Perfume in Venice has ancient and exotic roots

The story of perfume in Venice started around a thousand years ago thanks to a Greek byzantine lady, Maria Argyropoulos. St. Peter Damian described Maria as a lady loving luxury. He must have thought this byzantine lady represented a rotten, decayed society which Venice would better keep away from. He clearly missed the point of how status symbols work. You don’t need them, but they create new needs.

A beautiful princess in Venice

Maria was from Constantinople. She was a very refined woman, the daughter of a noble patrician, a descendant of the Byzantine imperial family. She married the son of Doge Pietro II Orseolo, Giovanni. The doge had taken excellent agreements with the Byzantine élite and this marriage sealed the close relationship between the two worlds. After some time in Constantinople, the couple moved to Venice.

Damian reported she loved bathing in pure rainwater. Having eunuchs carefully prepare the food for her and using a strange object in gold with two points to eat. Yes, the fork. Venetians were impressed by that object so that in the Venetian dialect fork is still called “piron” very close to the Greek, “pirouni”. Most of all, she loved perfume. She used a lot for her body. She also filled in the rooms where she lived with strong scents that Damian described unbearable.

Exotic origins

While perfumes were produced in Constantinople, raw materials reached this city from the Orient and were available in Trebizond, along the Armenian coast where the silk road ended. Perfumes evoked far off and exotic cities, including Chaldea in Babylonia, Tabriz in Persia, Alexandria, Damascus and the island of Cyprus.

The art and science of perfume, Ca' Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

The art and science of perfume, Ca’ Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

Recap. The story seems intricate enough already, don’t you think? Patrician elite on one side. An outsider, a woman, who knows how to be seductive and gets criticised for her luxurious habits. Exotic origins, combining Middle East, North Africa and the Easter Roman empire. Mysterious materials that create invisible presence. But it’s not enough.

The mystical aura of perfume

Behind perfume and its successful arrival in Venice there’s the mystical aura, too. In the byzantine world in fact perfume was viewed as something supernatural and connected to the spirit. Saints’ holy relics smell beautifully. The most common one is the smell of the rose that is connected to the Virgin Mary. Some describe it as a miracle, announcing eternity and resurrection, inviting you to leave the sinful nature of the flesh. It all sounds contradictory: if it’s a woman linked to perfume, it is definitely a sign of corruption. But if that woman is a saint, then…

And right because we are talking about religions and faiths, let’s not forget the story of St Mark’s holy relics smuggled under pork so that Egyptian muslims at the Custom’s would not touch. In the mosaic, Egyptians look like Ottomans and, while holding their nose, move away from the straw basket and do not perceive the precious content hidden inside.

Venice, St. Mark's Basilica, Main façade, mosaics, 1660s

Venice, St. Mark’s Basilica, Main façade, mosaics, 1660s

Perfume versus stinking: medical use

Stinking is the other side, then. It helps us understand what we can eat or breathe or drink. More than the sight. More than the taste. The worst however happens when there is no smell and no sight to help! Just imagine when in the Middle Ages the plague was believed to be caused by an atmospheric  putrefaction. Doctors and health magistrates recommended to keep away from eastern and southern winds, to burn sandal wood, camphor and frankincense, to wash yourselves with rose water. Doctors used the mask with the long beak filled in with herbs and cotton soaked in vinegar as they believed this could purify the air. Even the objects that had come into contact with sick people had to be burnt… except jewels that didn’t need to, as perfumes could disinfect them beautifully. That sounds to me revealing, don’t you think?

A brand marketing strategy for perfume

If perfume became a luxury status symbol, however, it was also thanks to the publishing industry. Especially in the 16th century publications increased interest towards this business. In 1526 Eustachio Celebrino wrote “The crown of women: several perfumes to make any woman beautiful” and published it in Venice. The first treaty revealing the secrets of the perfumes was also published in Venice in 1555 by Giovanventura Rosetti and was entitled “Notandissimi segreti dell’arte profumatoria”. Not to mention the work by Pietro Andrea Mattioli who in 1544 translated from the Greek the treaty of pharmacology by Dioscurides, describing hundreds and hundreds of plants and herbs.

Notandissimi secreti de l'arte profumatoria, Venice, 1555

Notandissimi secreti de l’arte profumatoria, Venice, 1555

Technology development

However, technical support was needed. There were three methods to extract perfume. Pressing and smashing. Use oils to capture the scents. And distillation. Which meant they had to develop pots, machines and glass stills to get the essence.

Distillation stills, Ca' Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

Distillation stills, Ca’ Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

Instead, special objects made in alabaster, stone or glass were designed it to preserve the perfume. And special shapes, too, so you could pour it in the right way, without wasting it as it was almost as precious as gold!

Well, fear of wasting it? Perfume even when still very expensive was used in several ways: for the body, for bed linen, homes and objects, clothes (especially gloves in leather) and food, too.

Is this all? Well, unfortunately not. As Pietro Andrea Mattioli wrote in another book published in Venice in 1565, materials of animal origin at the basis of perfumes implied cruelty, too. Musk is a class of aromatic substances coming from a gland of the male musk deer to be found near its belly button. Or the civet, squeezed out from the genital glands of a mammal. Even grey amber has an animal origin and Marco Polo mentioned this too, saying it was connected to the intestine’s secretion of the sperm whale, that you could collect by the sea shores.

Musk deer glands, Ca' Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

Musk deer glands, Ca’ Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

Grey amber, Ca' Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

Grey amber, Ca’ Mocenigo Palace, Museum of Textile in Venice

A song of love

Today these materials have been replaced by synthetic substances. Costs are lower and affordable. But perfume has certainly not lost its appeal and connection to desire, love and aphrodisiacs as someone wrote in the Song of Solomon:

Thine ointments have a goodly fragrance;
thy name is as ointment poured forth,
therefore do the maidens love thee

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
www.seevenice.it

When visiting Venice, don’t miss the Museum at Ca’ Mocenigo, I will be happy to accompany you! We will learn more about the link between perfume and fashion!

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Showing 2 comments
  • Rob

    Great post Luisella – very educational and very interesting.