Stories of Perfumes and Perfumers

BY GIORGIO DALLA VILLA


Art scholar and critic, Giorgio Dalla Villa, one of the leading experts in Vintage Perfumery, has discovered examples by great Italian artists who worked in the Art of Glass for Perfumery, bringing their masterpieces to the attention of the largest audience. Writer and author of numerous articles on the evolution of 20th-century society through fragrances and cosmetics, alongside Daniela Candio he founded the magazine ‘Profumeria da Collezione’, circulated across Europe and today, with a new graphic format, distributed online also in the English version. Moreover, he published the novels ‘Chanel N°5 va alla guerra’ and ‘Agente segreto Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel’.

Acqua di Colonia: German, French or Made in Italy?

The great fragrance houses that in the twentieth century made the art and style of Italian perfumery known all over the world
Made in Italy is an expression coined by Italian producers, from the 1980s onwards, to re-evaluate and defend the Italian character of the product, and with the aim of tackling the counterfeiting of Italian artisanal and industrial production, especially in the four traditional sectors of fashion, food, furniture and mechanics.
Over time, the Made in Italy has been defining an Italian manufacturing culture and tradition encapsulating creativity, high-level craftsmanship, ingenuity of design and shapes, durability.
This refined style, historically also associated with quality, high specialization, differentiation and elegance, was not the first meaning that the expression Made in Italy had. On the contrary, its origins are paradoxically not so noble.
In the 1960s, in fact, the indication of the country of origin was imposed on Italian producers by the European importers, and in particular by the German and French ones, and mostly on textile and footwear products, so that foreign consumers were aware of purchasing products not made in their homeland. Actually, in the post-war period, Germany, England and France turned down the typology of textile and footwear manufacture as “poor” industry, more suitable for non-technologically developed countries. And it is precisely because of the late abandonment of this type of industry in our country that the “Made in Italy” brand, which once suggested low quality, has continued to live, becoming the symbol of excellence it is today.
By extending the concept of Italianness not only to consumer goods, but also to the identity and events of a people that has given its best, especially in the most difficult moments like the one, for example, linked to emigration, the creativity and value of many Italians, who were successful abroad and are remembered for being capable to fulfill their dream, must be acknowledged.
Among the product sectors for which the definition Made in Italy is indicative of excellence, perfumery does not appear directly, although this industry boasts all the characteristics grouping it in with fashion in terms of tradition and history.
However, the all-Italian origins of Acqua di Colonia is, in the field of perfumery, one of the most striking examples of how an entrepreneurial spirit was able to combine tenacity and imagination in order to impose on the market a product that, exported all over the world, never went out of style, and was loved and used by great personalities such as Goethe, Napoleon, Voltaire and Queen Victoria.
Although currently the name “original cologne” (Echt Kölnisch Wasser or Original Eau de Cologne) identifies a product with protected geographical indication from the German city of Cologne, the creation of a perfumed potion called Aqua Mirabilis is owed to Giovanni Paolo Feminis (circa 1660-1736),

La storia dell'Acqua di Colonia - Santa Maria Maggiore

and the formula of such water, at Feminis death, passed into the hands of his assistant, Giovanni Antonio Farina (1693-1762). The story of this “solution of etheric oils in wine distillate (ethyl alcohol 70-80%)” is significant from many perspectives and makes us understand why the Italian spirit, which has only recently been transformed into Made in Italy, is endowed with a magnetic touch that has always fascinated millions of people around the world and continues to do so.

Migrating to seek one’s fortune

Bergamotto

In the first half of the 1700s, inside the small shop situated below street level in the old town of Cologne, in the Rhineland, a man sat on the stool behind the counter waiting for customers. He had arrived from an area of Northern Italy, between Lombardy and Piedmont – Val Vigezzo, one of the seven valleys which branch off from Val d’Ossola and connects Italy to Switzerland – up to the north of today’s Germany, for the purpose of opening an import-export business, on the advice of a relative who had found stability and worked as a travelling haberdasher in that city.
A few years earlier – it was the second half of the eighteenth century – the relative, Giovanni Paolo Feminis, had abandoned his region, situated in the extreme edge of Northern Italy, when a small glaciation had caused the glaciers of the Alps to go down of over 150 meters, swallowing up entire valleys. Within a couple of winters, the grazing lands, which had given nourishment to the cattle, had disappeared and the ancient sheep tracks, trodden for centuries by the hooves of herds and flocks that climbed from the plains to the mountains for the summer pastures, were deserted.
The large and small communities, living on trade, customs duties and activities related to transhumance, found themselves without subsistence. Some mountaineers came down to the valley, others left seeking their fortune. To the south they reached as far as Sicily (to this day the surname Lombardo is common in that region), to the north they went further the Netherlands.
The clients of Feminis, a haberdasher by profession, were not only the peasants who frequented the village markets. Excellent buyers were even the shepherds who got down from the mountains in autumn and who gladly bought (or exchanged in kind) ribbons and handkerchiefs for their women.

A handed down recipe

Acqua di Colonia: boccette di profumo

Accustomed to moving from town to town, as was the habit of all street vendors, he had followed the shepherds and herds of livestock which now found excellent pastures in the Swiss valleys. From there, square upon square, he went further and further north, until, having crossed the Prussian border, he settled in the Rhineland, in the city of Cologne. Feminis had passed away some time before and business, for the man sitting on the stool, had not developed too much.
In those years he had imported from Italy, on wagons that had dangerously crossed the Brenner Pass, a little bit of everything: silk from Lake Como, straw hats from Florence, colored ribbons from Genoa, fabrics from the province of Milan, and wine from the Venetian hills. The drink had not met the taste of his fellow citizens accustomed to large mugs of cold beer, or hot beer as the Swedes had taught them, and the wine was aging placidly unsold in the barrels on the back of the small workshop.
The man thought back on the relative who at death’s door had left him a tiny inheritance by entrusting him with an envelope. Such envelope contained a medicinal recipe, the one on which Feminis fantasized about for all his life, sometimes stumbling over the account and tangling up the story about how he had come into its possession. One day he told of an old nun, who on her deathbed had given him the envelope containing the recipe; then the nun became a soldier returning from the Indies; another day he claimed to be the inventor of this potion himself. “It is a counter-poison,” he said “healing all ills. Really all of them, just take a sip and it’s like coming back to a new life.”

