The dawn of time
The history of perfume begins with the history of mankind…
In Egypt, herbs, aromatic resins and woods were burned on altars in religious ceremonies.
During the imperial age, the Romans gave perfumes an unprecedented impetus, more hedonistic than religious and mystic. They loved bathing in perfumed waters, both for the sheer sensuality of the experience and for personal hygiene and as a therapy for illness. All Romans used the baths, where rich and poor alike could wash and where sapo, the antecedent of soap, was first created.
The Middle Ages
In the Middle Ages, the rigour imposed by the church and the influence it exerted on habits caused a decline in the profane use of perfumes.
Nevertheless, after the epidemic of the Black Death exterminated a quarter of Europe’s population in the 1340s, perfume regained its hygienic and therapeutic role: doctors did not trust water, as they were convinced that it opened the skin’s pores, enabling pestilential air to work its way into the body. As a result, people stopped using water, replacing it with large amounts of perfume to mask the effects of their lack of hygiene.
The Renaissance and perfumes
In this historical period, when people were more inclined to use perfume than to wash, large amounts of civet, amber and musk were used on hats, gloves, saddles and hose.
The merchant vessels of Genoa and Venice were the instrumental lifelines of trade in the Mediterranean, transporting such precious commodities as spices and aromas from the Middle and Far East.
Most of these products were destined for the gaudily luxurious Italian courts, whose princes – veritable patrons of the arts and of luxury – hosted not only artists and scientists, but also alchemists and perfumiers. As a result, Italy became the magnet that attracted perfumiers, the place where they created essences and aromatic waters for noble families.
“The Prima Donna of the Italian Renaissance” and a lover of the arts and luxury, Isabella d’Este set the fashion for all of Europe, employing Leonardo’s genius to design ornamental patterns for her clothing and becoming a benchmark of fashion, manners, cosmetics and beauty for the Western world.
Isabella commissioned Battista di Magliano to create perfumed waters, instructing him specifically that “all the ingredients must be pure and uncomplicated, not musky or otherwise odorous, but simple”. Was this the birth of Made in Italy?
Catherine de’ Medici
The wealthy noblewomen and rich merchants’ wives of Florence used to wear generous lashings of perfume made in the monasteries, in each of which at least one alchemist monk devoted his time to working with herbs and extracting their essences. So it was that, when the fourteen year old Catherine de’ Medici married the Duke of Orleans, future King of France, in 1533, she asked for her personal perfumier, Renato Bianco, to be included among her retinue of pages and court ladies.
René le Florentin, as the Parisians dubbed him, soon became famous for his perfumes and for his poisons. Working with the monks of Santa Maria Novella, he introduced the use of perfume to the French court.
Santa Maria Novella
The Old Pharmacy (Antica Farmacia) traces its origins to the Dominican friars who settled in Florence in 1221. The aroma shop and its products really started developing successfully in 1612, under Brother Angiolo Marchissi, when it was allowed the honour of calling itself Foundry to Her Royal Highness. Many essences and perfumes are still made today using formulae first studied in the Renaissance for Catherine de' Medici: the story goes that she took an essence with her to Paris called Queen’s Water (Acqua della Regina), whose recipe later inspired Gian Paolo Feminis to create his celebrated Aqua Mirabilis.