Ancient Perfumery and Theofrastus: an interview to Giuseppe Squillace

It happened like this. My passion for ancient cultures met some studies, and after reading this papers, I managed to meet the person who wrote them and to interview him…

His name is Giuseppe Squillace and he actually teaches Greek History at the History Department of the Calabria University.

Elena: I have always had a passion for ancient times (it began studying philosophy at University) and when I read your books, one of my question was “How did you begin to study this subject?”

Giuseppe: often it happens like this, just by chance. I have always had an interest in olfactive perception. Passing from contemporary to ancient times happened by chance: I was studying ancient healers, and I found a new paper. I was reading the “De natura” written by Theofrastus and in the english volume after the text I found some additional papers, and one of them was “De odoribus”, the text about perfumes.

I had already read some articles about it but we did not have an italian translation; I thought to translate it and to try to publish it. It did not happen immediately, and so I added some new parts, and than I found a publisher.

In the parts that I added, surely the most important are by Ateneo and Plinius.

E: your studies now are published in three books about perfume.

G: yes, I first published the translation of the “De odoribus” by Theofrastus, and than two books, “Saffo’s Garden” and “Tears of Myrrh” (not yet translated in english). In this last book I put something new, a geography of perfumes. “Geography of perfumes” means a map of places where perfumes and raw materials were produced.

Historically we can see that the most important perfume centres changed accordingly to political events and moments, and in time there is a “geography” of perfumers and materials that show us this.

Ancient Perfumery and Spices

E: and about geography, they had some behaviours that we can recognize today too…like choosing high quality raw materials in some specific places.

G: yes sure! They chose materials selecting places of origin; for example Iris from Illiria, and not from Macedonia because it was considered of less value. Also the Rose from Cirene was famous and very valued, and other roses were not so appreciated.

Theofrastus says this very clearly: plant power depend on places where they grow, quality of the soil, exposition to sunlight etc.

E: and at that time there was in indissoluble connection between healing uses and perfumery uses…

G: yes…for example Rose oil was intended for many uses; perfumes and spices were used by Hyppocrates, Galen, etc. Aromatic materials were used widely for healing purposes. They used cardamom, cinnamon, cassia, rose, myrrh, incense, saffron, etc. They were expensive ingredients, available only to people who can afford them.

They took care of the ingredients, their differencies, their duration: Galen for example tell us about fresh cinnamon, how it can give very different effects from an old one (he found a very old cinnamon among other items in the emperor’s storehouse, while he was preparing an antidote).

And also about “cinnamomum”, where are not sure that it was really what we intend nowadays for “cinnamon”.

E: I have the feeling that in ancient cultures we can find a huge amount of knowledge…and this bounty is not easily accessible. I am trying to put people in touch with these worlds, we have still to learn a lot from them. Thank you for your work!

*

And so our interview ended; Giuseppe Squillace is now presenting his last book, “Le lacrime di Mirra”, and his work as historian continues – we will invite him in Rome, at our Perfumed Literary Cafè – we will give notice as soon as we set the date.

You can find an english translation of the “De odoribus” of Theofrastus here.

 

Guerlain L’Heure Bleue: a glimpse of Bliss

I’m walking around in Milan. Beautiful day, a slight breeze, lot of light, and is warm enough. I step in front of a fragrance shop window, and I think…let’s go inside! And so I turn and make my way to the front door. Oh my God, it is full of people here …while I am walking among various stands, I arrive to the Guerlain stand. I see the new fragrance, Petit Robe Noir, I ask to smell it on a mouillette. Well… in a few moments I ask to smell L’Heure Bleue. And when I spray it on the mouillette, and I smell it, I think there is an abyss between the two perfumes, and the victory, should there be one, go to this masterpiece of 1912, beating his great-grandson in 2012  (a bit as it happens at the Olympic Games, when you see the first one running so far from the second one that he seems to be flying and you wonder what that guy has in his legs… or whether he has asked for help from some winged being to run so fast).