The secret of flowers and alcohol

Da Santa Maria Maggiore a Napoleone, la storia profuma di acqua di Colonia  - ilGiornale.it

The man behind the counter, Giovanni Maria Farina, remembered his uncle who – standing on his cart in the village fairs, next to the awning where the peasants could see, for a penny, the woman with three breasts, mermaids and embalmed tritons, claws of griffin, prehistoric bones of giants and shreds of robes worn by the twelve apostles – in addition to selling ribbons, fabrics, balls of thread and trimmings, boasted the miraculous virtues of the medicine, ready to clear out and change location as soon as he glimpsed the armigers helmets, or some fluttering cassock. Even in 1728, news had arrived that the Holy Inquisition had got witches and sorcerers burned in Bavaria, accusing them of having enmeshed honest family men with magic filters and cast curses on their homes.
“It’s not magic,” Feminis told his nephew. “You take the spirit of wine… but then you need the flowers, the aromatic plants, the ones growing on our hills in Italy. And you need to know which flowers and in what proportions… Then you put them to macerate in a covered vat for the entire path of the moon, remove them, put them back and add bergamot and rosemary, but only when the moon becomes waning. This is the secret.”
Giovanni Maria read and reread the recipe and wondered why the beverage had not been successful. Perhaps the medicine was so nauseating it did not tempt anyone to take it. Perhaps if the recipe had been reworked, with the addition of some other elements… In the countryside around Cologne, he had seen large numbers of flowers and herbs that could make the mix more palatable. He also had plenty of wine. Maybe it was time to try.

The prodigies of Aqua Mirabilis

So it was that the small shop below street level began to manufacture and sell Aqua Mirabilis. The product became very popular. Every morning a small crowd of wives and young mothers lined up to buy the miraculous medicine which – diluted in the broth, in the beer of the husbands or in the milk of the children – healed tummy aches, ulcers, toothache, fevers and depressions. The more months passed, the more the therapeutic virtues of Aqua Mirabilis were discovered, to such a degree that even the University of Cologne – for a fee from the manufacturer who wanted to clear the field of magical fantasies and make the beverage official – took an interest in the medicine. After evidence upon evidence, the sentence arrived:
“It [Aqua Mirabilis] is a counter-poison against mephitic air and plague, heals heartbeats, prevents skin diseases, cures constipation of the liver, spleen and intestines, chases away colic, treats gangrene, toothache, scurvy, gallstones, urinary gravel, podagra, etcetera.”

Prospetto informativo del 1825 di Jean-Marie Farina (1785-1864), rue St.Honoré nº 333, Parigi, sull'Eau admirable dite de Cologne che - si legge - dal 13 gennaio 1727 non ha cessato di godere della più grande reputazione, inventata da Paolo Feminis, il cui segreto fu confidato a Giovanni Antonio Farina e da questo trasmesso a Jean-Marie Farina


There is no reliable medical documentation that it was a remedy against the plague, but it was indisputable that it represented an antidote for the mephitic air which hovered in every room of the poor or noble houses of the inhabitants of Cologne. It was enough to place a bowl of Aqua Mirabilis in the center of the room so that, in a period when even personal hygiene was not a priority, the stagnant smells impregnating the home walls and furniture vanished.

La bottega profumata - La storia profuma di "Acqua di Colonia"


For those times, when diseases were cured – in a manner of speaking – by opening veins and bloodletting, Aqua Mirabilis by Giovanni Maria Farina (Jean Marie as he by now wanted to be called, following the fashion of the period when the French language was considered the one of the noble and bourgeois classes) was the cure-all.

The small shop is transformed into a factory

The economic conditions improved, so much so that – having abandoned the small shop and the trade of “gallantry items” – Farina opened a little factory in Jülichs-Platz (Jülich’s Square).

Il profumo nella storia del Piemonte: dal produttore dell'Acqua di Colonia  alla Maison Tonatto – PiemonteTopNews

The fame of the product reached all the provinces of the Rhineland and further, and imitations started. The counterfeits began when buyers from other regions showed up at the Cologne City Gate and asked where the factory of Aqua Mirabilis was located. At first, the customs officers indicated the right route to Farina’s laboratory, but soon, for a large reward, customers were diverted to other plants created to exploit the idea of the medicine. The business did not collapse, but certainly more would have been achieved if only one manufacturer operated on the marketplace; Jean Marie Farina therefore decided to catch the imitators off guard by highlighting his name on the label, thus giving paternity to Aqua Mirabilis.

Delle misteriose origini dell'Acqua di Colonia - VertigoMagazine.it


The opponents did not give up: if someone named Farina had to legally figure in as a producer, all what remained to do was to comply with the law. They came to Italy and sifted through the provinces of Lombardy and Piedmont in search of people called Farina, a fairly common surname in those regions, even better if combined with the first name Giovanni Maria, to make them become, on paper, producers of Aqua Mirabilis. A parade of relatives, for a more or less meager fee, made a cross on long contracts that exempted them from future earnings, fact on which they would not have bet a grain of corn, and thousands of miles away their names and surnames started to appear on bright plaques in brass. After the first moment of glory, everyone went back to toil in the fields, while the product they theoretically manufactured was encountering a huge success.
Meanwhile, the dramatic event that would help spread the fame of Aqua Mirabilis beyond national borders had begun: the Seven Years’ War which, towards the end of the 1750s, saw the French invade the Rhineland.

