Perfume’s origins are lost in the mists of antiquity: an age when there was no such thing as a perfume for women, nor a perfume for men, but merely original perfume, forging a strong bond with the earth, with the origins of the individual and his or her body, a constant balance between the animal and the sensual that is in all of us.
We have no way of knowing whether prehistoric man was sensitive to perfume, but there appears to be no doubt any more that perfume’s cradle was in the Orient.
The West had to wait until the advent of the Egyptian and Sumerian civilisations to learn about the important role played by odorous materials as essential components in religious rites, as symbols of power, refinement and pleasure. To begin with, these materials were used in religious rites, to build bridges to the gods and the spiritual dimension: these were the perfumes of holy rituals, of embalming and of offerings. “It is the perfume of Eden,” wrote the prophet Mohamed, “where men enjoy a life of pleasure, where maidens welcome them waving perfumed shawls.”
Burned to honour the gods, perfumes gave off an odorous smoke that would rise towards the heavens, enabling men to draw closer to their gods and attract their divine grace. Pleasant odours also became a way of warding off illnesses and stemming plagues and epidemics.
As time went by, perfume also became profane: not only the likes of Cleopatra, but also valorous warriors, started coating their bodies with perfumed ointments.
By the time that another century had passed, perfume had become a major element in public spectacles: parties, too, were always accompanied by sprays of perfumes, perfumed oils and Oriental ointments.
The Romans perfumed their houses and even their dogs and horses.
The next phase comes with the discovery of distilling by the Arabs, to whom we owe the invention of the still, whose original mode is used to this very day.
Things took a step backwards in the Middle Ages, when the Catholic church and the influence it exerted on western customs led to a decline in the secular use of perfumes.
Nevertheless, after the Black Death wiped out a quarter of Europe’s population in the 1340s, perfume started playing an important hygienic and therapeutic role: physicians started mistrusting water, as they believed that it opened the skin’s pores up, making it easier for pestilential air to penetrate 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 taste for luxury cultivated by the Renaissance gave perfumes a fresh lease of life: at that time, people were more inclined to use perfume than to wash! Civet, amber and musk were lavished without restraint on hats, gloves, saddles and hose: abundant amounts of perfume were consumed… in inverse proportion to personal cleanliness.
Everyone and everything was perfumes in Versailles, at the court of the Sun King: the body, hair, wigs, clothing, gloves, shoes, furnishings, letters, handkerchiefs; before developing an allergy to perfume derived from excessive use, the King himself used to wash his hands in wine alcohol, his skin with Bologna citrus soap and his hair with oil of roses, of lavender and of jasmine.
This was how the first perfumed waters made their appearance, their diffusion facilitated by the examples set by Louis XVI ‘s wife, Marie Antoinette, and by Napoleon’s first wife Josephine.
In England, the decisive impulse to the development of perfumery came from Queen Elisabeth I, who obliged her subjects to grow essence-producing flowers and to learn to make odorous waters at home, as well as popularising the use of pomanders, which were perfumed balls based on amber that were designed to be held in the hand and intended to ward of infections.
But it was Italy that set the pace in the art of perfumery throughout this period: Florence and Venice were famous all over Europe for their workshops and it was in Venice, a flourishing cultural centre, that the first books about the art of cosmetics and perfumery were published.
After the eighteenth century, the French perfumery industry came to focus on Grasse, in the south of France, where the essence of lavender was distilled in the glove-making manufactories. It was the elegant ladies of France, England and Italy who made perfumed gloves famous: the first way of wearing a perfume.
Perfume’s charm was to continue unabated in the centuries that followed, finding ever more new forms and spaces for expressing itself: an inexhaustible force whose myriad facets can be discovered on the website www.accademiadelprofumo.it