2022 . 04 . 21 | written by Silvio Levi

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Fragrance museums



After having heard about it for years, I finally decided to visit the Perfume Museum in Milan and interview its founders. I was given an extremely kind welcome by Daniela Candio, curator of the Museum, and by the director, Giorgio Dalla Villa, who, for the next two hours overwhelmed me with stories, anecdotes and the outpouring of their passion that it is my pleasure and duty to share with our readers. So let's start our journey to discover this magical place, the guardian of forgotten stories filled with creativity.

When and why did you come up with the idea of creating this museum?

Considering our academic training and our interest in Modern and Contemporary History, especially focused on the Italian society of the 20th century, we were excited to discover Artistic Perfumery and to learn that the story of this sector, which had so much weight in social evolution, had not yet been told or analyzed by anyone.

Daniela is the granddaughter of the former owner of Profumeria Vecchia Milano, one of the oldest Milanese shops in the sector. Her aunt, who passed away about twenty years ago at almost ninety years old, was our source of fantastic stories.

Since then we began to undertake more accurate studies, to travel abroad, especially in France and Germany because in Italy no one had really been interested in our past.

Following our studies, and driven by passion and personal interest, the need arose to collect physical findings such as bottles we purchased in the markets or at auctions in France and America, often at quite expensive costs.

After years studying vintage perfumery, we started publishing the magazine "Profumeria da Collezione" over twenty years ago, and as of last year we have also created the English version distributed in the United States of America by Perfume Passage.

The Museum was inaugurated about fifteen years ago with visits reserved for subscribers to the magazine, but it has only been open to the public for about ten years.

Giorgio Dalla Villa, who is part of your team?

Together with me we have Fulvio Ronchi, graphic designer and university professor of Visual Communication, Daniela Candio, who worked in publishing with Garzanti and Bompiani, and who, in addition to being the curator of the Museum, deals with the magazine "Profumeria da Collezione", and Ermanno Dalla Villa, a profound connoisseur of Modern and Contemporary Italian History, and consultant on historical elements.

How did you approach the analysis of the
Italian Perfumery sector?

Since a lot of information about Italian Perfumery was incomplete, we started by researching European and American Perfumery, to have an international vision on the subject. Later we were able to fill in the gaps for Italian Perfumery, just like a puzzle, comparing it with the evolution of our country’s society during the 20th century because we are convinced that Perfumery has affected the social evolution. Let me give an example to show how perfume has witnessed the evolution of the times: during the period of WWII, the Casa di Profumo Rudy had inserted in particular furnishing compositions, in wood or ceramic, a 'bottle' of perfume. These objects, that can now be defined as kitsch, received in those moments a remarkable response from the public and became almost status symbols. Thanks to the Marshall Plan, a great loan granted to Italy by the United States, Italy experience what was later defined as 'the economic miracle'. The industries of the north, in need of labor, recruited a large number of workers from Southern Italy, who almost always lived in great poverty, working occasionally as laborers. For the first time, these workers found ‘prosperity’ in the industries of the North, and to prove their well-being and their accomplishments to relatives and friends from the South, they surrounded themselves with objects containing perfume, the magical elixir that in their home towns was only worn by the wives of landowners and aristocrats. By way of these objects, these coveted fragrances, they could finally show a link between their humble origins and the wealthy classes. Of course, the perfume was never worn; it was left on display to give an air of class to one's home.

Given the success of these objects, almost all the Italian houses began to produce containers of this kind, from Vidal’s 'Campanile di San Marco', to Giviemme’s 'Insidia' bottle designed by Dino Villani, and produced by the Vetrerie Venini of Murano, Venice . A series of unexpected bottles that reproduce gondolas, Moorish daggers, ocean liners, dolls and more came onto the market. Today they are highly appreciated by European and American collectors.

These objects that showcased Perfume did not possess any practical use other than that of a ‘vessel’, but they demonstrated the achievement of social status by becoming symbols of a particular aspect of Italian society after the Second World War.

Can you tell us about the artists who were active at that time?

There have been many artists who worked in Perfumery, from René Lalique to Julien Viard, from Salvador Dali to Léonor Fini to Louis Sue. As for the Italian artists, I like to mention Fulvio Bianconi and Carlo Scarpa. Fulvio Bianconi (1915-1996) became a great master glassmaker by chance. In 1947 Giviemme (GVM), Casa di Profumo founded by Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, asked Bianconi to design four flacons for the line of perfumes "Le quattro stagioni" designed for the post-war woman. The four fragrances had names that weren’t very appealing, such as "Summer Remembrance", "Spring Remembrance" and so on. Bianconi went to Vetreria Venini, the most famous foundry in Murano, where he created four bottles with obvious influences from the Cubist avant-garde movement, but with something reminiscent of the 'goddess of snakes' of the Minoan civilization. This was a mixture of ancient Mediterranean art and the European avant-garde. These four masterpieces led Paolo Venini to hire Fulvio Bianconi as artistic director of the Vetreria.

Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978), another artist who worked at Venini, made glass the protagonist in contrast to other artists for whom glass was a support to be modeled or to represent images and figures on its surfaces. Scarpa used the simplest form, the drop, to give life to the material by inserting air bubbles inside, twisting it or surrounding it with colored filaments, thus creating unique masterpieces because, since they were individually blown, they are all different from each other.

Were the bottles made in order to somehow anticipate the inspiration of the fragrance?

The glass, both those blown by hand and the industrial ones produced in limited edition, were made mainly as vessels to hold the fragrance and often there was no relationship between olfactory composition and the bottle. Some fragrances even took the name that the artist had assigned to the bottle before it was sold to a Perfume House, such as "Scarabée" the bottle designed by René Lalique around 1909. Lalique, who was a jewelry designer, also entered the world of perfumery by chance. He gave his work the name "Scarabée", following the trend towards ancient Egypt which was in vogue in those years (the scarab beetle was a deity among the Egyptians). Later the specimen was purchased by the Maison Piver, who created a perfume that was given the same name that Lalique wanted for this bottle.

Giviemme Insidia designed by Dino Villani
Insidia and other Giviemme products
Giviemme & Fulvio Bianconi - "Le quattro stagioni"
Giviemme & Fulvio Bianconi - "Summer Remembrance"

When does the spray enter the world of Perfumery?

The pump vaporizer already existed in the 19th century and was mainly used in barber shops and by ladies hairdressers. It was towards the end of that century, with the marketing of rubber, that rubber pumps were introduced, often covered with fine fabrics. Spray bottles appeared significantly in the world of Perfumery in the 1960’s to 1970’s.

The first tests were disastrous: the prototypes were easily clogged and were not very functional.

One of the pioneer houses in this field was the Italian company Arys. Over time the mechanisms were perfected until they became the sprays that we know today which are present in most perfume bottles

What have synthetic substances represented in the history of Perfumery?

In 1884 Paul Parquet created for Houbigant Fougère Royale (Royal Fern) in which synthetic or purified substances such as Coumarin were used. The fern, which in nature has no smell, arouses in the imagination a sensation of undergrowth, humidity, and freshness. By creating an olfactory identity that does not exist in nature with synthetic substances and then creating the correlation with a plant element was a real provocation. It is said that Parquet said: "If God had given the fern a smell, he would have given it the smell of Fougère Royale". Although it was not the first perfume created with synthetic ingredients, ever since, perfumers make use of olfactory elements that do not exist in nature to arouse emotions and sensations.

What are from your point of view the main stylistic differences of
Perfumery in different nations?

Let's consider France and Italy. At the end of the 19th century the French lived in a free and secular country. After the discovery of 'synthetic perfumes' they realized that they could 'adapt' the fragrances to any situation: for the girl who went to her first dance, or for the lady of a certain age who welcomed her friends into her home, or even for the woman who wanted to conquer her beloved. They became dedicated, in particular, to creating perfumes for the woman who wanted to enhance her charm. 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 Germany there was little beyond Eau de Cologne, apart from perhaps the production of Dralle.

The British devoted themselves to perfumes for the good bourgeoisie.

In Spain, especially before the Second World War, with brands such as Myrurgia, founded in 1918 and Dana, established in 1932, the perfumes created spread throughout Europe and the United States. The Spanish Perfumers involved great artists for the realization of their bottles, such as the sculptor Julien Viard who created several designs for Myrurgia.

Can you tell us something about the legend of Eau de Cologne?

It’s a beautiful case of homonyms that revolve around a fragrance legend, a complicated and confusing story that has several protagonists with the same name: Giovanni Maria Farina. It all began at the end of 1600 when a young man, Gian Paolo Feminis, moved from his native town, Santa Maria Maggiore in the Val Vigezzo, a valley in the Alpine mountains, to the city of Cologne, Germany. Here he began to trade and import products from Italy. Like all the apothecaries of the time, he also created his own particular medicine, which he said, once drunk, healed every evil. He called this medicine 'Aqua Mirabilis', which quickly became famous throughout Cologne. At his death he left no heirs and the formula of the medicine fell into the hands of a distant cousin, a certain Giovanni Maria Farina, who created a laboratory for the processing and sale of the product certifying it with his own name. Towards the end of the 18th century the Rhineland, the region where Cologne is the capital, was occupied by Napoleon who, having discovered the wonderful elixir, fell in love with it and consumed huge quantities, making it known throughout Europe. Quickly the product name changed to Cologne Water or Eau de Cologne.