A success decreed by war

At that time, wars were mainly fought with sticks, punches, sword cuts, dagger and bayonet cutting blows. The armies medieval custom was still widespread to face each other by studying their own strength and those of the adversaries, to hint a small skirmish in order to test the power of the enemy, after which the weaker army abandoned the field and its officers retired to taverns so to study new war plans in front of mugs of beer or wine, depending on the nationality of the army itself.
The wars ended not when the opponent was completely destroyed or annihilated, but when one of the two contenders, having ascertained its own inferiority, cut the rope. Firearms made their impression from afar, with flashes and explosions, but since weapons equipped with rifled barrel did not exist just yet, hitting a target was a “stroke of luck.” It basically meant firing into the crowd with bullets that rolled and swayed in the air, but the difficulty in reloading after the first shots, fired when the enemy was still far away, led the soldiers to use the rifle as a stick with the bayonet at its tip. Cuts, scratches, bruises and more or less light wounds were the most frequent damages reported by the fighters.
In their usual raids on the homes and palaces of the conquered cities, the French had discovered the scented water that soothed and disinfected wounds (the doctors did not realize the sterilizing power of alcohol, but they liked the fragrance which attenuated the smell of putrefied wounds), and started to make extensive use of it – also to rub the weary limbs of officers – calling it Eau de Cologne. Battle after battle, the fame of Cologne water, having lost its peculiarity as a beverage and having acquired that of a tonic for massages, for refreshing rub-downs and of a pure and light perfumed effluvium, reached Russia, England, Italy and soon the entire Europe.

Brand control and management

For Jean Marie Farina the armies had become the best customers, but the orders – much more than in the past – did not reach only him, but also the whole myriad of imitators whose ranks swelled month in and month out. The essential thing for the customers was to buy the “Eau de Cologne by Jean Marie Farina,” and they did not worry a bit about the factual identity of the manufacturer. For the sole “true” Jean Marie who – first – had produced Aqua Mirabilis, this situation turned into a nightmare. It was not fair for others to take advantage of his work and his name, and he began to spend his days in court. Another idea came to him. His factory was the only one with a workshop facing Jülichs-Platz.
To distinguish himself from other companies and guide customers to the right place, he had printed on the labels the address “gegenüber dem” Jülichs-Platz, that is “in front of” Jülich’s Square. For some time it worked. The carts with the orders stopped at the correct location; but after a short time the confusion took up again. In fact, only Jean Marie Farina had the workshop in front of Jülichs-Platz,

but others worked “next to,” “behind,” “beside,” “nearby,” “far from” it, and once again there was a proliferation of labels with the name of a square that soon became known throughout Europe.
When Jean Marie Farina, rich and famous, passed away in 1766, only in his hometown, Cologne, 39 competing firms named Jean Marie Farina manufactured Acqua di Colonia, perhaps the only perfumery product which is about to enter the fourth century of production, without experiencing crises of sort, handed down from generation to generation by billions of consumers. And isn’t it one of the first examples of Italian creativity, excellence and resourcefulness? Made in Italy, precisely…

Stories of perfumes and perfumers

Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone and Gi.Vi.Emme

The great fragrance houses that in the twentieth century made the art and style of Italian perfumery known all over the world
Learning about the history of Italian perfumery and its most distinguished protagonists: it is not a matter of love for the past, but of the need to be the architects of our future.
Subject of the history are humans and their activities, and the itinerary round the globe of Italian perfumery that we will narrate here episode after episode, and which has as its main characters people who were able to interpret their time through fragrances, creating successful products and industrial realities. It may then happen that a person biography becomes the story of different worlds, of intertwining lives, of epoch times that are moving away.
Just like the story of Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, the first one with which we begin this column, where the leading figure conceived a scent and Gi.Vi.Emme ­ the company that produced and marketed it ­ was the perfect entrepreneurial support where artistic skills were combined with the advanced findings of the chemical industry.

The numerous lessons we draw from this historical recounting have a very current validity for today’s perfumer.
From the importance of raw materials and their supply, to the attention to new technologies and next-generation chemical formulas; from identifying the target audience for the launch of a new fragrance, to going against the tide in the perfume formulation; from the preliminary and necessary sociological analyses (for example, about the meaning of gender), to the value of traveling the continents in order to grasp the expectations of each market; from the relevance of naming and packaging, to the advantages of relying on the culture and art realm to introduce new forms of communication; from the potential inherent in every aspect of modernity, to the significance of knowing how to read topical events without forgetting one’s roots.
It is precisely by re-appropriating the past that it is possible to give meaning to a future in which to be protagonists. Keeping track of facts and events also helps to pinpoint the right analogies in a virtuous path that is unavoidable if you want to create a great scent suitable to conquer a new clientele and become a legend at global level.
All of this without nostalgia and without indulging in stereotyped conventions, but always remembering, as Henry Kissinger warned, that “History is not, of course, a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims.”

At the origin of Italian excellence

Even in the mid-nineteenth century, after perfumery had left the artisan shops behind to become an industrial produce, scents were created, as it had been for centuries, by deriving various fragrant substances from nature, from plants grown in particular geographical areas.
Perfumers, fragrance houses and producers of “essences” (such was the term with which we indiscriminately referred to the different raw materials and formulas of the world of fragrances and flavors), that thanks to technological innovations, railways and steamships had more and more possibilities of spreading across the globe their perfumery specialties, soon found themselves in a difficult situation due to the supplies of natural raw materials, which could vary in quantity and quality according to weather conditions.
Rainy periods or lengthy droughts indeed affected crops, and consequently prices, often making production and sales planning problematic.

