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

Timeless Travels Magazine - - ITALY -

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

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