Italian perfume takes it on the chin. It doesn’t have the clout of the French stuff, and it doesn’t have the powerful professional one-two punch of US perfume, nor does it have the romantic Silk Road associations that Middle Eastern perfumery deploys to sweep all opponents out of the ring. Until recently Italian perfume was, well… it was second draft, liable to get KO’d in the first few rounds of any bout. All the crowd had to do was start shouting,”It’s Italian!”
Not exactly the Rocky Balboa of the perfume world.
This wasn’t always the case. The habit of perfume was brought to the French court by the Florentine Catherina dei Medici when in 1533 she married Henri II of France. Rather more specifically, she brought her perfumer with her, a man named Renato Bianco.
(By the way, this sort of cultural detail is enjoyed immensely by Italians. The saying was that Italians had taught fashion to the French, manners to the British, and found America for the Americans. Well, no one ever said that the Italians ever taught understatement to anybody.) Renato even opened a shop in Paris, where he either sold perfume, the Italian version of the story; or poison, the French version of the story.
There is no real way of knowing which of these versions is true, or indeed if they both were. But for all intents and purposes, what is true is that Italian perfumery is older in its origins than French. Santa Maria Novella has been in operation a lot longer than Guerlain. Florence has had a business relationship with Iris for a few centuries by now, although the old custom of growing and drying the iris tubers is no longer as wide spread as it used to be, even when I was a girl in the seventies you could go out to farmhouses in Tuscany and find the old drying rooms where they would lay out the iris roots. Like tobacco, iris was a cash crop.
But the real difference between Italian fragrance and French is a cultural one. It has been portrayed as a kind of flashiness irresistible to inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin while true elegance is displayed north of the Alps. This is not quite true. Italians have no tradition of Protestantism as the French do, restraint in their culture, is more a matter of the geometric appreciation of form.
Shortly after my family had first moved to Rome, a madman attacked Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s with a hammer, severely damaging it. The local women in the Campo dei Fiori, where we shopped for produce, literally went into mourning. Every single one of them wore black the next day. Beauty itself had been attacked in their estimation and this was a catastrophe that required sobreity.
The cultural consensus, as you can see from this episode, is for the preservation and appreciation of beauty. The dividing line between food and perfume is thinner than it is in France, though it is always there. While for the French, elegance is often more important than beauty, and fashion nearly always is, the same rules don’t pertain in Italy.
If you doubt this, take a look at any fashion defilé you like on Youtube. Milanese designers don’t see the point of abandoning anything pleasing or lovely just because it is old, while the French cannot bear to leave the Place du Louvre with last year’s architecture in situ. Fickleness is less of a factor in Italy.
In all this time moreover, the world of Italian perfume has changed. There are many Italian firms and makers who compete with the best that France can produce and do so with the unique flair that is their birthright. Because I feel that maybe my fellow bloggers are a bit preoccupied with, or inundated by, French and US releases, I want to spend the next month looking at Italian perfume as it is today, and high lighting what is the best of it. It is a whole different world out there now.