CITRUS AND MUSK
A MUSEUM AND A FRAGRANCE COLLECTION DEDICATED TO THE HISTORY OF VENETIAN PERFUMERY EVOKE THE EXOTIC EAST AND THE MERCHANT VOYAGES THAT BROUGHT THE SCENTS OF THE ORIENT TO EUROPE.
The true birthplace of the modern fragrance is not France but Renaissance Venice, as a new exhibition documents.
With a city steeped in such remarkable beauty, history and its own unique sense of Serenissima (utmost serenity), it’s no surprise Venice has now inspired a luxurious perfume collection, The Merchant of Venice. Launched in 2013 by fourth-generation Venetian fragrance specialist Marco Vidal, it was born not just from his passion for perfume but also its intriguing past of exotic ingredients, great female beauties and of course, the Floating City itself.
The starting point for the fragrance line was in fact born from a cultural project Vidal and his family’s company Mavive initiated in collaboration with the Fondazione Musei Civici of Venice to restore the prestigious Palazzo Mocenigo, already the site of a textile and costume museum, to its former glory. Nestled near the San Stae church in the central Santa Croce area of Venice, Vidal dreamt of a multi-sensory perfume museum to reflect the fascinating history he had unearthed after years of research. Inspired by “an exhibition in a botanical garden in the north of Italy about five or six years before, using the sense of smell to explain different botanical ingredients,” he explains, Vidal has created a place where you can see, smell and experiment with the ingredients that must have tantalised the Venetians as merchants from the ancient trade routes descended upon the city.
While the French might boast of their supremacy in the fragrance world, it was actually here in Renaissance Venice that modern perfume was born. The museum tells the story of perfume’s early beginnings – merchants brought precious fragrance materials from exotic cities such as Constantinople (now Istanbul), Persia, Greece and Arabia during the Byzantine period; Maria Argyropolos, a renowned Byzantine beauty, brought perfume with her when she married the son of the powerful 11th-century Doge Pietro Orseolo II; then Venetian muschière (perfumers) discovered the preserving powers of diluting fragrance extracts in pure spirits. This transformed the city’s fortunes as the biggest producer of luxury goods including soaps, perfumes and rouge, and paving the way for modern day parfums and eaux de toilettes.
Throughout the museum’s six rooms, dressed with elaborate wallpapers and Murano chandeliers, the amazing floors and building’s details restored, this fascinating history comes to life with tables laden with large glass vessels featuring many of the ingredients the merchants would have brought to be traded in Venice – musk, civet, Damascus rose, Ceylon cinnamon and orange blossom – which visitors can smell; a room evoking the lab of a 16th-century muschière also shares the first known recipe book of cosmetics, Secreti Nobilissimi dell’Arte Profumatoria, by Giambattista Rosetti from 1672; and on display is a vast revolving collection of perfumery equipment, vials and containers, some dating as far back as Mesopotamia and Babylon.
Vidal’s own roots in fragrance go back to his greatgrandfather Angelo Vidal, who founded Vidal Profumi 117 years ago, trading in soaps and spices imported from Asia. By pure coincidence he created his first perfumery workshop exactly where the museum stands today (it relocated to Marghera, an area on the mainland near Venice, with the acquisition of a small soap manufacturer in 1912). In the 1960s, “my grandfather then produced the first bath foam on the Italian market, the still-famous Bagnoschiuma Pino Silvestre”, Vidal says. The family business then turned from successful body and bath manufacturers to perfumers, when his father Massimo started a new business Mavive, which he and Vidal today run together.
Fittingly, The Merchant of Venice’s first collection was named after the city’s famous Murano glass, with essences that reflected the spices and aromas of those early trading routes – Rosa Moceniga (one of The Merchant of Venice’s most sought-after scents) reflects the rare and precious flower of China; Noble Potion showcases the cedarwood of Lebanon and the citrus scents of the Mediterranean. There have been four more collections since, plus a limited-edition collection boasting the rarest of ingredients, a luxury bath line, and in April this year, a range of four home scents available as tealights to burn in handblown Murano glass lanterns or as diffuser sticks in vases.
It’s perhaps this vivid marriage of fragrance and glass that best captures the emotion everyone feels for Venice. “For every person, visiting Venice is unique because there is something almost unbelievable and impossible about how it was built as a city and at one point was the centre of the world five centuries ago. Even today it is a way of living completely differently,” says Vidal – no cars, skyscrapers or usual chaos of modern urban life. “But it’s also a style – a style of fabrics and glass, its history of colours, water and stone, and even of contemporary style because it’s now one of the most important cities in the world for contemporary art with the Biennale. The Merchant of Venice is our way of trying to preserve the spirit of Venice for now and the future.”