Raw materials and synthetic products

In 1800s, the progress of research on the molecules responsible for smells, and their isolation from natural raw materials, stimulated the searching and desire of scientists to manufacture artificial ones in laboratories. Progressively, more molecules responsible for known smells were identified, synthesized and made available to perfumers who, however, continued to consider them with suspicion until the end of the nineteenth century.
The success of Fougère Royale (1882) ­

Houbigant Fougere Royale worthpoint.com - fragroom.com

created with coumarin synthesized by the British William Henry Perkin in 1868 ­ marked, for various reasons, the beginning of modern perfumery and the official approval of the synthetic chemicals usage in the formulation of fragrances.
The perfumers and companies on the other side of the Alps were the first ones to take advantage of the new discoveries, and could finally stock up on some flavor components, often excessively expensive or insufficient for the composition of their own specialties, by purchasing them directly from chemical laboratories at low prices and guaranteed by steady quality.
Already in the early years of the twentieth century, the Italian fragrance houses had multiplied owing to industrialization which had determined an increased economic affluence on the part of a predominantly female clientele that in the big cities had access to work, and used a share of their wages to buy beauty products.
Furthermore, in the years between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, for their creations the Italian perfumers also used, in addition to natural products from Liguria, Tuscany and Calabria, industrially manufactured synthetic chemicals by specialized firms, such as Subinaghi, Valsecchi & Morosetti, Angelo Gabbiani and Carlo Erba, mostly located in Milan and its hinterland.
If until not long beforehand, the producers of essences were fit for creating scented works of art by amalgamating in perfect combinations approximately two hundred natural fragrant elements, now their creativity could span the boundaries of the impossible thanks to the continuous progress in the field of chemical fragrances.
Not a day went by without modern science providing new aroma chemicals capable of producing olfactory effects unimaginable until few years earlier.

Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone: the art of daring and innovating

Nevertheless, it did not happen painlessly. A multitude of skeptics had labeled the new and unreleased fragrant amalgams that upset the order of creation by naming them “nature violators,” while the substances artificially produced in laboratories were defined as “criminal and spellbinding fairies;” but by now the most innovative creators of essences got to realize the enormous opportunities which were offered to them.
One of those creators, although not an insider, had within himself the gift that nature assigns to a handful of people, the ability to “go the extra mile,” namely to integrate the innovative vision of society with a remarkable artistic potential: Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone.

In the year 1900, when he was just twenty-one, Visconti had married Carla Erba,

granddaughter of Carlo Erba who founded the pharmaceutical empire of the same name: the Milanese nobility of ancient lineage had joined with the rich bourgeoisie born after the unification of Italy.
Nothing could suggest that the aristocratic and talented Visconti, shrewd entrepreneur of the textile industry, good painter, playwright and actor for the amusement of Palazzo Visconti friends, apprentice architect in the construction of the sixteenth-century-style village of Grazzano, and with vast interests in the domain of art and fashion could extend his passion also to the creation of perfumes.

granddaughter of Carlo Erba who founded the pharmaceutical empire of the same name: the Milanese nobility of ancient lineage had joined with the rich bourgeoisie born after the unification of Italy.
Nothing could suggest that the aristocratic and talented Visconti, shrewd entrepreneur of the textile industry, good painter, playwright and actor for the amusement of Palazzo Visconti friends, apprentice architect in the construction of the sixteenth-century-style village of Grazzano, and with vast interests in the domain of art and fashion could extend his passion also to the creation of perfumes.

Grazzano Visconti - Un Giorno nel Borgo Neomedievale


In the autumn of 1910, during his stay in Paris, after conversations with Aimé Guerlain and François Coty and visits to the Piver, Houbigant and Guerlain plants, the noble Visconti developed an interest in the olfactory sector; and, as it was his habit when something attracted his attention, he wanted to deepen the subject by studying the various olfactory families, the essences, the methods of fragrances manufacturing and extraction, and ­ as a good industrialist, in case he decided to pursue the enterprise ­ by analyzing the best means to turn the product into a commercial success.

The birth of Italian “emotional perfumery”

What thrilled the count was the recent evolution of the art of perfume: the new smells resulting from the blending of materials never combined before.
He was fascinated by the new findings and technological developments which made it viable to break down a complex and multifaceted smell by the isolation of the elementary chemicals responsible for every single olfactory note composing it.
The latter ones could be reorganized in different percentages from the ones established by the laws of nature, or yet, it was feasible to subtract or add one or more extraneous elements.
In a short time, the noses had at their disposal a plenitude of new available essences with which they were in a position to go beyond the imitation of a flower smell or a set of natural elements. Using the wide range of unreleased fragrant substances that came to life in the laboratories, it was even achievable to create scents generated by a sensation or by the power of suggestion: emotional perfumery was born.
It became possible to conceive fragrances based on the emotion conveyed by a song, or on the poignant melancholy originating from a sunset or on the trepidation aroused by a romantic encounter.
Giuseppe Visconti quickly learned the art of creating perfumes, their structure, olfactory families and fragrance accords which in those years were divided into five main categories: oriental, fougère, leather, chypre and floral scents.
Some had ancient origins, such as chypre fragrances, that it was claimed were used during the rites of the goddess Aphrodite at the island of Cyprus in some enveloping, tender and velvety blends of lily of the valley, oak moss, dog rose, narcissus and bergamot, combined with others components which over time had faded into oblivion; then there were the oriental fragrances, once created with frankincense, cinnamon, patchouli and myrrh, while the olfactory notes then defined as “modern” included leather (containing quinoline, a chemical compound with the mild smell of tanned leather), and the fougère family (felce, in Italian): an abstract category since the fern is odorless and is composed with synthetic flavors obtained by coumarin with the smell of freshly cut lawn.
The perfumes that most enthralled Giuseppe Visconti at the time were Chypre, a fragrance created by Bourjois in 1895, and the brand new Chypre de Paris created by Jacques Guerlain in 1909.

