As we saw in our article last month, perfume was considered frivolous during the Middle Ages. It was then adopted for its medicinal properties, especially during the ritual of scented baths. But from the beginning of the 14th century, the arrival of the Black Death brings the fear of water out and habits change. However, the art of fragrance has always kept an important place in this modern era of great discoveries. Uncover the secrets of using perfume during the Renaissance.
Technical and olfactory discoveries
The Renaissance is a historic period marked by great discoveries that have significantly influenced our modern world. This era of art and literature has also served today’s perfumery thanks to many breakthroughs, both technical and olfactory.
As our History books teach us, Gutemberg marked his era thanks to a great invention in the 15th century: the printing. At the first sight, the link with perfumery is not obvious. And yet the printing allowed to set down on paper many works which included recipes of perfumed compositions and scented waters. Thanks to these books, the know-how of the perfumery, from the confection to the conservation of the essences, has spread out widely in Europe. These collections, written mostly in Italian and French, allowed to extend the culture and the knowledge of the art of fragrances, whose formulas circulate and are transmitted between different countries.
Already in the Middle Ages, new technical discoveries had marked an important turning point in perfumery thanks to advances in alcohol distillation. During the Renaissance, this perfume manufacturing technique keeps evolving and progressing. The use of the coil is widespread, improving the cooling and condensation of steam. Little by little, perfumers replace copper by glass stills. Glass is a neutral material that has no impact on the final scented composition. Solid perfumes gradually disappear to move on to liquid ones, such as scented waters. Always in search of unknown scents, scientists are working on large-scale researches. We are now talking about chemistry and not alchemy, and the quality of the essences becomes much better.
To the whole technical progress is added a considerable development of new raw materials. From the 12th century, new scents brought back from the Crusades appear. But during the Renaissance, perfume will make a big leap forward thanks to the maritime expeditions of the great explorers like Christopher Columbus, Magellan or Vasco de Gama. The geographical vision of the world is changing, and new commercial roads are opening up. Christopher Columbus brings unknown scents from the New World: vanilla and copal of Mexico, cocoa, tobacco, balm of Tolu and the one of Peru. From the Indies, boats return to Europe filled with cinnamon, Sumatra benzoin, ginger, pepper and cloves.
Thanks to these expeditions, people have access to new fragrant raw materials but also a new type of oriental know-how for the cultivation and extraction of spices and flowers. Therefore, perfume in the Renaissance will know great advances both technical and olfactory.
Europe: the center of perfume in the Renaissance
Thanks to its strategic position at the crossroads of maritime roads, Venice remains a central place in the perfume trade throughout the medieval period. But the trade routes recently discovered by Spain and Portugal put an end to its monopoly.
Spain and Italy, lands of perfumers
Renaissance’s greatest perfumers are Spanish and Italian. The Spanish take advantage of the know-how and science of their Arab neighbors and predecessors. Thus, they gradually extend their aromatic waters in France. The Italians benefit from the wealth of their lands and the frenzy of aristocrats and bourgeois for perfumes. Even princes like to make their own essences themselves!
France steps in
In France, François 1er, a fervent art connoisseur and pomp lover, formed a strategic alliance with Italy by marrying his son Henry II with Catherine de’ Medici. Thanks to this union, France will finally step in and start manufacturing perfume during the Renaissance. Catherine de’ Medici will not come alone in France: she brings with her Renato Bianco, her personal perfumer better known under the name of René the Florentin. He will soon become famous for his creations and establish his perfume (and poison!) shop in Paris. Many Italian perfumers will come to settle in the capital, smelling a growing success.
The fashion of scented products is spreading everywhere, and the French city of Grasse is renowned for its expertise in growing perfume plants.
The perfume of the Renaissance as a camouflage
Unlike the Middle Ages where hygiene was a major concern with baths in particular, the rituals change during the Renaissance.
