PerFumum: The Fragrances of History

Agoratopia’s editorial team had the opportunity to explore the intriguing ongoing exhibition "PerFumum. The Fragrances of History" (15 February to 21 May 2018) held at the Palazzo Madama, Turin, Italy. The desire to retain fragrances, preserve them and enjoy their fragrance accompanies human history from antiquity to today. Th exhibition is a story about the evolution and the plurality of the meanings of the scent from Greek and Roman antiquity to the twentieth century, seen through more than two hundred objects on display, including goldsmiths, glassware, porcelain, affiches and scientific treatises.

The exhibition, curated by Cristina Maritano , conservator of Palazzo Madama, and set up in Sala Atelier, presents objects belonging to the collections of Palazzo Madama and numerous loans from museums and institutions in Turin. The beautifully set up exhibition tells a story about the evolution and the plurality of the meanings of fragrances starting from Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome all the way to the twentieth century, represented through more than two hundred objects, including jewellery, glassware, porcelain, posters and scientific treaties coming from Palazzo Madama’s collections and from numerous other museums and institutions. The collaboration with the Musée International de la Parfumerie in Grasse (France) was fundamental; besides the precious selection of works it loaned, it made available its multimedia equipment on perfumery techniques permitting the exhibition’s completeness. To make this journey into the universe of perfumes even more captivating and exhaustive, the Turin-based Cultural Association Per Fumum, founded by Roberta Conzato and Roberto Drago, organize an international conference on the sense of smell addressed to perfume lovers. From the presentation of historical essences of the Osmothèque of Versailles, to the meeting with internationally recognized perfume creators, including the appointment on April 7th with the founder of Xerjoff, Sergio Momo, who will retrace the story of Casamorati. Finally, on the occasion of the exhibition, the creator of fragrances Luca Maffei, will create scents and perfumes inspired by the museum’s historical collections of the Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods that will be diffused in the halls of the Palace.

[...] from a symbol of immortality, associated with the deity, to an instrument of hygiene, care of the body and seduction.

The Exhibition

The exhibition itinerary presents a historical excursus starting from the Egyptian and Greco-Roman civilizations that, on the basis of previous traditions, assign to the scent multiple meanings: from a symbol of immortality, associated with the deity, to an instrument of hygiene, care of the body and seduction. In early medieval Europe , subject to the impact of barbarian invasions, evidence of the use of odoriferous substances outside the sacred sphere is rare. However, the protective and therapeutic conception of the perfume survives, as witnessed in the exhibition by the precious bulla with set amethysts coming from the gothic treasure of Desana.

The use of fragrances in contact with the body as a protection against diseases is attested later in the pommes de musc frequently cited in the inventories of medieval castles, as the rare fifteenth-century example in gilded silver on loan from the Museum of Sant' Agostino of Genoa, which still preserves the nutmeg inside.

The Islamic civilization, which inherits and preserves the knowledge of the ancient world, develops and innovates the culture of the Greek and Roman, Persian and Byzantine perfumes, introducing important technological achievements, such as the refinement of the art of distillation made by Avicenna. On show are some Ottoman art perfume flasks, in brass, in rosewood and in majolica and glass. The Renaissance age, sees the progressive laicization of the meanings of perfume, whose use becomes more extensive and articulated among the higher social classes. The ancient treaties circulate thanks to printed editions, new recipe books flourish, which propose the individual manufacture of perfumes, develops the alcoholic perfumery. Throughout the whole of Europe, fashion has spread throughout the Italian courts to perfume in addition to the body also clothing accessories, especially leather, and to wear containers for perfumes of extraordinary refinement, such as the agate bottle with gold frame, rubies, diamonds and enamel, from the Museo degli Argenti in Palazzo Pitti, perhaps a gift from Caterina de Medici, to whom we owe the export of the Italian fashion of perfumes in France. From the seventeenth century, the supremacy in the field of perfume production undeniably belongs to France. New fragrances are born, more and more oriented towards floral and light notes, preserved in glass or porcelain bottles, or diffused in the environments thanks to potpourri and incense burner.

Finally, the exhibition offers an overview of the twentieth century thanks to loans from private collections that have allowed to enrich the exhibition with a wide range of bottles, among which those created by René Lalique for François Coty, Baccarat for Guerlain stand out, but also the exceptional Arpège by Jeanne Lavin, Shocking by Elsa Schiaparelli, Diorissimo by Christian Dior. A selection of labels and posters of perfume manufacturers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries complete the exhibition.

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