The rediscovery of femininity

The sweet sensuality of the two fragrances gave the ladies wearing them a seductive femininity factor, which was reminiscent of the soft intimacy of a head abandoning itself on the shoulder of the beloved, a yearning desire inflaming the soul.
Yet, in Italy a respectable woman would have never wore one of those perfumes that contained notes of jasmine, tuberose or ylang-ylang in a decisive connotation.
Those scents exhaled the smell of sensuality, malice, ambition; but, Visconti envisioned, appropriately dosed and mixed with other green and delicate fragrances, the elixir which would emerge could capture an emotion by conveying an idea that never existed before.

Just what Giuseppe Visconti was looking for: an emotional perfume

He had come to realize that an era, the one later named Belle Époque, was about to end.
Paul Poiret, the most prominent couturier in Paris, had upset customs and society by throwing the female corset to the winds.

PAUL POIRET: IL SULTANO DELLA MODA – inspirfashion

Now the woman body was free, no longer imprisoned in a garment made of strings, tight laces and whalebones, worn to please the man when he socially put his wife on display.
Now the lady could move freely, engage in some sports, endure hours of activity without extended breaks to let the body rest and breathe, and this, however illogical or excessive it may seem, helped to give women greater awareness of their self-reliance.
It was not uncommon to see ladies sitting alone or in their girlfriends company at a bistro, or otherwise strolling not being arm in arm with a companion.
It was time to make room for a new femininity, to create a scent in which the woman identified the new era that was advancing: a fragrance that was an expression of the consumer identity.

The Poet’s suggestions

Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone had set himself the task of being the first in Italy to create it: hadn’t he after all learned enough during those prolonged stays in Paris and while dialoguing with the largest producers of essences in the world? Didn’t he possibly have at his disposal the Carlo Erba laboratories and all the chemists he could wish for?
In Paris, the patrician had also met Gabriele D’Annunzio, “the Poet” as he used to define himself, sheltered abroad due to the chase by creditors, and even with the Poet, Visconti had had lengthy talks about his personal projects regarding essences.
D’Annunzio suggested him a concept: to create an aristocratic perfume.

Cinque leggende su Gabriele D'Annunzio (e le sue costole)


For Giuseppe Visconti, the invention of an out of the ordinary and enigmatic scentedcreation, in contrast to every fragrance known till then, was a thrilling challenge.
The right path consisted in condensing the emotions and perturbation of every woman into an essence, resurrecting in an amber liquid the colors of early morning, the scent of the air before a summer storm, the smell of sun-dried hay, the sweet quiet of the postmeridian hibernation in the torrid August month, the rain playing on the windowpanes.
All this stimulated in the nobleman the deep desire to bring into being an innovative element, a perfume speaking of the woman who was wearing it.
Every elegant and refined woman had to find in such elixir the enchanted sentiment felt by enjoying a melodrama from the dais of Teatro La Scala,

Teatro alla Scala, Meyer: "Speriamo di riaprire da settembre"

the emotion perceived at the departure for a first-class carriage trip directed to exotic countries, at the embassy dance, at the parties with royal guests.
Visconti was well aware that such essence would remain associated to his name: therefore, through the elixir he recounted the tenderness felt during the afternoons when Donna Carla in her evening dress sat at the piano in Villa Erba playing Ponchielli, while he listened enraptured, enveloped by the smell of branded cigarettes; during the walks along mountain paths strewn with small pink geraniums, in the certainty that the golden age would keep up aristocratically unchanged. The count knew what the perfume shops in Milan, Rome, Venice or Sanremo ­ sites where he gladly stayed for short periods ­ offered to their female audience.
He had often accompanied Donna Carla to the luxurious essence shops and witnessed, sitting in the small pink velvet armchairs of the waiting rooms, the ritual of the mouillettes touching lightly his wife nostrils. He had absently observed the bottles, often with French names, neatly displayed on the shelves.
On the Italian bottles, which contained perfumes produced by the Bertelli, Migone,

Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone: Giviemme 'Contessa Azzurra' - Picture of  Museo Del Profumo Di Milano - Tripadvisor

Lanza, Borsari, Fontanella and Colli Fioriti fragrance houses, he had read common names: Rose, Origano, Giardino Fiorito, Gelsomino d’Italia, Eva, Acacia, Acqua Elegantia, Trionfo di Violette, nearly always mono floral scents, tending to imitate nature, created with different substances, but where the note of the flower that gave its name to the essence dominated the senses.

Not copying, but… creating

Visconti observed that most of the ladies who frequented the perfume shops bought rose fragrances, but for those who did not like a so discreet and sweetly pleasant scent, there was a wide selection, such as the formulas of gardenia, lilac, lily of the valley, or the delicate scent of Parma violet, or the personal one of Empress Maria Luisa of Austria, second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.

PUBBLICITA' 1928 VIOLETTA DI PARMA BORSARI PROFUMO DISTINTO COLONIA ESSENZA  | eBay


All those perfumes, although excellent, did not represent the philosophy that the aristocrat intended to pursue. He did not aim at copying, but at creating.
Returning to Italy from yet another trip to Paris in the spring of 1911, the count immediately set to work.
He summoned some chemists from Carlo Erba’s and with them began the research to realize what he had in mind.

The first fragrances did not bring the desired outcomes.

He wanted a perfume not recalling anything already existing in the fragrance world: moderately sensual so as not to unsettle the temperament of the Milanese ladies, albeit with a mysterious and hidden load of promises; a creation so abstract as to appear rich in meanings, an artificial scent to revive timeless memories, belonging to a distant past, an undefined, indecipherable, new and ancient smell, recognizable by primordial memory even without being able to grasp where and when it had been perceived; a fragrance which, by balancing natural musky notes with other modern synthetic elements, would transfigure reality.
It was the perfume of the new woman who looked to the future, but at the same time maintained a more than firm bond with the past.

