The first use of perfumed essences by man cannot be dated with certainty. What is certain is that essential oils and aromas have always played a leading role both in religious practices and in the most profane art of seduction. Over the centuries merchants and queens contended for the secrets guarded by Italian and French master perfumers
From the mists of time the perfume performs numerous functions, which we can group together in seven classes:
- the sacred function (puts the person in relationship with the gods through the aromas used in sacred rites, in embalming or during offerings);
- the seduction function (invisible weapon for pleasure);
- the aristocratic function (it has long been the prerogative of a few);
- the pleasure function (gives the wearer a particular character);
- the vitality function (in ancient Greece gave strength and confidence to the athletes);
- the identity function (evokes a person even when he is not there, or helps to remember past events);
- the wellness and medical function (through aromatherapy).
The term “perfume” comes from the Latin for fumum, which literally means “through smoke”. The etymological origin, therefore, must be sought in the use of some essential oils and aromas, such as incense, which were burned on offer to gods and ancestors.
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Ancient Egypt – Cones with perfume
In ancient civilizations, fumigations were practiced for sacred purposes, to send messages to the sky, as vectors of prayers addressed to the missing gods or loved ones. Still today they are a support for prayer, meditation and purifying practice in all major religious cults. Fumigation is still the basis of modern aromatherapy.
The birth of the perfume cannot be dated with certainty, although archeology tells us that alongside the use of perfume as an intermediary between man and the gods, it was almost immediately used as an instrument of seduction and for the care of the body.
Some research conducted in Pyrgos, on the island of Cyprus, has discovered what is believed to be the oldest perfume factory in the Mediterranean. During the excavations, which began in 1997 and lasted eight years, artifacts dating from the 20th century BC were found. of a factory used for the production of olive oil and its use in the cosmetic, medical-pharmaceutical and textile sectors. The variety of essences put on the market by the “prehistoric company” was really wide for those times: myrtle, lavender, cinnamon, rosemary, oregano, laurel, coriander, parsley, bitter almond, chamomile, and anise.
It is ancient Egypt, however, that provides us with the first real testimony of the use of perfume. Here perfume is always present in temples and in religious rituals: it purifies the body and mind of the person alive and is an integral part of the rite of embalming the dead. For the Egyptians perfumes are above all the emanation of “divine sweat”, what unites the people to the gods.
A more profane one is added to the magical-sacred meaning, linked to the art of seduction. Egyptian women smeared balms and perfumed oils on their bodies, distributed aromatic ointments on their hair. Queen Cleopatra extolled her charm and beauty with perfumed oils and ointments. It was she who welcomed Marco Antonio, at their first love encounter, in a room sprinkled with rose petals where incense and aromatic herbs burned.
The perfume most used by the pharaohs and their consorts is the Kyphi, a compound also made up of more than fifty essences. Plutarch wrote that the Kyphi had the power to “promote sleep, help make good dreams, relax, sweep away everyday worries, give a sense of peace”.
Among the many ingredients used in this ancient fragrance, there were pistachio, mint, cinnamon, juniper, incense, and myrrh. Incense (Boswellia sacra) and myrrh (which is derived from Commiphora Burseraceae) were the two best-known resins in antiquity.
Alongside the religious and social value, the aromas in ancient Egypt also took on diplomatic significance: the perfumed essences were very precious and the pharaohs made a gift of it to the allied sovereigns.
Later the perfumes entered the daily use also of nobles, officials and courtiers. Thus it was that Jewish slaves learned of some formulas, dedicating themselves, once free, to the production and trade of these aromatic products. However, among the Jewish people, the use of perfumed essences was already widespread. Indeed, in Jewish mysticism the sense of smell is described as the only meaning that gives pleasure to the soul, while all the other senses give pleasure to the body: therefore the perfume brings one closer to God, but it is also a sign of honor and gratitude.
