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Perfume, Power, and God

Examining perfume’s centuries-old holy war

Arabelle Sicardi

My first connection to smell was the smell of holy water and sacrament, the second was the smell of my mother’s Buddhist temple. Fragrance has always been next to holiness to me, in different ways — my casual visits to Churches and my hours in temples. I thought my nose was broken everywhere else: I couldn’t smell food, it held no memory, but I could divine the smell of Gods. They smelled to me like incense and still water.


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Historically, this goes against the grain of what God smells like to his number one fan club, monks. For monks, it was shit that meant sanctity; filth was the fragrance of holiness, the spiritual symbol of suffering. A declaration of physical filth corresponded to moral cleanliness, so holy men radiated poo with holy force. If they didn’t smell like shit, they smelled close to it — they smelled like musk, civet from animal testes. Musk was so popular that in Imperial Rome in the fourth century that Saint Jerome restricted his flock from wearing it. The symbolism between musk and righteousness continued on for centuries, stretching different countries and touching everyone from kings to anarchists. When the French Revolution bloomed, the Muscadins adopted it with glorious force — giving them their nickname, translation: "wearing musk perfume."

Perfumes from Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/Getty

Musk became an act of anarchy, an invisible monument to violence — and betrayal, since the Muscadins were part of a plot to tamp down the revolution. The Muscadins were not for democracy, to be clear: they were primarily middle class, well to do who were quietly supported by the government, who saw them as tools to beat the poor and working class Jacobins. Their perfume was a sign of their superiority. The ego of their beauty regimens made hunting them much easier. Perfume made you lose your head, forced you to face God sooner.

I’m fascinated by this connection between god and perfume and power. What’s the power of smell and how is it linked to politics? And have they always been linked like so?

The short answer is yes. Like all your favorite HBO pilots, let’s start with royalty or something close. The Medici family, in Florence.

Florence, by the author. Photo: Arabelle Sicardi

When you first get to Florence, the history and fragrance of the city reaches up to swallow you. The buildings are almost on top of each other, so the impression is physical: you can touch both sides of the street as you walk down them, feel the walls of a building older than America with the left hand and a baby building, only three hundred years old, with the right. It’s easy to see how nearly 70 percent of the city’s population was killed when the plague hit in the 1300’s: the city cradles itself close and romantically. History dominates everything, instead of surrendering to it. Fashion? Sure, a Prada store can live next to a monastery. Gucci can pay for a church restoration as thanks for being born in the neighborhood of such sanctified company. But it’s the perfumeries that are the ultimate Italian power move: the perfumeries are churches, or palaces, or both. Since I wanted to see the birthplace of perfume and politics, I had just one place to start.

The Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is the place of pilgrimage. It has been through many lifetimes: first a church, then a convent, then a pharmacy — and now a perfume store. If any single place stood at the intersection between politics, god, and perfume, it is this church-turned-monastery-turned-store. From the outside it looks unremarkable for Florence — no baroque detailing, just the crest of Santa Maria on the front. It is all it needs to mark its history. And then you walk inside, and the frescoes summon your eyes up-up-up, maybe sixty feet above you. A fresco of perfumed angels are framed in dark, stained wood. The building and art above you is more than 600 years old. In existence since the 13th century, it still sells many of the same products the Dominican friars once made by hand in the back room.

Inside the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/Getty

This is the place where Catherine de Medici commissioned the perfume from that she would bring to the Court of France at the marrying age of 14, and charm the world and King with. You could even argue that it was the first celebrity scent. (Perfume can’t fix everything, though: the king still seemed to dislike her, and her mythology is clouded with stories of poisoning those who disliked her with perfumed and poisoned gloves.)

483 years ago, the monks of the Dominican order of Florence were allies with the Medici family, essentially the royals of the city and Italy at large. For Catherine’s perfume, they collected the smells that the city was known for: amalfi citrus and bergamot, neroli and lavender. They still sell her perfume — my favorite of their offerings — and their 14th-century plague repellant, too. When the Black Death arrived, felling 70 percent of the population of Florence, the streets smelled like death, neglect, rosewater, and burning. Perfume in this context was a sign of health and religious protection: the monks of Santa Maria Novella were making huge batches of rosewater distillate to disinfect homes. As much as perfume, fragrance was a cross of God and health. They sell their Seven Thieves’ Vinegar, too, which looters of the dead wore to prevent infection while they stripped corpses of their valuables. Now it is marketed as smelling salt. To be able to afford these items when they were first introduced meant you had some scrap of power and wealth. You would, God willing, not die, not have your body piled up on the sinking Florentine walls outside the door. (Michelangelo had not yet been assigned the task of fortifying the city walls, so death, by plague form or by bucking brick still loomed.)

Inside the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/Getty

To be honest, walking into Santa Maria Novella feels like walking into a museum, not a magical realm where the holy and the beautiful are working in synchronicity. It is a tourist destination more than hallowed ground. There are gigantic touchscreens planted in the middle of the store, there are beautiful chairs and benches roped off that you cannot touch. You can wander but can’t stay, just watch. Everything is behind glass -—it’s an experience to witness but not necessarily have for yourself. If perfume is a private experience then you need permission to have it here.

Of course, you can ask for samples of the perfumes, and I do, I sprayed Catherine’s famous perfume all over my arms. But my feet were tired and I couldn’t sit down to smell the story develop on my arms. So I left without buying anything or taking home any samples. It felt like I was missing something there. It felt artificial — like time had been preserved, but like many preserved things, to keep it just so, it had to die a little. When I left, I realized I had been holding my breath the entire time.

