to fragrance. Ermano Picco referred to the bergamot from Reggio Calabria as the “King of citrus with its zesty bite and its almost floral sparkle.” He also mentioned the “bubbling fruitiness of tangerine that’s a burst of optimism” while the Florentine iris, “with its powdery notes redolent of baby powder and outdoor violets as well as yeast, sour dough, and white chocolate,” is an essential element. He also gave an honorable mention to incense. “Despite originating from the Middle East, incense is a familiar note to Italians for we are dipped in Catholic culture since the Roman Empire. We have the Vatican in our country after all.” Zisis Kapsalis concurs. “…though Italians love citrus there is also a strong connection with other ingredients they grew up with such as iris, leather and Mediterranean herbs like basil and rosemary. Now with the arrival of the gourmands, I see a love of the almond scent. It reminds people of their parents or their grandparents.”

Citrus - Jared Subia
The iris - James Morden
Mediterranean herbs - Alexander Schimmeck

Unsurprisingly, the Church has had an undeniable power and authority over the lifestyle of Italians which extends to perfume. In a recent interview for Essencional, Giorgio Dalla Villa, director of the Museo del Profumo in Milan, explained it succinctly. “The church exerted an enormous influence on young women, and was firmly opposed to the use of perfume and cosmetics, generally considered as 'work of the devil'. For Italians, who until the 1960’s lived under a cloak of religious conservatism, the woman was a mother, an athlete, certainly not a lover. Perfumers therefore created fragrances for women that had a good scent, but that did not take into account her femininity and sensuality.” In Italy ladies fragrances were limited to rather innocent florals featuring rose, violet or lavender, whereas French perfumers made a wider range that could be worn, say, for an afternoon tea or to seduce a lover. Those who sought out that type of scent had to look beyond their own borders for options.

And yet times have changed because today Italy is recognized not just for the exquisite ingredients but also for exclusive designs, and innovation. Ermano Picco reminds us that “The birth of exclusive luxury fragrance collections was actually started by Prada in 2003 with the Iris parfum – nearly 20 years ago.” Meanwhile, the rise of artistic perfumery is particularly linked to Italy as affirmed by Marco Vidal. Italy also has a flair for experimentation and craftsmanship: in fact Italy is one of the first countries in the world in the field of niche perfumery.”

Saint Peters Basilica - Chad Greiter
Mary - Jon Tyson

BRANDS

I wondered how the Italian culture had influenced domestic brands, and specifically the ones linked to the people I interviewed. Above all, it is the brand heritage and related stories as well as the native raw materials that create the bond. Ms Giannino explained “From the very beginning, the Italian character of the NOBILE 1942 brand was put in the foreground. We like to call ourselves storytellers and in every perfume there is a trait of our identity. The names are in Italian and the perfumes are an olfactory identification of each story we tell. For example, La Danza delle Libellule reflects the gracefulness of the protagonists of its namesake operetta. RUDIS refers to the courage and fear of a gladiator before entering the arena and so on.” She recognized that there is an expectation to find native ingredients in Italian perfumes, and that, due to the historical context, there should be at least one citrus scent within the brand portfolio. Mr Vidal indicated that most of the brands in the Mavive family are linked to Italy in style, origin or materials, such as the classic Pino Silvestre, an aromatic fougère, which dates back to 1955. However, the Merchant of Venice, a brand launched in 2014, is inspired by the centuries-old perfume tradition of Venice while the fragrances are created from a diverse and global palette of notes and accords.

This melding of heritage with modernity is very characteristic of Italian brands today. Mr. Picco shared several examples with me. “Rubini was started by the Andrea Rubini family who has a history rooted in the Italian perfume industry, and the traditional Italian colognes and hair lotions served as an inspiration for their first perfume, Fundamental. The latest release, Nuvolari, is also influenced by a modern myth that’s still a reference of genius and bravery, embodied by the legendary 1930’s Italian racecar driver, Tazio Nuvolari.” This scent includes a Fuel, Motor Racing and Asphalt accord – only possible thanks to synthetics in modern perfumery!

