A Sweet Smelling Renaissance

A Sweet Smelling Renaissance

The Renaissance in Europe saw the return of traditional liquid perfumes in a move away from the pomanders and solid fragrance delivery methods that were most popular in the Middle Ages. With increases in trade from Asia and the Middle East came not only an increase in the availability of more exotic ingredients but a change in the cultural practices of scent.

The early Renaissance gave rise to the practice of carrying a Pouncet box, which was an open work box created from silver or other metal which would contain a cloth or sponge that had been soaked in a vinegar-based mixture and carried to mask unpleasant odors. Similar to a pomander, these were most effective when lifted to the face or deliberately “wafted” to spread the fragrance. The mixture that they used to hold scents was known, amusingly, as a vinaigrette. These vinaigrettes generally consisted of wine vinegar mixed with lavender or other fragrant botanical extracts.

Examples of Renaissance Pouncet Boxes - used to contain aromatic vinaigrettes.

As with many other aspects of European culture at the time, much of this change arose from the arrival of Catherine De Medici in the French court. Along with the notion of Chivalry and “courtly love”, De Medici helped popularize such diverse cultural norms as love poetry and even the use of forks. For our purposes, the most important contribution she made was in the popularization of liquid perfume by bringing her personal perfumer Rene The Florentine with her.

Catherine De Medici

Within a few years of their arrival, cultivation of flowers to extract their fragrance became a major industry in France at the time. Rene was the first scent chemist to bring the newest Italian innovations in scent extraction to Europe. His craft was honed by having been raised by Florentine monks as a foundling, taking the traditional medicinal extractions they made and turning them into a method for making concoctions valued for their pleasant scent.

His work was considered so revolutionary in mainland Europe that his laboratory had to be connected to De Medici's royal apartments via a secret passage in order to insure that his formulas could not be stolen or copied. Rene is credited with introducing the notion of perfumery as a luxury item, taking fragrance from its traditional role of being more medicinal or therapeutic and helping to create its place in modern aesthetic culture.

During this period of time, there were a number of parallel developments in liquid perfumes including Aqua Admiralis and Hungary Water that served as forerunners to the more rigidly categorized perfumes that we have not. Hungary Water was one of the first alcohol-based solutions used for fragrance delivery – created at the behest of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary in the late 14th century. Towards the later part of the Renaissance came Aqua Admiralis, a blend created by the Italian Giovanni Paulo Feminis.
An example of an early vintage Eau De Cologe by Jean Marie Farina
This was a water based product that was used on his customers and came to be more commonly known as Eau De Cologne, having been developed in Cologne, Germany. Over time, the term began to refer to any liquid fragrance with a low concentration of aromatic compounds. By the end of the Renaissance period, many of the more rigid categorizations that we know of in contemporary perfumery had begun to cement, leading to the development of modern, concentrated blends in the 1800s.

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