Yes, because L’Heure Bleue flies . On the official website of the house of Guerlain we read that this fragrance is designed for the moment when the sun is down and the night still has not yet arrived, permeating the horizon of a color which is difficult to define precisely, And so here it is: L’Heure Bleue – a perfume inspired by the Impressionist painters that Jacques Guerlain collected. I can well believe it: this is pure impressionism .

Monet and L'Heure Bleue by Guerlain
Monet…and L’Heure Bleue

The notes of anise, neroli, bergamot open a door then you can no longer close, and you wonder if you will ever close it again . Then comes the body, which is composed of many elements, such as rose, neroli, clove, violet, ylang … a kind of earthly paradise. At this point you are already happy, and you get a closure that looks like a symphony: iris, benzoin, vanilla, sandalwood … and more.

It is a description of an earthly paradise, an uncommon sensitivity and an inspired talent. If I had to read it from the point of view of aromatherapy , considering the part of this perfume that is made ​​- or was – by real essential oils, I would say that is a remedy for the mind and the heart.

The beauty of smell of flowers is maximized by other nuances giving to the perfume even more ethereal effects; while you feel yourself in a garden, this garden becomes lighter, and the deep notes are only there to tell you “fly, fly, I won’t let you fall “ . Maybe l’Heure Bleue could be symbolically the scent of Trust and Faith; the scent of something that brings you to the top and while you might be afraid, it supports you and reassures you. As in the time of day indicated by Jacques Guerlain, in which the arrival of the evening promises to be something subtle, ethereal: evening is a sunrise, not a sunset – nothing “sets”, in reality, but the sun going down ath the same time opens a new scenario, and it is not where the day ends, but where inspiration begins .

 

Aromatherapy and Scents
L’Heure Bleue

 

This sense of inspiration is even more beautiful because in my opinion is “true” inspiration: not imagination, not a play of the mind, but pure, true, visionary inspiration that lasts, like its scent.It is a horizon that opens .

In this scent we can catch a glimpse of something at its beginning, a path to something beautiful. Here you have the beginning of something, that sweeps up, and that brings with it a counterweight that allows us to fly without fear and without fear of the “return”. This because “the return” are the basic notes, sandalwood, vanilla, benzoin… the return is sweet, it welcomes you. It’s a coming home embracing yourself.

For me, this is a fragrance is a tribute and a olfactory photo of a time of day that brings in itself something magical, but it is also a symbol of a special moment in your soul. In short, we could say it is an archetype, the archetype of inspiration, faith, and the return to yourself without pain, but finding yourself in a safe environment . If  we need an image for this place to return to, I would see a bunch of soft pillows waiting for us to relax on. 

PS: if you love vintage perfumes, please check the Osmotheque collection in Versailles, France.

In the midst of a perfumed cloud at Esxence in Milano, Italy

I am in the midst of a perfumed cloud, it0s a bit overwhelming.

I think about botanical perfumery  as an inner search, as a channel of personal expression using raw materials that are integral expression of the fullness of nature. What does it mean to extract the molecules from this perfection to create something entirely new? As I see it now, it seems to me as a possiblity, isolating the components from a whole in order to obtain a ‘better nuance’. As we were using highly evolved pastels. Are there any chemicals that can really give us something more than natural creation? And this “more” what would it be? The choice of some molecules within a natural setting can be intriguing, a bit as strenghtening a tone. Chemistry at the end is an analytical tool that can give you the ability to use brushes with fine tip. On the contrary the reconstruction of molecules with the aim of recreating cheap smells of  great impact and intensity starts from a false premise and  in my opinion cannot have a positive impact.Perfume is a song that can not be issued laying aside voice, body, health and wholeness . Scent is a song that deserves respect, a voice that must be returned to everyone, as a birthright … the soul has so many ways to express itself and scent is one of them.