Florence in summer. Photo: EyesWideOpen/Getty

The best way to smell the truth of a city and its history is democratically: you have to wander everywhere, smell the trash as much as the flowers. So I called up my Florentine friends and we wandered through their neighborhoods, used the grounds of royal chambers turned into public bathrooms, political palaces turned into stoner dens, bodegas in old palazzos. At street-level restaurants, weeds run up walls to frame the scent of freshly made gnocchi. I couldn’t smell history at Santa Maria Novella but I could smell the familiar family of incense wafting through the church doors at the Duomo, and the clay — the same kind of clay from four hundred years ago — wafting to me from the artist workshops just above the streets. We pulled irises from the walls of Florence and curled our noses at the sweat it took to get there. We ate perfumed gelato — flavored with Florentine flowers and local fruits — in the same piazza where Machiavelli bought time with prostitutes and politicians; watched people argue with police where he probably stood. That is Florence, I think, and a distillation of perfume, too: filthy in a sexy way, unbuttoned and worn but perfectly tailored, beautiful and timeless because desire never leaves, it wanders and grows.

We went to the perfumery-palace next, the place where I understood that artificiality is as holy as anything else. We went to Aquaflor, a newer perfumery in Florence, with old techniques and older bones.

Inside the Aquaflor laboratory. Photo: Arabelle Sicardi

Aquaflor is a good example of a quote by my favorite bio-chemist-slash-perfumer Luca Turin: "Things which are interesting even if not true." It does not matter that Aquaflor technically only started five years ago: it has old roots. The perfumery is built out of the historic Antinori Palace on Borgo Santa Croce. It looks unassuming from the front with no fabled crest to mark it’s territory: two big vats of incense guard the doors, no grand wood gate required. The insides are dark, and polished, and old: antique cabinets, thousands of small, dark bottles of absolutes, gold and gilded perfume gadgets and glass flacons fill the room.

I did not meet with the perfumer while I was there because he was traveling to collect flowers for the perfumes. I did see his laboratory, and smelled everything while he traveled. The owner led me down the stairs to the basement of the palace, which was divided neatly into two categories: the flower room and the laboratory. A room of flowers, synthetic and real, crowded the plaster walls. An antique distillery machine was against the wall — they used it, once, now they use more modern methods in the room next door.

The flower room at Aquaflor. Photo: Arabelle Sicardi

They toy with a new version of history in every bottle: bouquets of fake flowers mixed with real ones accompany perfumes with natural, mostly local compositions. They are one of the few perfume houses to make everything where they sell: this is an ancient idea, one most houses don’t keep to anymore — not even Santa Maria Novella. Sileno, the master perfumer, lives above his laboratory, too — just like ancient perfumers before. So while the brand is new, the philosophy is old. They have old rituals, they use classic notes sourced locally, with packaging that honors local tradesmen, in perfume compositions that lean towards the classic rather than anti-perfume rebellion. It doesn’t bother them that it may take longer, or cost more, to create their formulations as traditionally as possible.

"We are fortunate to obtain naturals that are available only in a specific season. For instance, the absolute of rose. Roses are only collected in May, then they are processed, and then we have to wait a year to get the precious essential (and natural) oil," explains Sileno Cheloni, Master Perfume of Aquaflor. Time is of the essence there, and as he explained it succinctly: "We live in a city suspended by time." Naturally, the perfumes are drenched in it.


A bottle of Aquaflor (L) and the author, surrounded by flowers (R). Photo: Arabelle Sicardi

Aquaflor is a combination of modern techniques and old philosophies. I buy a collection of fragranced soaps before I leave — they smell like something vaguely holy, and iris and lily too. I realize when I walk around more museums — abandoned palaces, really — that the soaps smelled like the fabrics of the long dead royals, and their gardens. Something political, something beautiful.

Peggy Phelan, one of my favorite forgotten heroes of beauty writing, once asked this question: has beauty become dangerous or has it always been so? I feel like the answer could never have been more obvious than when I finished my tour of perfumeries and sat in the garden of the Medici's — whose Boboli cannons are still pointed at the heart of the city, but centuries later are rendered useless by overgrown lavender and ivy rose.

My translator for the week didn’t quite understand what I meant when I kept on whispering "beauty is terror" throughout our journeys — not until we sat down in the gardens. I just waved at our view, the city cradled below us. I explained it: "The most powerful political family Italy ever birthed also created the most indisputably beautiful things, and these castles and gardens have thorns. We’re sitting in one of the most beautiful and old gardens ever made and no one but this political family had use for it!"

The Boboli Gardens, Florence. Photo: ullstein bild/Getty

She told me of the times the Medicis gave the Florentine citizens buckets of wine to celebrate events in the streets, and commissioned them art and piazzas, too. But beauty is a symbol of power, and while the Medicis were one of the most generous patrons of the art, that art was never not political — to be a patron is to hold power, to use it for good was a moral choice as much as anything else. Art was created in the service of acquiring more power and reminding people what else could have been done with it. No clearer example is needed than the cannons of the Medicis, pointing down at the city they so loved, hidden in flowers and ivy.

The Medicis were the match that lit France’s perfume center aflame by marriage; their beauty and influence moved armies and economies around the world. Though Paris — and Grasse, specifically, through the indulgences of Catherine — became the center of perfumery, it was the heart of Florence and the Medicis specifically that made it all possible. Catherine’s devotion to beauty was as necessary to her success as a political figure as anything else. And still, for all the blood and political intrigue, you cannot deny the Medicis knew one thing: that beauty outlives us all. Even in the ephemeral form of perfume.

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