La danza delle libellule
RUDIS
Nobile 1942
Nuvolari ⒸRubini Profumi
Rosa Mocenigo, The Merchant of Venice
Murano Exclusives Collection - The Merchant of Venice

He also spoke of his collaboration with the founders of Masque Milano, Alessandro Brun and Riccardo Tedeschi. “For them the influence of Italian culture is key. It is maybe less evident in the Masque Milano Opera collection, but is particularly apparent in the newly born Milano Fragranze collection which bring to life the genius loci of iconic places and times in Milan. Brera, for instance, is a romantic rose-patchouli tribute to the painting “The Kiss” by Francesco Hayez, housed in the Pinacoteca Brera. Or again, Diurno, a creation which I am particularly fond of, which takes inspiration from the working class public baths** established in 1925 in the Porta Venezia district, where the last barbershop and hairdresser closed their doors in the late 1980s. You can still get whiffs of aftershave and hairspray in there, and catch glimpses of the deco allure of the architecture. Perfumer Julie Massé brilliantly rendered this atmosphere with a contemporary fougère accord uplifted by a steamy, cottony lavender set against a brilliant amaretto cherry accord that’s also a nod to the early ‘80s fruity shampoos and hairsprays.

Milano Fragranze Brera Ⓒ Milano Fragranze
Albergo Diurno Venezia by Architect Piero Portaluppi (1925)
Milano Fragranze Diurno Ⓒ Milano Fragranze

Mr. Kapsalis spoke about the unique brand positioning of AquaFlor. “There is a specific philosophy behind our brand which was born from the desire of an Italian family who wanted to maintain the tradition of perfumery that has been in Florence’s history since even before Catherine de Medici. Everything passes in front of a pair of eyes and through a pair of hands. Everything is born here, raised here and delivered to the world from here and it’s what Made in Italy means.”

The handmade process at Aquaflor
The Aquaflor I Nobili range

THE CONSUMER & THEIR HABITS

Certainly in a country where art, architecture, painting and sculpture carry so much importance, their impact is felt on fragrance as well as the way the consumer interacts with fragrance. Given the opinions shared, it is clear that wearing fragrance is linked to beauty and pleasure, to being courteous and to performing a ritual. Ms. Giannino comments “There is an undeniable beauty habit that is part of our DNA. Wherever you are in Italy it is not so hard to find a place that talks about art and evokes beauty. Perfume is part of this quest for beauty.” Mr. Picco elaborates “I think all of this influences our fragrance usage for we are pleasure-seekers by nature. We use fragrances to communicate, to indulge ourselves in that little fragrant pleasure making every day extraordinary like we do with food. Americans call them “guilty pleasures” but we don’t feel guilty at all.”

Wearing fragrance is, in fact, a part of the grooming process and a habit often attributed to the Italian gentleman. Mr Kapsalis noted “A signore of a certain period would definitely wear his fragrance before going out. It’s a typical thing that when an Italian man would pass by, he was recognizable by his scent.” Mr. Picco shared a childhood memory that exemplifies this habit. “My granddad was a farmer, a very simple man born in the 1920s. Every single day after working in the fields he used to take a shower and wear a cologne before sitting down for dinner. It was a courtesy to himself and to his family I guess, and he always smelled good in my memory.” My Italian grandfather had the same habit and he always smelled good too! Mr. Vidal also commented on the concept of courtesy. “Yes, perfume is closely linked to our customs, especially in Southern Italy. It’s a form of courtesy, elegance and ritual that is inevitable in socializing.” And even if so much has changed in the world, Mr. Kapsalis notes…the ritual of wearing fragrance is still as valid today as it was in the past: and equally for men & women.”

