The life and the adventures of René le Florentin, Maestro perfumer to the Parisian Court of Caterina de' Medici, can be unravelled in equal measure between history and legend. The monks of the convent of Saint Maria Novella in Florence, on reaching Caterina in France, confirmed - often contradicting themselves - that Renato Bianco was a foundling raised in their convent with the duties of a labourer. When he was twelve years old he was assigned to the service of an old monk, an alchemist who taught him the secret of herbal distillation. The envies, the grudges and the personal antipathies vary the stories of the monks, the story of the young man who, at the death of his Maestro (some affirmed that the life of the old monk had been taken by the hand of Renato), found himself with a baggage of knowledge which was superior to any other monk in the convent. Ambitious and covetous to reach success with the fragrant essences that by now he prepared with such mastery, he succeeded in being received by the young Caterina de' Medici who, seduced by his fragrances and by his eloquence, admitted him to her own retinue as personal Perfumer.
In "exclusive" for Caterina, Renato Bianco prepared fragrant compositions of such refined personal elegance, which he then sold underhand (drawing further profit from it) to the rich wives of the Florentine dealers who boasted to wear the same fragrances as Caterina de' Medici.
He reached Paris as part of the retinue of Caterina and together with the astrologer Cosme Ruggieri, soon became well known with the deserved fame of poisoner, opened a perfumery shop at Pont Saint Michel, one of the most elegant streets in the capital suspended on a bridge.
The shop of René le Florentin (as he was now called by the French) was the destination of the highest Parisian society: the essences produced by the Maestro soon became an essential element for the nobility of the city. Fragrances facilitated relationships, they made approaches more pleasant, they dampened bad odours that due to an absolute lack of hygiene were emitted from the bodies of noble men and women. The fact that the habit of washing was a custom that had been lost for many centuries, was comprehensible. To take a bath - particularly in winter - in luxurious, but icy apartments with marble floors, badly heated and full of drafts, meant risking pneumonia and therefore one’s life. For aristocrats, but also for the most common people, it was better to remain dirty and put up with the bad odour. The essences of René le Florentin had resolved an old problem. Also the vain part of Parisian nobility, more reluctant to novelties, whose only reason for existence was often found in frequenting Court, could not risk being marginalised and therefore adapted themselves to the new custom. The wealth of René had become immense equal only to the various groups of enemies he made every day through envy, hate, malice or simple perfidy. Protected by Caterina he didn't have rivals to his Art, and the greed for power became an obsession for him.
When he was presented with the possibility to free himself from enemies through poison, he didn't hesitate. During the sixteenth century, to mix poisonous substances with wine or soup in order to free oneself of inconvenient rivals was a well rooted custom in European courts. Italians were maestros in this "art", so much that even today the Borgia family is remembered more for its real or presumed poisonings than for the value of its Lineage, while the French bring an example of a great poisoner Claudio di Guisa and his valet Saint-Barthélemy, who poisoned sixty nuns at the convent of Paray le Monial. In times of peace, one of the most diffused alternatives to death by natural causes or by illnesses or pestilences was poisoning.
Even in this activity, René le Florentin also wanted to be unique, different and, in his way, refined.
It was custom among noblemen to bring their underclothes to the shop of Pont Saint Michel so that the assistants could perfume them by impregnating the fabrics with fragrant substances.
René studied an inactive composition in which to dip the laundry before perfuming it.
Nothing otherwise distinguished it from other treated fabrics, but, once the garments were worn, the inactive substance, reacting with body heat or sweat, became active, and similar to a powerful acid skinned and burned the flesh of the victim. The wounds soon became gangrenous and the poor victim died with atrocious sufferings.
The nobility and powerful people, after various dramatic cases, soon realized that the promoter of such sorcery was René; but they could not escape being obliged to perfume themselves and their underclothes and so continued "to stop" at the shop of Pont Saint Michel with the risk, particularly among noblemen, of becoming victims of the mixture of le Florentin.
The only way to prolong their life, besides forcing servants to wear for one day the shirts of their masters, was that to fill the Maestro with honours, to honour him with illustrious positions, to submerge him in money in order to bring him to their part.
In a short time René le Florentin became the most beloved but even more hated man in Paris.
René knew how to move among the intrigues of a corrupt Court, among religious and lineage wars, with such insuperable mastery devoting himself to the creation of perfumed mixtures that marked the era of Caterina de' Medici, forced, after the death of her husband - accidentally killed in a joust as had been foreseen by Nostradamus - to govern the Country in place of her beautiful spoilt children.
He was also a man of his time: wicked, sadistic, amiable with his lovers, terrible with his enemies, profiteer, terribly alone, but also able to perceive infinite harmony by creating fragrant compositions. His works have been lost along the centuries, but the legend of the man has remained, an Italian in the French Court, who with his fragrances changed a society and laid the base for the modern perfumery.