The fear of water
A fear of the baths really begins to settle in a terrible context of plague epidemic. Public baths are closed and individual practices decrease to completely stop. The population fears that the water infiltrates into their body, inflating it and thus allowing the disease to enter. Water becomes a contagion factor and people wash themselves less and less. At the same time, appearance takes an increasingly prominent role in asserting status and wealth in society. The art of appearance supplants hygiene and cleanliness. From the 16th century, people only “wash” very occasionally. And the practice is pretty superficial since people just pour water on some parts of the body. Hygiene is rather a “scrubbing” by rubbing the skin of cloths impregnated with various essences. It even seems that french King Louis XIV took a bath… once a year!
The reign of scented dirt
During the Renaissance the perfume is used to hide the unflattering scent of badly washed bodies. And the smells are so unpleasant that the scented juices are very powerful and heady. At the time, animal scents such as musk or amber are widely adopted for their olfactory power and their aphrodisiac properties. Other fragrant ingredients are also used as jasmine or tuberose.
It is in this camouflage context which appears the perfumed glove, manufactured in Grasse. This enthusiasm will lead to the creation of a true professional corporation. The Glovers-Perfumers obtain the monopoly of perfume distribution and replace the apothecaries and the druggists. In France, the city of Grasse becomes the center of European perfumery.
The perfume overwhelms everything and everyone. We use it on bodies of course, but also on wigs, clothes, food or even tobacco. Even animals were entitled to their aromatic essences and it was not uncommon to perfume your little dog or your exotic birds. In the house, the perfume is everywhere. Aristocrats have cushions filled with dried flowers and they use scented tablets to burn or sprinklers to hide unwelcome odors. The Court is flooded with fragrances and the richest change their essences every day.
The fragrance as a shield
As in previous centuries, perfume is used to protect against the disease. The pomander of the Middle Ages is still largely worn by the better-off to protect against all the evils. This object containing different aromas gradually steps aside for other containers such as the acorn, a small scented sachet in the 17th century. In times of plague, doctors wear a large coat, impermeable to bad air. The face is covered with a mask which has a long beak, filled with herbs to fight against foul and toxic odors.
The perfume thus allows both to clear the body and to create an anti-stench barrier. Doctors of this time consider that odoriferous ingredients, of animal or vegetable origin, are very effective remedies. The scented waters are decoctions that people swallow to clean the blood and organs from impurities. Ambroise Paré, king’s surgeon, then makes “pots with plants”: a kind of bath specially designed for healing.
Medicine and perfumery continue to cohabit very strongly during the Renaissance.
The Age of Enlightenment: hatching of scented products
We consider that the Age of Enlightenment, the on of philosophy, literature and the Revolution, is the height century of perfumes.
The scented Court
French King Louis XV perpetuates the traditions and frenzy of fragrances remains ubiquitous. In Versailles, perfume is so powerful that we can clearly speak of impregnation. Besides, the expenses in this matter were enormous, more important than the expenses for the food! The court of Louis XV was renowned throughout Europe “the scented Court”, where new smells were spread every day. At this time, the scented waters are very popular like the toilet vinegars which have disinfectant virtues.
The demand for scented products is growing, and some fragrances are made-to-measure. The first great perfume houses are created, like Piver or Lubin in France and Floris in London.
Return to natural
The mid-eighteenth century will mark a turning point in perfumery, by the transition of heady fragrances to hide the stench, to fresher and more delicate scents. It is at this time that a novelty will turn upside down the scented compositions. The Eau de Cologne arrives from Germany and immediately seduces the middle-class which will consume it in all its forms: in the wine, in friction, in enema, injection, on sugar…
We perfume the houses with fresh potpourri arranged in silver or porcelain cups. Musk, civet and amber are dropped in favor of floral and fruity scents that are found in delicate flasks.
The Enlightenment philosophers gradually restore the place of water in the toilet. Even if we still perfume hair and clothes, the practice of ablutions reappears. The bidet settles in the bathrooms of aristocrats in 1730 to fight against bad smells.
Because of its image of product reserved for the bourgeoisie, the perfume disappears during the Revolution. Some nobles will even go to the guillotine with a handkerchief impregnated with lily essence, as a last nod to royalty…
Next month, we propose you to discover the evolution of the history of Perfume and its use during the 19th century, a time marked by the revolution of synthesis!
Did you know that perfume was used to hide bad smells in the Renaissance?
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