Author's grandfather

Now that we know the consumer appreciates wearing fragrance, what do they like? It is not so easy to stereotype anymore, especially due to social media which provides greater awareness of the global fragrance market. Ms. Giannino remarks “Italian consumers are very open to unique and often very enveloping smells such as incense, ambroxan, Oud, and vanilla in general. But what distinguishes us as Italians is the desire more than anywhere else to be unique, different and not standardized.” Mr. Vidal concurs. “Italy is a country characterized by a high per capita consumption of perfume. In general, the approach to perfume is very open and positive, without preconceptions and also with an excellent index to change and novelty.” As everywhere, some consumers know what they want and they are loyal to their scent while others are open to experiment and discover something new.

Italian flag - Jametlene Reskp

RETAIL LANDSCAPE

Italy has a somewhat complicated mix of shops further complicated by the growth of eCommerce. The biggest piece of the pie at roughly 75% is given over to perfume shops – be they independent perfumeries, local shops and brand stores. Large retailers like Sephora make up about 22% while the balance comes from pharmacies, supermarkets and hypermarkets. Online sales flourished during the pandemic and are now expected to equal in-store sales by 2025.

It's worth noting that from a production standpoint, over 50% of the manufacturing happens in companies based in the northern region of Lombardia followed by 10% in Emilia Romagna and about 8% in the Veneto.



LOOKING FORWARD

I often end my interviews by asking people to reflect on recent change and to pull out the crystal ball to predict how the market may change in the next few years. Obviously, as elsewhere, the pandemic accelerated the shift to online retail which had not previously been a major option for Italian consumers. This was a technological evolution that pushed everyone into the 21st century. Mr. Picco commented “Nowadays it feels normal to buy perfumes and cosmetics online and even small businesses invested more in communication on social networks, making new websites and e-shops, etc. The process is still being refined and in the next few years we will see the online retail grow and offer additional services.”

At press time, the war in the Ukraine had been going on for nearly 60 days with no signs of an end in sight. Ms. Giannino reflected on the impact it is having on the fragrance industry. “We are all experiencing the difficulties of finding raw materials, the constant increase in costs, uncertainty in the future, the closure of some important markets.” She also shared a message of hope. “The market is very difficult for a new entry who wants to have an International distribution but there is still good opportunity for existing brands with consolidated business. I also see a good opportunity for local brands in their domestic market: they have the chance to get the interest of local people if they have good projects.”

A final statement from Mr. Vidal lets us end on an optimistic note. ”There has been an excellent rate of niche perfumery, many perfumeries have opened that deal only with artistic perfumery and this is very positive because it is about quality with a focus on the importance of the perfume itself with respect to the brand, packaging and advertising. There is more specialization in this segment, indicating very good aspects even for the future.”

For those who want to discover, smell and experience niche and artistic Italian perfumes for themselves, make your way to Milan June 15 – 18 to attend the world-famous Esxence, the art perfumery event dedicated to artistic perfumery. For more information, please visit: www.esxence.com/?lang=en



Many thanks to the following individuals who contributed their expertise to this article:

Marco Vidal, CEO Mavive, Founder of The Merchant of Venice

Stefania Giannino, Export Manager, Nobile 1942

Ermano Picco, Fragrance Consultant, Evaluator, Reviewer and Journalist

Zisis Kapsalis, Specialist, AquaFlor

Additional corroborating information and quotes from the following individuals are referenced:

Giorgio Dalla Villa, Director, Museo del Profumo

Nicola Pozzani, Creative Director, The Merchant of Venice



Notes

*See Essencional article The German Approach to Perfumery www.essencional.com/en/posts/the-german-approach-to-perfumery/

**These public baths offered services (baths, shave, manicure) for travelers arriving at the adjacent central train station as well as for the people living in the neighborhood. Few had access to a private bath or shower at the time.



Photo Credits:

Thanks to AquaFlor, Milano Fragranze, The Merchant of Venice, Nobile 1942, Rubini Profumi, and ParisMusées for their images.

Author’s own photos throughout.