The secrets of a winning packaging

The nobleman had also visualized the bottle for the fragrance and the evocative image on its label: it recollected the gala dinners, the receptions held at Palazzo Visconti with the nobility of Milan, the wealthy bankers, the most prominent industrialists, the French ambassadors with their ladies, as well as the smoky French places where you could drink absinthe, snort drugs and dance the can-can, where brilliant artists would spend all their lives. What was never lacking both in one setting and in the other, were the bottles of champagne, which became the symbol of a cosmopolitan, modern, sophisticated aristocracy, and of an excited, reformist society on the verge of a crisis that few years later would overwhelm it.
The perfume bottle which Visconti was about to create had to recall the design of an inverted glass of champagne, with a content that would inebriate the ladies like the bubbly French wine.
Even the image on the label belonged to the aristocratic world: an eighteenth-century dame looking in the mirror while powdering her face with a powder puff.
The drawing had formerly been made and was enclosed in the leather case where the count kept all his sketches, ready to be taken to the printing office.
So on a spring night in 1911, after numberless experiments, the much idealized and envisaged fragrance was finally ready.
Visconti, tightly holding in his hands the carefully sealed laboratory bottle, rushed into the courtyard of the Dergano workshop where he was operating, and abruptly woke up the driver of the horse-drawn carriage patiently awaiting him, as the aristocrat demanded a vehicle always ready to transport him quickly wherever his intervention was urgent.
The night porter threw open the gates of the factory and at a full gallop from Dergano, where Carlo Erba workshops were located, the carriage reached Loreto, up to the plant of the Migone fragrance house, and here they turned to take the ancient Strada per Bergamo

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(in 1906, renamed from Road to Bergamo to Corso Buenos Aires on the occasion of the Universal Exposition), flanked by mulberry trees, workmen dwellings and workshops.
After passing Porta Venezia, the vehicle fast arrived at Palazzo Visconti. In spite of the late hour, the nobleman wanted to get to Donna Carla rooms to have her breathe in the perfume before anyone else. Her judgment would be crucial.
Donna Carla, sleepy, but aware of how important such test was for her husband, sat up on the large bed and, opening the bottle, moistened the inside of her wrist with a drop of essence, waving her arm to make the top notes vanish; then, with half-closed eyes, she deeply inhaled the scent which was being released.
After a few seconds her face lit up in a smile. Yes, that was the elixir women wanted.

Contessa Azzurra is born

The next day, Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone wrote to his friend Gabriele D’Annunzio to communicate the good news, asking him to conceive a name with which to baptize the fragrance.
The prompt reply sent by telegram stated, “An aristocratic perfume for the classy lady can only be called Countess.”
But another telegraphic message from Paris reached the count when the preparations for the launch of the scent on the upcoming Christmas holidays were already well underway.
In fact, on October 4th of the same year, the Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti had undertaken the conquest of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica by declaring war against the Ottoman Empire that occupied those regions.
More than 1,700 sailors under the command of Captain Umberto Cagni sailed off to the African coasts from Brindisi to the sound of Tripoli bel suol d’amore, a song brought to success by Gea della Garisenda who sang it on stage wrapped in an Italian flag.
A surge of Italianness had traveled the peninsula and D’Annunzio did not want to escape the celebration of the national military glories.
“Azzurra!” imposed the telegram from Paris. Contessa Azzurra, just as the azure banner of the House of Savoy.
This would be the ultimate name of the Italian fragrance for the patriotic women of Italy.


Few days before Christmastide, the bottles of Contessa Azzurra were on display in the best perfume shops in Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, thus celebrating the first great Italian scent.Contessa Azzurra narrated Italy in the early part of the twentieth century, from the time when World War I officers brought a bottle of the fragrance as a coveted gift to their fiancées, up to the performances of the actress and opera singer Lina Cavalieri who loved to redeem her childhood as a seller of violets in the Roman squares by spreading the magical essence in the theaters where she made her debut, unleashing the applause of the audience entranced by that mix of singing, show and perfume. With Contessa Azzurra, Gabriele D’Annunzio charmed and led the actress Eleonora Duse into his love nest, after leaving Luisa Casati in tears, the Divine Countess to whom he had given a bottle of the sublime fragrance as last farewell. Likewise the director Luchino Visconti, son of Giuseppe, while filming the most sensual and troubled moments between Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in his movie Ossessione, wanted the scene to be impregnated with the scent of Contessa Azzurra, and again the set of his film The Leopard was constantly pervaded by the fragrance created by his father.
With such a success, one wonders how Contessa Azzurra could be revived today in a new modern version…

The ‘Quattro Stagioni’ The most emblematic works of Giviemme created by Fulvio Bianconi

The great fragrance houses and perfumers that made the art and style of Italian perfumery known all over the world.

Profumeria Bertelli profumo diffuso da un braciere inebria una gio


Analyzing the successes and failures of others can be useful not so much to imitate them or avoid repeating the same mistakes, but to free yourself from your own mental schematism and thus release unexpected energies.

The history of human progress is also studded with random inventions and fortuitous discoveries. Many researchers and scientists became protagonists of epochal findings thanks to an error or a failed attempt which turned into a positive result; in the Anglo-Saxon world, they call it serendipity.

There are inventors who did not thoroughly understand the importance of what they had created. Such is the case of Coca-Cola that was invented on May 8th, 1886 by Dr. John Stith Pemberton, a pharmacist located in Atlanta, Georgia. At first, the product was just a syrup declared “excellent” and sold for five cents a glass as a take-away beverage. Dr. Pemberton never fully grasped the potential of the drink he conceived. He gradually traded company ownership shares to various partners and, shortly before his death in 1888, sold the Coca-Cola recipe to Asa G. Candler, a skilled city businessman who realized its full value.

Likewise, there are commonly used machines and objects which are today utilized for purposes other than those thought of by their creators. Just as, for instance, the first whirlpool tub that had very different functions from the current ones: the initial item, in fact, was designed as a hydrotherapy device to relieve pain. The whirlpool tub was invented in 1949 by Candido Jacuzzi, an Italian immigrant to the United States, for his son Kenny who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis.

