For many centuries the east was regarded as the origin of all perfumes. Between geo- graphical reality and fabulous myth, the eu- ropeans of the time thought that all the most refined and potent essences were unleashed fromtheheartofAsia.In thosesamecenturies the idea of Venice was immediately associated with that of the Orient, being the necessary departure point or stopover on all roads leading to the kingdoms described in the Thousand and One nights or Marco Polo’s The Million. It was the silk road, the spice road and thus also the road of the raw materials used to pro- duce fragrant substances, balsams and oils for the body. The fra- grant delights arriving from eastern ports were firstly collected in Venice, more than any other city in europe, as if in a grand alchemist’s crucible, before spreading their scents and soothing powers towards the North and West.
It is pointless expecting any clear distinction in the middle ages – or even in the period immediately before the dawn of scientific medicine – between perfume, medicine, innocuous fragrant essence and powerful substance capable of alleviating pains or curing some part of the body, or even acting on the spirit. So in Venice as late as the 17th century the arts of the Arte profumatoria were genuine secrets, arcane knowledge to be passed on with care or jealously guarded; or, at least, to be treated as delicate, esoteric notions.
In the eyes of the ignorant, the herbalists’ workshops, where that art was practised, were full of strange, portentous ingredients, from the vegetable world – myrrh, oliban, tragacanth and mahaleb – the mineral world – powders of tutty, vitriol and borax – and even the animal world – ox gall and honey. Not to mention mummy, a sub- stance taken from the em- balmed bodies of ancient egyptians and for centu- ries used in the production of medicinal products. Go- ing into an early perfume factory thus meant enter- ing a magical world, which can still be found in the
pages of the Secreti nobilissimi dell’arte profumatoria published by Giovanni Ventura Rossetti in 1555: an anastatic edition of the edition printed in Bologna in 1672, with transcription and modern glossary has just been published, edited by Franco Brunello, Franca Facchetti, Anna Messinis and Giancarlo Ot- tolini. It is a real recipe book for anyone wishing to delve into that world, or even to try their hand with mortars and alembics to resurrect now forgotten products; chapters ‘in which one is taught to make oils, waters, pastes, balls, dormice, small birds, paternosters and the entire art as is studied in Naples, Rome, Venice and many other Italian cities’. So, the secrets are no longer secret.
Giulietta Bazoli is a scholar of 18th-century Venice at Ca' Foscari University of Venice
- Translated by David Graham -