The sacred role of perfumes is defined in the Holy Scriptures, in particular in the Book of Exodus. God had ordered to build an altar on which to offer him perfumes. “The Lord tells Moses:” Get balsams: storax, onyx, galbanum like balms and pure incense: all in equal parts. You will make with them a scent to burn, an aromatic composition according to the art of the perfumer. You will reduce a part of it to the most minute dust, and you will place it before the Testimony in the tent of meeting, where I will meet you. The holiest thing will be held by you “(Ex. 30, 34-36).
In the Temple of Jerusalem, the offering of perfumes played a predominant role. To the Yom Kippùr (the Jewish religious anniversary that celebrates the day of atonement), the High Priest entered the Holy of Holies (the place where the Torah is found, the scroll of the Law) with the censer of perfumes to burn, the timiati, composed of a mixture based on incense.
Among the Jews, the perfume is used in the form of unguentary preparations (called puk), of perfumed oils, of powders and of bags of aromatic herbs carried on or put between the clothes.
We find another testimony in the Gospel: “Since Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod, behold, the Magi from the East came to Jerusalem. Upon entering the house, they saw the child with Mary, his mother, and, prostrated, worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh “(Mt 2:11). Three are therefore the gifts that the Babylonian astrologers offered to Christ: the gold that is given to kings, the incense a tribute to God, the myrrh – funerary aroma – a reference to its human qualities.
The art of mixing aromas spread also in the West, in Greece and in Rome. Since the Cretomicenea era (1500 BC), the Greeks believed in the existence of divine beings revealed by aromas and perfumes.
Despite Socrates’ moral veto, the perfumes were so popular that they were considered the creation of the gods themselves. For this reason, with this people, alongside the importance of perfuming essences in worship celebrations, the perfume was linked to all the passages of life: birth, marriage, death were all accompanied by fumigations and perfumed anointings with purifying virtues and sacred.
The Greeks have also gone down in history for the cult of plastic beauty and the consequent care for body hygiene. The importance attributed to the perfume is confirmed by the famous Treatise on Odors by Theophrastus (Aristotle’s favorite disciple), the basic text of ancient perfumery. Already in this epoch, we discover the therapeutic virtues of euodia, the good smells. For example, the Greeks believed that girdling the head with crowns of roses or myrtle mitigated migraines, particularly those caused by excessive libations. Hippocrates exalted remedies based on sage, mallow, and cumin administered in the form of fumigations, frictions, and baths.
Among the perfumed preparations of the ancient Greeks, we recall the kipros, made with mint and bergamot, and the susinon with a lily base.
Even the Romans, at first hostile to these frivolities, were infected by the love for perfumes and ointments. Initially linked to religious worship, the perfumed essences were used for personal or environmental purposes: the Romans prepared ointments, aromatic waters, perfumes, tablets, and fragrant powders. From the Republic to the Empire, the aromas experienced tremendous success, to such an extent that, as Petronio tells in the Satyricon, the banquets were real “olfactory orgies”.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the art of perfumery experienced a period of decline in Europe. This is also due to Christianity which, with its austere customs, reserved the practice of using perfumed essences solely for religious worship. It will be only in the thirteenth century, at the end of the Crusades, that the perfume will return permanently to Europe.
But it was in the East that the trade-in aromas and spices experienced great development. The discovery of the art of distillation gives a huge boost to the perfume market. The Arabs are not the inventors of this technique but have refined and diffused it.
In the 10th century, the famous Arab doctor Avicenna discovered how to distill Rose Water from the petals of the centifolia rose. Not only that, in his works he often mentioned new aromatic lotions and perfumed oils. However, it was not yet alcoholic solutions, as alcohol was prohibited by the Koran. It was the Higher Institute of Sciences of Salerno, around the year 1000, to replace oil with alcohol as an excipient for perfume.
The Greeks distilled using the āmbix (the vessel or cup provided with a small canal), the Arabs added the article is the instrument became al-ambicco (al-ibniq).