However, many examples show us that tenacity, determination, ingenuity and a hint of luck are the hallmarks of several success stories. In particular, one aspect we recognize as typically Italian, a symbol of Made in Italy all over the world, is creativity. Italy demonstrates, yesterday as nowadays, to be rich in creative and daring minds, full of passion in every area and sector. Creativity in art, in fashion, but equally in design, in architecture, in researching a new fragrance, in inventing new games, in experimenting with food and in all the domains where we can remark to “excel.”

The case of the brothers Achille and Vittorio Bertelli is an Italian success story proving how the wealth of knowledge and experience are crucial in achieving each goal. An evidence of how “mathematically correct” is the definition by Henri Poincaré, who asserted: “Creativity is the combination of existing elements and new connections that will be useful.”

Museo del Profumo Milano: un percorso nella storia

Setting off to chase a dream

In the second half of the 19th century a dream had travelled the entire peninsula from north to south. Far away, beyond the ocean ­ since to cross the sea you had to get on a ship and the waves were as high as mountains ­ there was a continent which welcomed the outcasts, fed them and gave them a job: America, a land blessed by God, where the forests had trunks so huge that not even ten men holding hands could surround them, and to go through a city at least one day walk was required, and again, where there were herds of oxen so large that to see them passing it took no less than a week.

Achille Bertelli, a recently graduated pharmacist, fantasized about those extraordinary aspects of the New World when, in the month of April 1885, left the Port of Genoa on a steamer overfull with emigrants, keeping in his pocket the meager savings he accumulated by teaching private lessons to his less gifted fellow students. On the American continent, in towns pulsating with life and needing every little things, he was persuaded great career prospects awaited him. Where there were workers, there was actually a necessity for assistance.

Once he landed in New York Harbour, the days had passed, then the weeks and the months, but the pharmacist Achille Bertelli had not yet made a fortune.
The sick people in need of medicines were an immeasurable number, all the same no one could afford to pay the few cents Dr. Bertelli requested for his formulations, and when he had tried to come out of the working-class neighborhood where he lived in order to offer his drugs to wealthier people, gangs of thugs had asked him for bribes.

The young Achille Bertelli, having depleted the small capital which had supported him in a foreign land during all those months, decided to return home.
Aboard the merchant ship, working as a sailor, Achille sadly thought back to his unhappy stay.
Sitting in the bunk, he removed from his haversack, one by one, the few things that reminded him of his unfulfilled dream. Among them, there was the bag with the powder to soothe his back pains which had worsened in those months due to the humidity of the room he had occupied.

Such powder was miraculous: much more effective than the medicaments he himself made. It had been given to him by an Asian man who lived in his own building block when one morning, in an attempt to get out of bed, he was immobilized and in pain. He had asked for help, frightened by the sudden paralysis that prevented him from moving, and after multiple cries, the kind, round, all smiley face of the Asian neighbor had appeared at the door.

“No problem,” the man assured him after having ascertained the extent of the ailment. He had quickly retraced his steps to come back soon after with a bag containing a reddish powder.
With difficulty and excruciating pains that took his breath away, Dr. Bertelli had turned around in a prone position. The neighbor had then sprinkled the dust on the loins of the patient and at sunset the latter could already rise from his bed and walk safely around the room.
The Asian man had also listed the components of the painkiller preparation, among which a particular chili pepper, that grew in the distant lands where he was born, stood out.

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Making one’s fortune… in Italy

After a three-month voyage, the ship landed in the Port of Genoa and in a few days Achille Bertelli was back home, once again in Milan.
The sailor haversack was placed in the attic and forgotten there for a few months, until…
The advertisement declared the absolute novelty of the invention: Bayerscor had produced a self-adhesive plaster which made bandages superfluous. A small cut on the chin caused by careless use of the razor? Here the bleeding from the wound could be easily stanched with a small patch, without dispensable bandages.

It was the solution Achille Bertelli was looking for: a sticking plaster, to be placed on the painful part, sprinkled with the miraculous powder that healed lumbago and sciatica.
The compound would act while the patient, free to move and walk, could take care of her/his commitments.

Dr. Bertelli rushed to the attic in search of the bag and the notes for preparing the compound.
As he listed the substances, he pondered where he could find the necessary items.
It was not difficult to obtain the missing component, after all Milan was the import-export capital, and in his hometown he started the activity he had so much dreamed of undertaking in the New World.
The success was immediate and the Bertelli Patch became the cure-all for thousands of sufferers who found the pharmaceutical formulation, distributed on the practical self-adhesive support, exceptional.

The launch of the enterprise was dazzling and Achille Bertelli did not stop at the first success. As a good pharmacist he created preparations to heal coughs, sore throats, Sapol soaps for body hygiene in various scents, and Venus cream (which later became the name of an entire cosmetic line), essential for delicate skin.

L'ARTE DEL PROFUMO A CASA BOSCHI DI STEFANO | Unconventional Tour | Il  magazine

Specialties that gained vast popularity in a very short time. The idea to make Sapol soap known became famous: the promoters wore special shoes with a stamp bearing the name of the product attached to the sole. Before entering the cafes or meeting places, the stamps were inked, in order to leave the imprint of the brand on the floors of those locations.
By the late 19th century, the Bertelli Premier Company opened branches in Rome, Turin, Genoa, Naples and Palermo.

In the world of fragrances

It was a small step from pharmacy to perfumery, and to expand the firm and start the new business, Achille Bertelli got help from his brother Vittorio, the right person to pursue such new initiative.
Vittorio Bertelli did not have the adventurous spirit of his brother, but in exchange he was a careful observer of the contemporary Milanese society which, in terms of cosmetics, laid down the law throughout the country.

