For several decades, models, singers and even actors have been the muses of the advertisements that promote the greatest perfumes. But before them, it was other types of celebrities who helped spread the luxurious image of fragrances. Over the centuries, rulers and emperors have become true inspirations for perfumery. From Cleopatra’s fragrance to the olfactory indulgence of Louis XIV, discover all the secrets of the perfume of kings and queens.
The beginnings: the perfume of the queens
Cleopatra’s inspired nose
Throughout history, the use of perfume has generally been reserved for crowned heads and a wealthy elite. The theory is confirmed as early as ancient Egypt where Cleopatra became one of the first muse. The coquettish queen with a nose as long as it was sharp, would have worn very thick fragrant oils contained in clay jars. These fragrances, close to the ointment, would result from a mixture based on myrrh, balms of various trees as well as spices like cinnamon and cardamom, the whole added with olive oil. To enjoy this fragrant product, slaves coated the queen’s body, from head to toe, with long massages after the bath. According to many historians and researchers, Cleopatra even owned several workshops for the production of perfume and cosmetics, which she considered as great external sign of power.
The magic remedy of the Queen of Hungary
Among the perfumes of kings and queens, there is a water that has been much talked about over the centuries. One of the first royal and western essences was created in 1370. Made from rosemary, orange blossom water and rose, this elixir was first created for therapeutic purposes. This is the case of most perfumes of the time. According to the legend, it is a hermit who offers this precious mixture to the queen of Hungary, then 72 years old. It is said that after a full year of assiduous use, the sovereign would have forgotten the evils of old age. She would have found the beauty and the form of her twenty years!
Called Eau de la Reine de Hongrie, this miraculous water would in fact be a well-oiled “marketing operation”! Indeed, historians say that this legend was invented by the perfumers of Montpellier years later to create envy and arouse the curiosity of their customers… Before introducing the fragrance to the court of King Louis XIV. If the miracle cure won’t make you 15 years younger, the benefits of this precious mixture are real. Women have long used it to give their complexion a glow while doctors recommended it to cure stomach aches.
The perfume of kings at court
Catherine de Medici, the perfume of Italy
Initially devoted to the gods and to pharmacy, perfume made its appearance at the French court in the 16th century. Thanks to a queen of Italian origin, it became a real accessory of hygiene and an undeniable asset of seduction and refinement. In 1533, Catherine de Medici joined the French court to marry Henri II and become queen. Only 14 years old, the heiress of the rich Italian family brought with her her official perfumer, Renato Bianco. The man who would later be called René le Florentin was the proud owner of Santa Maria Novella, a Florentine store specializing in the creation of fragrances for the country’s aristocracy.
The new French sovereign then blew a breath of fresh perfume to the court. She sprayed herself copiously with her “Eau de la Reine”, an essence specially created for her based on bergamot. The olfactory universe of the court, somewhat morose since the closure of the baths, was invigorated. Catherine de Medici also imposed the trend of perfumed gloves. It is also thanks to her that people began to slip small vials of scent into cushions or clothing. A few months after his arrival, René le Florentin set up his Parisian boutique at the Pont au Change and perfumed all the high society of the time.
Louis XIV, perfume of seduction
Already during his childhood, he was bathed in a very powerful perfumed atmosphere. At the age of 22, he becomes king and is quickly known for his amorous incursions. Women coveted him and to seduce them, the young Louis XIV did not skimp on perfume. He considered it a serious seduction asset. He then impregnated himself (very) generously with powerful animal scents such as civet or castoreum. These almost sexual smells are reputed to be highly sensual and aphrodisiac.
From favorites to courtesans, Louis XIV finally fell in love with Madame de Maintenon. The opulent and heady perfumes are then assimilated to debauchery and are no longer on the agenda. The King became more subdued and he succumbs to the “orange flower water”. He was so fond of this sweet and soothing scent that he had liters of it poured into the fountains of Versailles. He then created his own orange grove in the gardens of the Palace. But as fate would have it, the most fragrant king in history began to suffer from migraines. He eventually banned all overpowering perfumes from the court.
The new flowery wave of Marie-Antoinette
A few years later, a new sovereign entered Versailles. In 1774, Marie-Antoinette became Queen of France. As coquettish as she was daring, the young Austrian went against the olfactory trends of her time. While the court was still bathed in musky and amber odors, Marie-Antoinette swore by floral scents. Jean-Louis Fargeron, a young perfumer from Montpellier, became her regular fragrance designer. He made for her dozens of perfumed gloves, fans impregnated with lavender and orange blossom or even liters of wine spirit. The perfumer also collaborated with Léonard, the queen’s famous hairdresser. Together, they developed jasmine-scented hair ointments.
At the request of the eccentric Marie-Antoinette, the master perfumer composed the “Parfum de Trianon”, in homage to the favorite domain of the queen. According to the writings, this composition would be formulated on the basis of orange blossom and lavender waters, lemon and bergamot essences, some touches of galbanum and iris but also jasmine, tuberose and a pinch of musk.
The Eau de Cologne: imperial crush
Back in favor, fresh perfumes make their way to the beginning of the 19th century. Napoleon I used and abused the now famous Eau de Cologne. He smeared his body with this admirable water and even drank a few drops before going into battle. The emperor would use at least one bottle a day! He would also try to make his own during his exile in St. Helena.
The empress Josephine, for her part, was fond of floral scents. She had camellia, tuberoses, hyacinths and dahlia planted in her castle in Ruel-Malmaison. She particularly liked to perfume herself with very fresh fragrances. A few years later, the Parisian perfumer Pierre-François-Pascal Guerlain, with a prestigious clientele, created the “Eau de Cologne Impériale” for the wedding of Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. This composition will be carefully locked in the famous “bee bottle”, one of the emblems of the empire. Thus, great houses trace the beginning of their stories, with Penhaligon or Crow in England, and Guerlain and Roger & Galet in France. These prestigious dynasties perfume the crowned heads and the richest to build their own empire.
To learn more about the olfactory habits of the great characters of our history, we strongly recommend you to read Elisabeth de Feydeau’s book, L’eau de rose de Marie-Antoinette et autres parfums voluptueux de l’histoire.
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