Ritual, Royal Atyanrtd o tfh Peerfume
Catherine de’ Medici’s wedding ceremony in Renaissance Florence ‘changed the world’. Today, a modern ‘marriage of the minds’ sheds light on age-old treasures. By Linda Falcone
There are days when history is made and others when the past simply reveals itself, with a strong but fleeting sensation that lingers a bit like perfume. Rituals are increasingly rare these days, but Florence has enough old-world loveliness left in it, to allow space for them.
In the heart of the city’s Santa Croce District, master perfumier Sileno Cheloni performs a ‘Diffusion Ritual’ to welcome his latest perfume into the world. Before burning the fragrance called Invisible, he prepares an ‘altar-of-sorts’ inside the waterless stone well at the centre of Palazzo Serristori Corsini Antinori’s innermost courtyard. “The ancients would communicate with Divinity using fire,” Cheloni explains as he prepares his implements. “In ancient Rome, they would say ‘Pro fumo tribuere’, ‘to offer by smoke’. That is the origin of the word ‘perfume’.”
The glass door to Cheloni’s tiny laboratory has been left ajar and the hundreds of glass bottles lining each of his shelves stand like silent witnesses awaiting the ritual. They represent a full world tour in seven square meters: essences from Tibet, Columbia, Oman, Ireland. We are at Aquaflor Firenze, just a block from the Basilica di Santa Croce. Invisible, created in collaboration with the Advancing Women Artists Foundation (AWA), was designed as a tribute to women artists throughout the centuries. In a moment, he says, we will ‘watch’ the perfume rise. And when it does we are to make our ‘internal request’. For the ancients, perfume was a vehicle for prayer, a way to ask for rain, for fertility, for prosperity.
The match is lit. The smoke rises. There is silence in the courtyard. A custom from the beginning of time has made its way into the present. The air fills with a medley of scents - musk, rose, Florentine iris, lemon leaves, jasmine. With them, our collective hopes rise to the skies.
The story behind Invisible
Any professional ‘Nose’ will tell you, a perfume is usually made from a blend of 30 to 80 different essences. “I wanted to create a fragrance with a very slight aroma initially that would become stronger the longer it is worn - going from ‘invisible to visible”, says AWA founder and chair, Jane Fortune, about developing the perfume. “I wanted something different and there were hundreds of possibilities. Sileno recommended using a rare flower from India, one of the most precious in the world, called Osmanthus. Few people are familiar with it, but it is extremely valuable. That’s like many of the artists whose works the foundation is trying to save. The perfume’s name says it all!
“It was inspired by Plautilla Nelli, who was an invisible artist for centuries, which was hard to understand since she was the first known woman painter of Florence. It only took five centuries for her to become visible…but what a coming out - a
solo exhibition at the Uffizi this year. Again, it’s about going from invisible to visible!”
The perfume’s ‘posterchild’ is a Florentine work by Artemisia Gentileschi, that is thought to be a preparatory drawing for David and Bathsheba, a painting at the Pitti Palace that AWA restored in 2009. In the decade of its existence, the foundation, whose mission is to research, restore and exhibit art by women in Florence and Tuscany, has salvaged 48 paintings and sculptures from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, returning them to the museum spotlight after conservation.
An ancient craft for Florence today
It was the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella who first began practising the art of perfumemaking in Florence, but their craft was for ‘medicinal purposes’ only. In the late 13th-century as the Black Death swept through Florence, killing nearly seventy percent of the population, the Dominicans distilled rose water as an antiseptic to disinfect the victims’ homes. Wearing perfume as part of one’s personal toilette was perceived as sinful practice in the Middle Ages, first and foremost because it was considered potentially seductive. The Church also shunned this practice because it was so typical of the Arab world.
It would take two centuries and Catherine de’ Medici’s marriage to Henry II of France for perfume to be conceived as a personalized rather than medicinal product. The young bride, who had spent her childhood in a nunnery as a protection mechanism against anti-Medici forces, would wed Henry II, wearing a perfume created especially for her by the Dominicans: ‘Acqua della Regina’ (Water of the Queen). Catherine would commission perfumes to the monastery during her entire reign which bolstered the friars’ fame both in Tuscany and abroad, providing them with substantial steady income. Catherine’s perfume is still available today at the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy (Via della Scala 10, Florence) which continues to produce its age-old remedies, although it is no longer a Churchrun establishment. (‘Acqua della Regina’ is now
known as ‘Acqua di Santa Maria Novella’, but the formula for Catherine’s signature fragrance has not been altered.)
The Queen of invention
Catherine de’ Medici and Henry II celebrated their wedding banquet on 28 October 1533, a date that few remember. Yet neither foodie nor fashionista can claim themselves untouched by what happened that day which saw the public debut of two of the world’s best-loved inventions: ice-cream and the high-heeled shoe.
A spin-off of the detachable shoes that horse riders used to better reach their dangling stirrups, the first stylized high-heels were designed precisely for Catherine’s wedding day. The 14-year old bride believed that two extra inches would considerably improve her oft-criticized appearance, and the much older nobles in Paris and beyond who would follow her example apparently agreed. As for the ice-cream, the popularity of frozen desserts had skyrocketed after Columbus’ voyages provided access to exotic New World fruits, coffee and chocolate. But ‘gelato’ in its (almost) modernday form was the brainchild of a Medici cooking competition, and Catherine departed for France with that coveted recipe in hand.
During her twenty-seven years as reigning queen and regent, Catherine, as the grand-daughter of Lorenzo Il Magnifico and a true Renaissance woman, was credited for bringing a variety of innovations to her adoptive country: the use of the fork at the French court; the option of riding side-saddle; the availability of underwear. A lover of architecture who commissioned the Villa of Tuileries, Catherine also loved the performing arts and made classic Italian dance so popular in France, that it is known today as a quintessential French phenomenon, namely Ballet. The same can be said of the art of perfume-making. Catherine’s personal
Invisible gives us the opportunity to do two things: support art by women and uphold a tradition that is part of Florence’s uniqueness - even today
perfumier, Renato Bianco followed her to Paris, and as soon as locals began wishing for the wares of Renè Le Florentine, the die was cast: perfume-making would be widely remembered as a Parisian tradition.
This unique art form that the Medici Queen so faithfully supported is still an important part of Florence’s creative identity. Fortune sums it up as follows: “I feel it is important to support traditional crafts because so many master artisans have no one to carry on their unique work. Certain crafts risk being lost forever. Craftsmanship has always been the backbone of this city built by artisans, and this is something that must be forever celebrated and remembered. Invisible gives us the opportunity to do two things: support art by women and uphold a tradition that is part of Florence’s uniqueness - even today.”
Proceeds from the sale of Invisible supports the restoration and exhibition of art by women in Florence. For more information visit: www. advancingwomenartists.org
Above, left: Artemisia Gentileschi’s Davidand Bathsheba, restored by the AWA. Above right: 16th-century painting by an unidentified painter of Catherine de’ Medici Right, top left: Perfumier Sileno Cheloni performs a ‘Diffusion Ritual’ to welcome his...
Above: Perfumier Sileno Cheloni at work