When you think about perfume and the art of perfume making, Venice might not be the first city that comes to mind. Maybe you’re thinking about Grasse in France, Pyrgus in Cyprus or Cologne in Germany? Venice did however play a historical role in the development of perfume. Around 1400, the city was the center of European perfumery. Thanks to its role as a major trading place for spices and incents, the city was one of the first to discover and enjoy the pleasure of perfume and soap.
In this post, I will tell you more about the history of perfumes in Venice, about some traditional perfume houses which are still active in Venice, and finally about the Palazzo Mocenigo which houses the Venetian perfumery museum.
History of perfumery
In the late Middle Ages, Venice was a flourishing and prosperous center for trade and commerce. The merchants brought back precious spices, fragrant oils and resins from their trips to the Middle and Far East, Asia and North Africa. After his first trip to China in 1271, Marco Polo also introduced many cultural aspects of China including body care to the Venetians. Many names of fragrant substances, plants and animals are written in his travel report ‘Il Milione’. This historical document has recently been republished and is an interesting reference book.
Thanks to the availability of these fine raw materials, Venice became a natural location for the early creation of perfumes. The master craftsmen such as the muschieri (perfumers), venditori de polvere di Cipro (Cyprus powder haberdashers) and the saoneri (soap makers) invented new production techniques to blend the delicate fragrances. The master glassblowers of Murano designed beautiful glass containers and phials to preserve the essence. (More on the art of glassmaking in my post ‘Murano glassmasters: artisans or artists?’) As a result, the Venetian perfumes and cosmetics became highly sought after products in all the royal courts of Europe. The Venetian soap makers and perfumers were even invited to the European courts, particularly in France, to practice their art as real artists.
DID YOU KNOW? To avoid that the artistic glassblowers would move from Murano to France, England or Austria, they were threatened to be killed upon departure.
The first perfumer’s boutiques (boteghe) were opened and run by the muschieri in Venice. The shops displayed a wide variety of perfumed waters and pastes to satisfy the most demanding request. Around 1600, the number of hairdressers and barbers increased to 400. Body care became more and more important for the Venetian community.
DID YOU KNOW? Even the term ‘Eau de Cologne’ has a connotation to Venice. The Italian perfumer Giampaolo Feminis created his ‘Aqua Admirabilis’ during his stay in Cologne. The fragrance contained the most exquisite of Italian essential oils such as bergamot, lavender, lemon, orange, neroli and rosemary. When his nephew took over his business, he changed the name of the fragrance to ‘Jean-Marie Farinà Eau de Cologne’ to give it a French twist. The surname Farina can be traced to the Veneto region, where he spent his youth.
The interest in the composition of perfumes and cosmetics is also documented in numerous publications printed in Venice in the 16th century. The recipes reveal the secrets of their manufacture, which promised not only beauty but also health effects. In 1551, Eustachio Celebrino wrote one of the very first notions of a fragrance formulary: ‘Opera Nova Piacevole Laquale insegna di far varie compositioni odorifere per far bella ciaschuna Donna’. Another remarkable book is ‘Secreti Nobilissimi dell’Arte profumatoria’ (The very noble secrets of Perfumery Art), published in 1955 by Giambattista Rosetti. It contains 300 recipes, including the art of hair dyeing, the art of perfuming the body or the house, the art of adding scents to laundry or leather accessories.
Over time, Venice lost its prominent role in the fragrance world. Grasse, Paris, New York and Geneva are the centers of the current perfumery industry.
If you are interested in the history and the production process of perfume, these two YouTube movies are certainly worth to watch: Perfume – A Venetian Story and The Merchant of Venice. I can also recommend the book ‘The history of perfume in Venice’, written by the Venetian historian and archivist Anna Messinis.
Traditional Venetian perfume houses
The Vidal family is today the most prominent Venetian perfumery family. In 1900, Angelo Vidal established Vidal Profumi, a company dedicated to the production and trade of soaps, spices and colonial goods imported from Asia. He also created the first perfumery workshop at Palazzo Mocenigo. The company has been sold to Henkel, but Massimo Vidal, grandson of Angelo Vidal, established Mavive Parfums Venezia in 1986. In 2013, they created the in-house brand ‘The Merchant of Venice’. The perfume line was extended with several new fragrances in the following years. The flagship store of the brand opened inside an ancient pharmacy shop (circa 1600) on Campo San Fantin. The Merchant of Venice can also be found at the Salon de Parfum, a space in Harrods (London) dedicated to the most refined fragrances throughout the world, at the Marco Polo airport or you can buy it online. Mavive supported the launch of the perfume section of the Palazzo Mocenigo in 2013.