Vittorio too was a traveler, however as destination his itineraries favored places for pleasant stays, and in his trips to Paris he had personally been able to ascertain how fascinating a scent could be.
What power did such “magical” liquid possess, anonymous and inert when it was enclosed into the inside of a crystal bottle, and diabolical stirrer of the senses when it was released from its prison?
This was Vittorio’s thinking while he was already elaborating innovative strategies for the new Bertelli Fragrance House just launched.

Milan, even more than Rome or Parma, was at the time the capital of perfume. Small or large fragrance houses operating in the city and its hinterland were countless. Some of them, like Migone, with a centennial history, were by now rooted in the urban fabric with an aristocratic and wealthy clientele, others dedicated themselves to creating scents for middle-class or petty-bourgeois ladies.

Vittorio Bertelli decided to start off the production with a great perfume suitable for the nonconformist lady who was preparing herself to enter the new century, and he sought the inspiration for the creation of a groundbreaking fragrance, that ­ in addition to shaking up the all Italian archaic concept of using the scent uniquely to eliminate bad odors ­ would be considered an indispensable element to her own charm by the refined woman.

The scented cinema

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In those years a new invention was causing a sensation filling the nightclubs, the music hall theaters and the variety shows. Moving images were projected by a mysterious machine with coils, lights and optical devices onto a canvas stretched against a wall.

Soon enough, having realized the enormous possibilities of the new invention, some forerunners of modern cinematographic art began to make short movies to be screened in theaters which were increasingly organized to become places dedicated to filmic performance. After the first “documentaries,” a photographer ­ Roberto Troncone, pioneer of the Neapolitan motion picture industry ­ initiated the production of movies.

Following the plots of the novels of the age, the tales on celluloid fatally unraveled among love stories and infidelities, abandonments and reunifications.
Vittorio Bertelli was a passionate spectator as well. Enchanted, he followed the events of the protagonists and the more he witnessed the dramatic hugs full of passion ­ made gigantic and detailed by the screen ­ the more he realized that something was missing. Not on the screen, where the scene could not have been more explicit and realistic, but inside the movie theater.

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What Vittorio felt the need of were not so much the actors words which could be imagined, as the essential nature of the story unfolded on the screen. The viewer, to be all the more involved, Bertelli thought, had to physically perceive the scented essence that emanated from the seductive figures of the heroines. This would create an ideal combination between the senses of sight and smell, to stimulate the spectator imagination even more.

A reckless, bold and cutting edge idea which could be the testing ground for a new perfume market.
It was therefore time to give shape to the project he had been cherishing for some time. The production of a fragrance for a modern and evolved audience of filmgoers: Grand Parfum.
However, Vittorio’s innovative intentions were not limited solely to the type of scent: in a completely reformist way, he imagined that the elixir should be enclosed in a bottle which, at first glance, conferred prestige on what it contained.

The importance of a precious bottle

In those years, it was customary for the various fragrance houses to acquire standard bottles in glass factories, as perfumers paid more attention to the product than to the container (there was still a decade to go before René Lalique made L’Effleurt bottle, progenitor of a long series of bottles specially designed for each new scent), without caring whether the same bottle had been purchased or not by a competitor: a label would later identify the fragrance house and the product itself.

Yet still, this was not what Vittorio Bertelli wanted. The bottle for Grand Parfum had to be “different.” He consequently conceived ornaments in gilded metal that decorated and embellished the crystal bottle with motifs of classic elegance. Two small sculptures inspired by D’Annunzio aesthetics, representing the Phoenix ­ the bird rising from its ashes ­ and the brazier ­ a burning symbol of eternal fidelity ­ adorned the bottle sides and back, while on the front of it an elaborate emblem, also modeled in metal to ensure a long duration of the precious object, displayed the names of the perfume and of the fragrance house. Two finely worked bands wrapped the bottle at its top and bottom, joining the images and making the motif uniform.
An ideal bottle for a sumptuous present.

Successful celebrity endorsements

Gifting the actresses with his incomparable scent, Vittorio Bertelli then began to pay regular visits to the movie studios which rose up almost everywhere, not only in Milan, at Bovisa district, but even in Rome and Naples.

The stars who in those years shone in the cinema firmament and who unsettled the forbidden dreams of a myriad of spectators, Wanda Morris, Loretta Barra, Liana Kàdmina, Natascia Kulokova, Nera Stheffen, fascinated by that gentleman with calm manners and with the gift of the gab, were convinced by him to abandon the so fashionable French fragrances Piver, Pinaud, Violet, in order to wear Grand Parfum.

Museo del Profumo di Milano - Neiade

Vittorio Bertelli thus had the opportunity to bring to the viewers attention ­ by highlighting it in written on the film posters ­ that the skin of the leading lady smelled entirely of Grand Parfum by Bertelli.
Vittorio then hired a lot of valets who, scattered in the theatres of the cities where the movies were shown, released the magical essence in the room during the scenes of most ardent passion, when the main characters yielded to their desire.

The effect was shocking, to such a degree that the right-minded people raged against the all too realistic participation in a cinematic fiction, causing the depletion, within a few days, of the precious bottle of scent on sale in perfumeries, and therefore decreeing the success of Grand Parfum, and consequently, of the Bertelli Fragrance House which had produced it.

Owing to their managerial and advertising skills, the two Bertelli brothers had launched the eponymous company, making it quickly become one of the primary manufacturers of Italian cosmetics.
Characterized by important awards in Italy and abroad, the enterprise long journey began, with the productions of fragrances that marked the society of the period.

A path which was to be interrupted in the 1960s, when, after the demise of the protagonists, Bertelli & C. was sold to Gruppo Lepetit and then to Kelémata, firms that after not many years preferred to abandon nearly all Bertelli’s perfumery brands.

Today, two products of the renowned company are still on the market: the Bertelli Patch and the Venus cream, a cosmetic that for more than four generations represented the ideal remedy for the skin care of our grandmothers.

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