The Benedictine monks in the wake of the Christian armies in the Holy Land, drawn from the
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The Book of Perfumes by Rimmel
Arab manuscripts the secrets of distillation. The stolen texts were translated into Latin at the schools of Salerno and Santiago de Compostela and from these schools came the first master distillers (of essences, but also of drinks). Thanks to the Crusades, new flavors and essences are also imported from the East.
The first modern perfume in alcohol solution was prepared in Hungary in 1370 by a monk expert in chemistry. The perfume, known as Eau de Hongrie (“Hungarian Water”), was an extract of rosemary, thyme, and lavender. Queen Elizabeth of Hungary boasted, thanks to the powers of this perfume, that she succeeded in seducing the King of Poland at the age of seventy.
In the Renaissance, the art of perfumery developed further: chemistry definitively replaced alchemy, improving distillation and the quality of essences.
The great perfumers of the Renaissance were Spanish and Italian. The former had inherited their science from the Arabs, the latter had taken advantage of the wealth of the peninsula and the taste of the aristocracy for perfumes to enrich themselves through the trade of essences and to export the technique of perfumers abroad.
When Catherine de ‘Medici arrived in France to marry the Duke of Orleans, the future king Henry II, she brought with her from Italy her perfumer Renato Bianco (later Frenchized to René Le Florentin). He opened a shop in Paris becoming very famous among the Parisian aristocracy.
Even the practice of not washing (water was considered a contagion vehicle for diseases), amplified the use of perfumes. Appearance begins to play a more important role than cleaning. The perfumed essences take the place of personal hygiene to overcome unpleasant odors and hide dirt.
Very popular in this period is also the dry perfumery for different uses: powders for bags to put under the skirts, for the face, for the wig, sold in bulk in large boxes with refined decorations.
In 1600 the Acqua di Colonia was born. According to some, his “inventor” was Gian Paolo Feminis, a native of Santa Maria Maggiore, a town in Val Vigezzo (in the current province of Verbano Cusio Ossola). Originally a peddler, Feminis invents and produces a substance that, according to him, heals all ills. It’s called Aqua Mirabilis. Moving to Cologne, Germany, this liquid becomes Cologne Water. According to others, another Italian, Giovanni Maria Farina, also from Val Vigezzo, “invented” this essence. The formula developed by Farina includes about thirty essences, including lemon, cedar, orange, grapefruit, lavender, thyme and rosemary.
A real revolution in the field of personal cleanliness took place towards the end of the nineteenth century when Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), father of microbiology, discovered the existence of bacteria. The result was a strong push towards personal hygiene and there was no need to resort to heavy fragrances. It then passed from the need to hide the bad smells to the desire for sweeter and less aggressive perfumes.
The French Revolution will bring a terrible blow to the perfumery. Despite the creation of fragrances with evocative names, such as “Profumo alla ghigliottina” and “Alla Nazione”, perfumed essences are synonymous with the aristocracy.
In 1778 the Casa di Profumo was born in Milan, soaps and toilet articles Angelo Migone & C., which produces perfumed and personal care products. It will cease to exist only in the fifties of the twentieth century, a victim of a company policy too anchored to old productions.
In the nineteenth century, the abolition of corporative edicts and the liberalization of commerce allowed us to mark a decisive stage in the production of perfume. In this period the famous Guerlain brand enters the scene. In 1828 Pierre Francois Pascal Guerlain opened his first perfumery Maison in Paris, which offered eau de toilette, soaps, spa preparations, aromatic vinegar, creams and ointments of all kinds.
In the nineteenth century, a discovery revolutionized the world of perfumes: the synthesis of urea, obtained by Friedrich Wöhler in 1828. This discovery initiated organic chemistry, contributing to the evolution of perfumery through the use of aldehydes. The latter are synthetic elements that infinitely increase the possibility of having different fragrances. Natural components and synthetic products are then combined with substances called fixers, which have the task of “anchoring” the scent to the skin. Fixators have special characteristics, including those of being less volatile, colorless, soluble in alcohol and in essential oils.