But the story continues. Following the new laws established by Napoleon in the Rhineland, a friar named Giovanni Maria Farina, found himself deprived of his religious order. He claimed to be the owner of the formula of the real Aqua Mirabilis, left to him by a distant relative who had been working in the workshop of Gian Paolo Feminis. Together with a merchant named Muelhens, he began to produce an Eau de Cologne, the quality of which he guaranteed by putting his own name on it: Giovanni Maria Farina.

And it's not over. In Paris a perfumer from Santa Maria Maggiore named Giovanni Maria Farina, claiming to be a relative of Gian Paolo Feminis, opened a perfume shop selling his own production of an Eau de Cologne to which he naturally gave his name: Giovanni Maria Farina.

As we can see, it’s a very complicated story that deserves to be treated more completely at a later time.

What are the most historic pieces of the Museum?

Without a doubt the ones from Angelo Migone & Co., from whom we have some important finds. Casa di Profumo was founded in 1778 in via Torino in Milan and was no more by 1955. For almost 200 years Migone distributed its products all over the world, but the House, which remained too linked to the Perfumery of the 19th century, failed to become current especially after the Second World War.

Then aside from the very rare works by Fulvio Bianconi and Carlo Scarpa mentioned before, we have the French bottles by Elsa Schiaparelli, Le Roy Soleil, or even Normandie, and a flacon in glass and metal made by Louis Sue in 1935 for Jean Patou, and the Amphorae by Christian Dior. In short, it is not easy to list the precious and rare pieces of the Museum of Profumo.

Why didn't Italian Perfumery develop like French Perfumery?

In Italy we have had several companies with great potential which never reached the levels they could have aspired to because of the ecclesiastical society. The church, which exerted an enormous influence on young women, was firmly opposed to the use of perfume and cosmetics, generally considered as 'work of the devil'. As a result, the great perfume companies, adapting to the market, limited themselves to the production of fragrances with violet, rose, or lavender that did not disturb the dreams of teenagers. Moreover, the wealthier classes who were less conditioned by religious anathemas, turned to French perfumery when they wanted a perfume 'of character', not finding them in their own country.

Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, the artist and textile industrialist, married the granddaughter of the founder of the pharmaceutical company Carlo Erba and had at his disposal all the factories and chemists of the company. He would have had all the potential to make his Casa di Profumo Giviemme (GVM) a benchmark, but after his death in 1942 the House had difficulty to modernize and to withstand the French competition.

Even the Pietro Bortolotti Company, a perfume company from Bologna founded in the mid-19th century, who exported Acqua di Felsina all over the world was not able to develop beyond the production of colognes and elixirs for hygienic and medicinal use.

And so it was for numerous Italian perfume houses.

As I said, the Church throughout the first part of the 19th century had imposed limitations on the development of the beauty market. Fascism, which encouraged women to marry and have children for the country, favored the care of aesthetic appearance, almost clashing with the sanctimonious respectability imposed by the clergy, but this was not enough to give opportunities to creative Italian perfumery.

What role did Gabriele d'Annuzio, the prophetic poet, play in Italian

Gabriele d'Annunzio, probably the most interesting poet-writer of the first part of the 20th century often assigned names to products made by the most disparate companies. In fact d’Annuzio, who was a friend of Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone (who founded Giviemme in 1921) created the name of the company’s first fragrances when the count still worked for the Carlo Erba company.

Contessa Azzurra was one of the first successes for Visconti; it was Giviemme's workhorse until the House closed in the 1970s. An authentic Italian suffering from 'Italianness', d'Annunzio wanted to call out the 'Italian' nature of the perfume by adding the adjective Azzurra to the original idea of ​​naming the fragrance Contessa, since blue is still the symbolic color of Italy today.

In 1913 D'Annunzio dedicated himself to the creation of a perfume recreated on the basis of an essence worn by Isabella d’Este, whose recipe he had found, so he claimed, at the bottom of an old chest.

The work was created to be sold to a perfume house, but D'Annunzio's request was so onerous that it found no buyers.

D'Annunzio is also responsible for the names Subdola, Dimmi di sì, Nina... Sorridi, Acqua di Fiume (which celebrated his war enterprise), all titles made when Visconti was still working for Carlo Erba which then became part of the Giviemme Perfumery at the foundation of the Casa di Profumo in 1921. In 1924 d'Annunzio also created the name of the new perfume Giacinto Innamorato for Giviemme.

