Perfume in Renaissance Italy
Perfume has not always been just for pleasure. In Renaissance Italy it had serious health-giving and disease-preventing properties. Here, we explore how perfume was a powerful form of medicine.
For centuries, medicine was based on humoral theory: the idea that the body was made up of four ‘humors’ which needed to be kept in balance to maintain good health. These humors (fluids) related to different temperaments: melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine or choleric. For example someone ‘quick-tempered’ or ‘hot-headed’ would be described as choleric, if you were ‘good tempered’ you were sanguine.
It was believed that humans held all four humors in different proportions with one sometimes dominating. Shifts in the proportion of the humors in the body would explain changes in mood or physical ill-health. This fitted into a broader understanding of the world in which all living things reflected the qualities of the four elements making them hot, cold, wet or dry.
Plants and their properties
Plants, animals and people all had their own characteristic complexion and could be hot, cold, wet or dry. Lemon, for example, was considered cold and dry because it is refreshing and puckers and dries the mouth. Ginger, pepper, clove were, unsurprisingly, hot. Food therefore was also seen as a form of medicine. Similarly, smell had this power. Odours were believed to be particles of matter carrying the same qualities of the substance they originated from. So when you sniffed a rose, you were inhaling tiny parts of that rose, and the perfume would deliver the therapeutic effects you sought.
The cure of contraries
Imbalances in the humors could be rectified through the ‘cure of contraries’. That is, the application of substances with the opposing qualities. For example, the common cold (a cold, wet and therefore phlegmatic sickness), might be treated with hot honey, lemon and ginger. The heating and drying properties of this combination of ingredients balancing out the excess of ‘phlegm’ in the body. The properties of plants existed in degrees, increasing in intensity from the first to the fourth degree. So when you’re ‘giving someone the third degree’, you may want to ‘temper’ your temper and ‘cool off’ a bit!
Correcting the air
The air was particularly important in maintaining good health in this period. It carried odours and could be health giving or disease inducing. ‘Good’ air was clear, light and sweet, moving freely; ‘bad’ air was often heavy and carried unpleasant smells along with disease making it a common explanation for plagues and epidemics.
Just as the body could be brought back into balance through the application of opposites, the air could be rectified through the use of fragrance. Cold damp winter air could be corrected through the use of hot, dry fragrance. Many of the smells we associate with Christmas, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, orange peel are ‘hot, dry’ smells that would be especially powerful when burned on a fire - the fire itself also heating and drying the air.
Perfume was also steamed into rooms, sprinkled onto floors and solid fragrance was used to diffuse fragrance into the air slowly. The method of application providing additional physical benefits supporting the humoral properties of the ingredients.
Scenting the spirits
There was a clear recognition of the role perfume has on our mood and emotional state. In the Renaissance the ‘spirits’ were believed to be responsible for our emotions, also known as ‘the passions of the soul’.
The spirits were very fickle and whilst the passions were healthy in moderation, sudden reactions could be potentially fatal; you could literally die of shock or excitement, caused by the spirits rushing out of the body in joy or retreating too far in (causing fainting and paralysis).
Luckily they were manageable through the use of smell. Strong smells (such as smelling salts) were used to rouse the spirits bringing the patient around from unconsciousness, sweet smells (perfumes, flowers, fresh air) would keep them happy.
Perfume came in many forms: Gloves were rinsed with flower waters, softened with almond oil and heavily fragranced with musk, ambergris and civet to remove the smell of the tanning process; linen was scented with orris root powders; sugar pastilles, made with rose water and fragranced with strong ingredients such as musk, civet, ambergris, cinnamon and clove were designed to be held in the mouth to ‘sweeten’ the breath; earrings, buttons, necklaces and rings were made of perfumed resins and pomanders were carried to ensure an individual’s humoral needs were met, providing protection against the dangers of bad air. There are even records of nuns fainting because the smell of their rosaries was so strong!
Bespoke fragrance is nothing new; personalisation was fundamental to the use of perfume in Renaissance Italy. This was perfume on prescription tailored to your unique humoral needs.