Strongly supported by Mavive SpA, a Venetian company of Vidal’s family – main partner of a real act of patronage designed to reaffirm the deep bond with the city of Venice – the new section dedicated to fragrances enrich the exhibition on the first floor of the Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo at San Stae. In the five rooms that are dedicated to perfume and are perfectly integrated with the attraction of the displays throughout the museum, multi-media instruments and experiences using the senses alternate along an itinerary of information, emotion and closer study.
A video illustrates the role of Venice in the history of perfume, a room evokes the lab of a perfumer of the 16th century (muschiere). Raw materials and processes are displayed and illustrated, while an olfactory map describes the “Streets of Spices” crossed by the ancient Venetians. Is then presented an extraordinary collection of perfume bottles of the Monica Magnani Collection, covering a number of pieces from different periods, materials, origins and types. Finally, the tour ends with the opportunity to experience, through some olfactory stations the “fragrance families” from which come all the fragrances.
Room 13. Decorated with paintings from the Correr Museum and Ca’ Rezzonico collections, this room is the beginning of the museum section that is devoted to a particular aspect of the history of Venetian costumes, that of perfume, not yet studied in depth until now, and highlighting the fundamental role the city played in the origins of this aesthetical, cosmetic and commercial tradition. Here a video – in three different languages one after the other – offers a light introduction to the Venetian history of perfume up to the Middle Ages, the secrets of ancient production, the whims of the wealthy clients, the trend changes over the centuries.
Room 14. Although not a perfect reconstruction, this room evokes what was an almost alchemical laboratory of the perfume maker or muschiere, who, from the sixteenth century on in Venice was the keeper of the techniques and recipes to make soap, oils, pastes, powders and liquids to perfume things, people, clothes, gloves and rooms. Expensive and much sought-after, perfume required raw materials that were often very rare and exotic, coming either from the plant kingdom, such as the benjamin tree, cinnamon, or from the animal kingdom, such as the zibet and grey amber. This room has an interactive wall panel with a scented map that demonstrates the fascinating, impenetrable routes that Venetians had to cover to obtain these raw materials. Original nineteenth-/twentieth century instruments or reconstructions – such as the loom to extract essential oils from flowers (enfleurage) or the chest full of white cold paste Venetian soap, filtered using an ancient process – give the visitor a glimpse of the partially magical and partially industrial atmosphere of this great tradition. Of particular note is Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s sixteenth-century herbarium that illustrates, amongst other things, the technique of distillation.
Room 15. This room is also dedicated to raw materials and production techniques. The books on display – one of which can be used virtually in the interactive totem next to the bookcase – were printed for the first time in Venice in the middle of the sixteenth century, revealing the “secrets” of an art of perfume – that also comprises cosmetics, medicine, science and magic. Some of the ‘real’ raw materials are on display here, such as musk from animal glands or valuable grey amber – the intestinal secretion of the sperm whale – and, on the table, many of those mentioned in the ancient recipes exhibited here.
Room 16.Three showcases, three centuries, three different ways of experiencing and understanding perfume and its containers in cultural, aesthetic and social terms
SHOWCASE 1: THE SPLENDOUR OF THE 18 TH CENTURY
In the 18 th century, perfume was still reserved for the happy few, privileged by noble ranks and their social position: the bottles were therefore small and precious for containing
limited quantities of fragrant balm or highly concentrated fragrances. They were made with
precious or exotic materials that a skilled craftsman/artist shaped by infusing them with all
his mastery and imagination, often following the wishes of the person for whom they were
intended and who would exhibit them as a status symbol of his/her wealth and refinement,
often wearing them as real jewels. In addition to the usual noble metals, such as gold and silver (the German production of perfume boxes is particularly rich), we find tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, semi-precious stones, glass and above all porcelain, a recent European conquest of this century, declined in the most diverse forms. The classic models of the figurines produced by large manufacturers such as Meissen, Chelsea, Capodimonte, Sevres, just to name a few, became small perfume containers known by collectors under the curious name of Girl-in-a-swing, from a figurine produced in England by Charles Gouyn around 1750, depicting a girl on a swing.
SHOWCASE/CUPBOARD 2: TRANSPARENCIES OF THE 19 TH CENTURY
The rise of the bourgeoisie considerably increased the number of those who used perfume as the final touch for better personal hygiene: the 19 th century was the century of cologne, which filled large bottles in coloured and/or faceted glass placed on the dressing tables of ladies, beside other containers intended for beauty. Europe and the United States competed in offering ever more flashy and important bottles, decorated in gold, with sinuous shapes and opaline glasses or thick crystals. Bohemia led this ascent at the expense of Murano, which was experiencing a profound crisis, and new realities, such as the United States, which were trying to respond to the demands of the internal market. The glass masters travelled frequently, and with them techniques and styles, to the point that it is difficult, and in some cases impossible, to give a sure attribution to many bottles of perfume, so much the models have become similar to each other. In small bottles, the metal or silver caps give us some more information, but in containers made exclusively of glass, almost always without brands, only some decorations or some particular shapes give us some clues. Anyway, beyond the right placement in time and space, immersing oneself in this transparent and luminous world of nineteenth-century glass flacons is pleasant, thanks to the great variety of the final product.
SHOWCASE 3: THE UNIQUE STYLE OF THE 20 TH CENTURY
In the 20 th century perfume started to become a mass product: how could something
desirable and elitist, intended for wealthy consumers, be created? The answer is in a mix
that will give rise to the most iconic perfumes of all time: the combination of an exclusive
brand in the world of fashion, a famous designer in the world of glass and an important
nose. The latter is a perfume creator who invents perfect accords of essences which,
precisely in this period, are recognized and grouped into olfactory families, some of which
(such as Fougère and Chypre) owe their names to highly successful perfumes of the time.
One name above all symbolizes glass design in the early 1900s: René Lalique. With him,
the commercial perfume bottle (that is to say with a specific brand) becomes a luxury item,
a recognizable symbol of a perfume house, but also of a refined and precious style. The
bottles created by him and by other designers, such as Depinoix and Viard, are the object
of desire of many collectors, as timeless objects that keep their charm intact.
Room 17. The ‘Fragrance families’ are a sort of classification of perfumes on the basis of the elements they are made up of. On the large table there are 24 containers with the same number of essences, forming six of the main families, all of which have fascinating names: citrus, floral, oriental … Visitors may experiment with the fragrances or study this intoxicating but rigorously scientific world in more depth, using the iPad on the table.
Rooms 18 and 19. The paintings in room 18 are both intimate and private; of particular note is the rare Perfume Maker’s Organ, an extraordinary instrument used to invent perfumes using the more than two hundred essential oils in the phials arranged in the shape of an amphitheatre. In the small room 19 we can see two paintings with religious motifs that belong to the palazzo, as to the eighteenth-century furnishings, while the female portrait comes from the Correr Museum collections.