D'Annunzio is also responsible for the names of the I Profumi del Carnaro line of the Casa Lepit: La Fiumanella, La Brezza del Carnaro, La Rosa degli Uscocchi, La liburna, Il Lauro di Laurana, L'ardore del Carso, L'alalà, made while working for Fiumana.

All the bottles of the 'Profumi del Carnaro' line were made by the Vetreria Artistica Barovier in Murano while the design was conceived by D'Annunzio's graphic designer, Adolfo De Carolis (1874-1928).

Houbigant - Fougère Royale
Eau Admirable becomes Eau de Cologne by decree
Bottles by Elsa Schiaparelli
Le Roy Soleil by Elsa Schiaparelli
Acqua di Felsina
"Subdola" - named by Gabriele d'Annunzio

In addition to the numerous and unique bottles in the museum collection, do you also have other historical pieces?

In the museum you can see collections of scented fans, boxes for solid fragrances or concretes, as well as advertising signs, barber products and scented calendars that were very often designed by great artists including the Italian Futurist painter Fortunato Depero (1892-1960).

How can people visit the museum?

The Perfume Museum & Cultural Center for Studies on Vintage Perfumery organizes historical and artistic itineraries, meetings, exhibitions, conferences, guided tours by reservation, Perfume-themed explorations, training courses and workshops.

Ours is a museum about the Art of Perfumery, represented by the bottles that tell the history and the evolution of the various societies.

But Perfume is also emotion and feeling. In addition to the history, which is a fundamental basis, there are myths and legends in which perfumers, artists, glassmakers and couturiers are the main characters. Their stories excite and engage the public.

Before the guided tour we start by telling the story of the Perfumer, Renato Bianco, complete with images. Bianco was a foundling raised in the convent of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Having become a master perfumer, he brought fragrance to France when, as part of Catherine de' Medici’s entourage, he accompanied her on her way to France to marry the future king ...

Now I'm curious: what is the full story?

As an abandoned orphan, Renato Bianco was employed as an apprentice in the pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella where he learned to read, write and attend the library of the friars. Through the manuscripts of Alberto il Grande, a father of the church who lived in 1200 and who had collected the recipes of many magical elixirs, Renato Bianco learned the art of olfactory composition. As I said, following Catherine de' Medici, he moved to France where he became known as René le Florentin. Renato Bianco discovered how to make money for himself by creating perfumes, but also poisons. It seems that he dipped his underwear in a poisonous concoction which he made, that gave off a very pleasant scent, but tore up the flesh of those who wore the garment on their body. Catherine escaped this torture by chance because a lady-in-waiting secretly wore one of her dresses to go to a secret assignation. The poor girl died suffering atrociously.

That golden age for perfumery attracted many Italian perfumers to Paris, and after a couple of generations all the major perfumers were French.

Starting with this historical anecdote we then venture into a thousand paths of the history of Perfumery, observing its creations during the guided tour.

What new projects are you working on?

We have recently written a book entitled 'Chanel N°5 goes to war', which can also be purchased on Amazon. It’s about the daring adventure of Gregory Thomas, a brave American who during the Second World War guaranteed the supply of Jasmine from Grasse for the production of Chanel n°5 to the Wertheimer brothers, the owners of 'Les Parfums de Chanel'. He smuggled the concrete, issued from millions of flowers enclosed in oily breads, from Grasse to the United States. We have romanticized the story a little, but we reveal numerous events, historically reliable, unknown even to most of those who love this fragrance.

All the projects proposed to the public by the Perfume Museum are announced from time to time on our website

After the interesting chat, Dalla Villa guides me among the magnificent objects on display. I admire truly artistic bottles and many others that I could only define as "kitsch". I am struck by the many references to music: there is no shortage of flacons in the shape of pianos, violins and so on. Such a vast range can only amaze and could inspire new creativity which draws the best possible from the past.

We will be back soon to explore this enchanting world.

Silvio Levi


The Museo del Profumo offers two daily guided tours at 10am and 3pm in Italian, French and English.

The tour, conducted by the Museum Director, Giorgio Dalla Villa, focuses on the History of Perfumery from the early 1800s to the 1970s, and shows visitors the wealth of fascinating, refined and rare specimens in the museum collection from the world of perfume and from the perfumery of that specific period, complete with anecdotes and stories about people, society and customs of the time. A visit to the museum is a very lively moment that brings together cultural and social experiences in which the visitor can participate enthusiastically. It goes beyond simply seeing the extraordinary objects: it’s a moment to explore and discover a universe where history, design and art encounter myths and tales.

Perfume Museum of Milan,

Via Messina 55, Milano