One final thought on the smells of Italy, and that concerns the scent of oleanders. Oleanders do well in dry heat. They sprout into huge sprawling bushes all over Rome and because of their size, often grow near the ruins, especially around the Palatine and Santa Maria in Cosmedin, or wave in the desiccated wind off the autostradas. The reason is space. Conditions in Rome are too cramped for oleanders and their expansive growth habits.
Their perfume, though, is one of the most recognizable ones of the city. It’s heady, and heavy, there’s a sweetness underwritten with toxicity. The toxicity is fair comment, because in fact oleanders are quite poisonous. Somehow it’s fitting that oleanders with their narcotic scent of almonds (similar some say to arsenic) should drift about the Palatine. The Roman emperors and their wives knew a thing or two about poison.
The smell, however, was very familiar to me. As in nearer in time to me than my last stay in Rome. This was a scent I had been on intimate terms with, and since perfumes are rather like old lovers, apt to bring up inconvenient memories at inopportune moments, this was one I had to re-visit.
Of course I remembered, one night while we were out at dinner. It wasn’t really the Carbonara but an unexpected Proustian blast from my daughter’s elementary school days that jogged my memory. I had been wearing – what? Whatever it had been smelled exactly like these oleanders in bloom.
The answer was Farnesiana.
Farnesiana, the old Caron perfume often out of production these days was what I had referenced. An odd place admittedly to be certain that you’ve nailed a scent memory into place. I suppose memory is no respecter of location or activity, as Proust would have remarked.
Farnesiana is a heliotropine perfume, meaning that it has almond qualities and also a flowery aspect that doesn’t owe much to the fecal pong of indoles. Oleanders are not really a white flower perfume and don’t have a sexual subtext up their sleeve. Furthermore, the very best scent match came from the pink double flowered oleanders and not from the white, which makes Farnesiana a pink and not a white flowered perfume.
The old Caron compositions, like the Guerlains, were made for high end customers and mostly for export, but they were also made to commemorate the perfumer Ernest Daltroff’s travels. He seems to have enjoyed Italy because two of his best sport Italian names, Bellodgia, and Farnesiana. Usually, Farnesiana is said to be a mimosa perfume, but whether by accident or on purpose (because heliotrope can mimic any flower with a sweet almond perfume) Farnesiana smells like both flowers. Daltroff may have been thinking less of Acacia farnesiana than of the Farnese palace in Rome. Either way, the perfume is a ringer for the scent of those oleanders.
You ask me, the inspiration does not matter, though Farnesiana now recalls Rome in Midsummer to me. Personally, I like to think of Farnesiana smelling the way the Lungotevere does on a Sunday morning when you are on your way to the flea market at Porta Portese, there are lots of oleanders along the way…
Do you have an oleander perfume?