This is how modern perfumery is born. Little by little high-quality synthesis products appear, with affordable prices and new notes in the compositions. The first famous fragrance that uses synthetic products is Flomary, marketed in the early 1900s. But the real statement will come in 1921 with the creation, by Ernest Beaux, of the famous Chanel perfume N.5.
Also in the nineteenth century, precisely in 1865, the London perfumer Eugene Rimmel (who devised a system to make women’s eyes even more fascinating with an eyelash brush dipped in charcoal), divides the aromas into eighteen groups in order to facilitate odor classification. Thus the concept of the subfamily is born, dividing fragrances according to their persistence and the dominant note (the latter allows to classify the fragrance within a family).
Rimmel’s intuition will be revived in the 1920s by another perfumer, René Cerbelaud, who developed a scheme with forty-five groups, also identifying links between one group and another. More recently, in 1960, Steffen Arctander made a classification comprising eighty-eight groups, dividing natural aromatic materials according to smell, type, and possible use.
The euphoria for the fashion of perfumes suffered a brief interruption with the crash of ’29 and then with the outbreak of the Second World War.
In the fifties, the perfume returned to being a weapon of seduction. The market is flooded with thousands of new fragrant fragrances. The men’s eau de toilette also appears in the perfumeries, although the masculine scent remains linked to the shaving ritual.
Today, contemporary perfumery offers the spectacle of real art, with its profusion of innovations, becoming the interpreter of cultures, traditions and olfactory fashions from all over the world.
We don’t always know the secrets to choose a fragrance or to use perfume as a weapon of seduction. In choosing a fragrance, some characteristics are very important: we must consider the metabolism of the wearer, the time of day in which it is used and for women, the period of the month, as depending on the acidity of the skin, the same perfume on different people can change to become unrecognizable.
To accentuate a fragrance, heat is especially important: this is why it is advisable to apply it on the inside of the wrist, to the ear lobes, on the nape, to the temples, between the breasts, in the crook of the arm and knees, areas where the blood reaches the surface more and therefore warmer.
It should also be known that perfumes have a positive influence on our mood and can have a therapeutic function as some essences have antidepressant and stimulating effects (among these are bergamot, lemon, pine, lavender, mint, basil, green tea) or sedatives (including chamomile, rose, geranium, aloe).
It has also been shown that the two sexes are attracted more by the nose than by the eyes. The visual stimulus is a powerful impulse, but only in the initial phase. In fact, then, it is tested by the nostrils: what first attracted sight can become an object of repulsion through odor. The attraction would seem to be conferred by some genes that are on the short arm of chromosome 6 and that are responsible for the personal smell. The body odor, however, changes over the years, reaching its maximum peculiarity in the age of puberty.
An odor exerts attraction for some people and repulsion for others; smells influence our relationships, discourage us or, on the contrary, launch us in one direction rather than another. Just think of how unpleasant smells make us change our minds about a person, how much our erotic tension weakens or, worse, fades away in the presence of unwanted oils. It is precisely on this that the cosmetics and perfume houses play their part: they do not produce as much what is pleasant as what excites, attracts and helps.
Starting from these considerations, in 2003, an American scientific team, directed by the researcher Adam Anderson, using magnetic resonance, discovered that there is a difference between the pleasure determined by a perfume and its intensity: it was found that the bark orbitofrontal, the final goal where the olfactory signals become aware, presides over the fact that an essence is of its own taste or not, while the amygdala (the small nucleus of the human brain delegated to the elaboration of past emotional experiences) feels the intensity of the stimulus and is activated regardless of its pleasantness.
In addition, a fragrance pleases in spite of others, because the olfactory response is almost always filtered by the memory of previous experiences. It depends, therefore, on what experiences they remember and on the type of association that in the past linked that particular olfactory suggestion to a significant episode. Emotional abandonment can give rise to a profound malaise if the perfume preferred by the ex-partner is perceived in the air.