History of Perfumes and Perfumery

Lectures: 6 h 

Symbols, values, messages: the ancient imaginary of perfume (Prof. G. Rosati)
The lecture will illustrate the most important aspects of the use of perfumes in the ancient Rome (from their exotic, oriental origins to the their diffusion among the social elite), and especially the cultural implications related to perfumes and cosmetics, and in general to all body care practices. Perfumes were perceived as an alteration of the ‘natural’ reality of the body, and originated suspiciousness or firm opposition in moralists and conformists (and then of course in Christians), to whom they appear as a dangerous instrument of seduction and moral corruption.
Moreover perfumes represented a real scandal because of their abnormal costs, and became a privileged target of the anti-luxury polemic.
Similarly to marketing today, perfumes solicit unconscious or semi-conscious stimuli, they evoke subliminal suggestions that sink into the collective imagination, and in this sense the lesson from the ancients, in customs and in the psychological analysis, can represent a valuable paradigm to explore our modern world.
Perfumes, ointments and balms in the ancient world (Prof. F.R. Nocchi)
The use and the applications of perfumes is an important indicator of the most authentic ideological beliefs of ancient peoples. From archaeometric analysis, it is possible to shed light on the contents of pyxides, the ingredients, such as plants, resins and animal secretions, which were macerated together with oils to form ointments. Technical treatises, such as those of Theophrastus and Pliny report the collection of aromatic plants and their processing, as well as the use of essences such as cinnamon, frankincense and myrrh. Fragrances found a place in the sacred sphere, in libations, and especially in the worship of the dead ancestors. The tradition of offering floral compositions, besides a decorative function, represents the desire for resurrection, giving the illusion of continuity between life and death. Among the ancients, this tradition was formalized through the institution of religious holidays, such as Parentalia, Rosalia and violae dies: in the carmina epigraphica, perfume as a metamorphosis of the deceased perfectly represents the image of the widespread but invisible presence of the deceased in the memory of the ones alive. Finally, perfumes are an instrument of seduction for women (and for men), often criticized as an emblem of futility and corruption. In this debate the voice of Ovid rises up against it: in the Ars Amatoria and Medicamina faciei feminae he gives us a picture of courtly life in Rome, revealing the places deputed to the purchase of perfumes and the ancient recipes for making them.
Fragrances from East to West (Dr. A. Bernardoni)
Fragrances from East to West, anthropology and the art of perfume from Antiquity to the Modern Age. The lecture analyzes the history of how odorous substances came into use as an element of social distinction, for the care of the body and spirit, in ritual processes. Perfume became a symbol and synonym of incorruptibility against the foul odor of body decomposition. An overview of the treatises on cosmetic and pharmaceutical art published since the early 16th century will be presented, with a special focus on the equipment of the art of distillation, as well as a virtual tour of the chemistry section of the Museo Galileo focusing on distillation apparatus.

    Prof. Gianpiero Rosati
    Preside della Classe di Lettere e Filosofia, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa
    email: gianpiero.rosati (at) sns.it

    Prof. Francesca Romana Nocchi
    Dipartimento Storia, Culture, Religioni
    “Sapienza” Università di Roma
    email: francescaromana.nocchi (at) uniroma1.it 

    Dott. Andrea Bernardoni
    Museo Galileo
    email: a.bernardoni (at) museogalileo.it