Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Merchant of Venice - Noble Secrets of the Art of Perfumery

"To Be" by Police - a Mavive fragrance
(Venice, Italy) Fragrance and fashion have always gone hand in hand, so it is only fitting that a section of Palazzo Mocenigo, the costume museum here in Venice, which is part of the Musei Civici di Venezia, will be dedicated to the history of perfume. With the strong support of the Vidal family, the Venetian owners of the international fragrance company, Mavive, Venice has decided to reveal some of its ancient secrets and perfume recipes, and has reprinted Secreti Nobilissimi dell'Arte Profumatoria by Giovanbattista Rosetti.

Spices in the window of Antica Drogheria Mascari - Ruga degli Spezieri (Street of the Spice-makers)
Noble Secrets of the Art of Perfumery was first published in Venice in 1555, then reprinted in Bologna in 1672. I am holding the little book in my hand right now, together with a companion volume in English and Italian that explains the text and provides some interesting background.

The creation of perfumes and cosmetics was considered an art performed by Venetian spezieri, or spice-makers, who, according to Giancarlo Ottolini, were "part alchemists and part physicians who had a sound knowledge of chemistry, herbal medicine and the numerous ingredients (and their properties) that were available at the time" -- the spezieri knew how to take a dash of iris, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon and mix it with some lavender, citrus, orange and jasmine in order to create things like perfumes, anti-aging creams and mouthwash.

Pino Silvestre - Mavive
In the Introduction, Marco Vidal writes:

"The reprint of Secreti Nobilissimi dell'Arte Profumatoria coincides with the 25th anniversary of Mavive and with the 112 years of the Vidal family's involvement in the perfumery industry: Secreti Nobilisimi is a testament to the values that have inspired the history of cosmetics since its inception. For four generations, my family has honoured these values and continues with great passion and devotion the tradition of the art of perfumery.

Pal Zileri - Mavive
In 1900, my great-grandfather, Angelo Vidal, created a small perfumery laboratory at San Stae, in the center of Venice. He began by manufacturing household products, then went on to create soaps, and finally perfumes and cosmetics. When he acquired the Venetian soap company, Salviati, and subsequently the ancient perfume manufacturer, Longega, he also acquired a profound knowledge of their "secret" cosmetic formulae, cherished and well-guarded secrets that have subsequently been handed down over the centuries."

In Technical Notes on the Formulae in Secreti Nobilissimi, Giancarlo Ottolini writes:

In the mid 16th Century, when this book was published, the Republic of Venice was at the peak of its power, beauty and splendour; a city rich in political expertise, treasures and artistic masterpieces. ...Textiles, glass, metals and especially spices were the main products traded in the dynamic Rialto Market, where the presence of merchants from various European and Oriental provinces guaranteed  commercial opportunities that were not available elsewhere.

...Venetian women took great care in making their faces fair-skinned, in the bright colouring of their hair and lips, and in the appearance of their teeth; they used mouthwashes, removed their body-hair, applied make-up to their eyes, and were particularly fond of perfumes.

...It is worth noting that, in 1488, the Republic of Venice already protected and defined as an art the work and products of the saoneri (soap makers), an activity that later became increasingly widespread within the personal care, perfumery and cosmetics fields. In the 16th Century, about forty soap manufacturers were operating in Venice with a total production estimated at around seven-eight thousand tons per year.

Photo: Venezia Ti Amo
Just think: five hundred years ago, Venice was cranking out about eight thousand tons of soap a year, revolutionizing the industry -- they developed the "bar of soap." Even today, you can see the importance of the industry reflected in the names of the streets: Calle dei Saoneri means "Street of the Soap Makers."

Back to Secreti Nobilissimi. In a section titled, Published Secrets: An Oxymoron, Anna Messinis writes:

Venice is one of the cities that revived the perfume culture in the West: its trade with the East enabled it to import important raw materials along with the technical knowledge needed to use them. The analysis of the substances cited by Rosetti gives an idea of how many of the raw materials were of oriental origin, a number of which were already mentioned in The Travels of Marco Polo. ...Marco Polo gives precise directives on extracting the musk from the deer as well as a description of the animal itself.

One ingredient that Rosetti, the author of Noble Secrets, lists in 36 recipes is called ambracan, which is a bilious secretion made from the intestines of sperm whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Now, just where do you get whale bile?  Anna Messinis writes: "As Marco Polo noted, in describing the island of Madagascar, it could be found floating upon the sea and in the sand along the coasts of Somalia, Madagascar, and Japan, as well as being extracted from the abdomens of dead cetaceans."

In the 16th Century, Venice was the Italian capital of the publishing industry, and self-improvement was all the rage. Books were printed containing tips on how to obtain snow-white teeth, how to achieve a face without blemishes, how to get rid of freckles, how to make the face fair and splendid, and how to dye one's hair blond, an activity that made Venetian women renowned the world over. For the men, there was a recipe on how to dye one's hair and beard black. Toothpastes and mouthwashes, anti-aging products and sun-blocks, Venetians have been obsessed with maintaining a bella figura for centuries.Venetian descendants even created Eau de Cologne itself!

Messinis continues: "Between the 17th and 18th Century, the art of perfumery spread from Venice to the rest of Europe, particularly France and Germany. Throughout this region there is ample evidence in the sciences, arts, and crafts of the Venetian influence. It is not by accident that in 1709, Giovanni Maria Farina and his brother, Giovanni Battista -- grandsons of the Venetian perfumer, Caterina Gennari -- created Eau de Cologne. As this book clearly shows, history informs us that Venice continued to be a fundamental reference point for culture and knowledge, which included the art of perfumery, a veritable crossroad for commercial interests and trade that still echoes down to this day."

1920s Eau de Cologne Bruno Storp
In keeping with that tradition, the Venetian Vidal family, owners of Mavive fragrances, will have the support of the German Storp family, owners of Drom fragrances, one of the ten leading perfume manufacturers in the world, to help enhance the new perfume exhibition at the Palazzo Mocenigo, providing technical and scientific support. The Storp collection of perfume bottles, or flacons, dates back to 2000 BC and contains more than 2,500 pieces. The perfume exhibition at Palazzo Mocenigo plans to be ready in time for the opening of La Biennale in June.

Museo di Palazzo Mocenigo 
e Centro Studi di Storia del Tessuto e del Costume
Santa Croce, 1992
30125 Venezia


Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian  Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. Fragrance and fashion have always gone hand in hand, so it is only fitting that a section of Palazzo Mocenigo, the costume museum here in Venice, which is part of the Musei Civici di Venezia, will be dedicated to the history of perfume.

  2. Mmm Venice has a special fragrance, full of history and colorful events!