Even though his history doesn’t go back to a family heritage, Lorenzo Dante Ferro is a master perfumer with Venetian roots. He is an independent creator and producer of fine fragrances for limited and exclusive distribution. In 1982, he founded his small artisan company with a creative perfume studio and production laboratories in the countryside of Friuli-Venezia. The perfumes can be bought online. You can even order your own exclusive signature fragrance.
The Palazzo Mocenigo is one of these beautiful palazzos along Canal Grande. If you have ever taken vaporetto 1, you probably have seen it already. It is also one of the lesser known museums in Venice. I personally discovered it last year during the Biennale del Merletto (lace) and I was very pleasantly surprised by its beauty.
Several rooms on the first floor of the palazzo are dedicated to the history of perfumes and the art of perfumery with a particular focus on Venice. You will also find original instruments, historical items, texts and highly valuable documentation such as the first recipe book of cosmetics, ‘Secreti Nobilissimi dell’Arte Profumatoria’. One room resembles the laboratory of a perfumer of the 16th century. Raw materials and processes are displayed and illustrated, while an olfactory map describes the ‘Streets of Spices’.
The most valuable part of the collection includes a selection of beautiful bottles and containers for perfume from the extraordinary Storp collection. It is one of the most important and rare collections in the world. It includes over 2500 objects, some of them dated as far back as 2000 BC. These jewels of ancient craftsmanship are timeless designs.
DO YOU KNOW? What surprised me is that several perfume containers resemble a fish. I find this a very strange shape to store perfume. I tried to find the rationale behind this design, but I couldn’t find it. If you know more about, please let me know. It really intrigues me.
When I visited the Palazzo Mocenigo, the temporary exhibition ‘New dialogues between Glass and Perfume’ was ongoing. It showed the evolution of two ancient arts of Venice: glass blowing and perfumery. The master glassblowers from the Consorzio Promovetro Murano (the authority behind the trademark for Original Murano glass) designed new bottles, while master perfumers from The Merchant of Venice developed exclusive fragrances. These 12 original masterpieces were auctioned at the end of the exhibition. It was a perfect showcase to demonstrate the traditional arts in a contemporary context.
Finally, you have the opportunity to discover the different fragrance families. The 6 fragrance families are a classification of perfumes on the basis of the elements they are made up: citrus, floral, oriental, fougère, woody and chypre. Personally, I liked the table with 24 bottles with essences a lot. I smelled most of them and I have to admit that, even though I knew the names, I had no clue how most of these smelled. It’s really a wonderful experience. You can easily spend half an hour at this table alone. If you like this experience, you can also book a perfume workshop to learn more on the composition of fragrances and the production process of perfume. I haven’t tried it, but it sounds interesting.
When you finish the perfumery tour, you should also take the opportunity to admire the other rooms of the Palazzo Mocenigo. They show the different aspects of the life and activities of a Venetian nobleman between the 17th and 18th century. There are many valuable ancient garments and accessories on display.
The gothic palazzo belonged to one of the most important families of the Republic, the Mocenigo family. It was rebuilt in 1623-1625 by Francesco Contin. From the 17th century, the palazzo was the residence of the San Stae branch, which descended from Nicolò Mocenigo, brother of Doge Alvise I. The main branch of the family used to live in the palace at San Samuele. Seven members of the family became doges between 1414 and 1778. The family also supplied the State with numerous procuratori (administrators), ambassadors, sea and land captains, clergymen, and men of letters.
DID YOU KNOW? Lord Byron, the famous English poet, lived in the Palazzo Mocenigo in 1818-1819. He wrote part of his master piece Don Juan here. Can you recognize which parts have a link to Venice?
Venice is mainly recognized as the capital of mask making or glassblowing. However, perfumers should certainly be added to the list of Venetian artisans who used the beauty of the city as their inspiration.
After your visit to Palazzo Mocenigo, take your time to discover Santa Croce (the area where the museum is located) and San Polo with this walk: ‘San Polo & Santa Croce: A culinary discovery in Venice’.
Enjoy your visit!
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