The Serenissima as the capital of perfumery: it was in Venice that the concept of modern perfume was born

22 November 2022

Venice, 22 November 2022 - At the end of the 13th century, the famous Venetian merchant and traveller Marco Polo returned home from China, bringing with him the glands of the musk deer, the animal from which the fragrant substance is obtained, as well as the description of how to extract it and use it. For Venice, it was the beginning of a great love story and a flourishing business that would continue for centuries. 

In order to understand how the laboratory of a Venetian “muschiere” of the 16th century would have looked like, the place where the ancestors of modern perfumes and eau de toilette were born, we should travel back in time, at least with the sense of smell.  It is for this reason that, on the main floor of Palazzo Mocenigo in San Stae, a section of the Costume Museum is dedicated to perfumery, an art which includes cosmetics, medicine, science and, why not, a bit of magic. In the past, Venice played a central role in the production of perfumes: they developed during the 16th century thanks to the “mude”, the naval caravans that allowed the merchants of the Serenissima to reach the eastern Mediterranean ports, where all the precious essences, spices and raw materials - necessary for the production of fragrances of the highest quality - arrived. 

The Republic of Venice thus asserted itself as the top importer of such materials. Every day at the customs offices were unloaded shipments of grey amber, musk, civet, sandalwood, aloe, and fragrant spices, bought by the Venetian muschieri for the creation of new preparations. And it was in Venice that the modern concept of perfume as a liquid mixture was born, thanks to the intuition of diluting into spirits the oily balsam that was used until the Middle Ages.  

“A master of techniques and recipes for the manufacture of oils, powders, pastes and liquids, the profession of muschiere was born in Venice around the 15th century, and it is the first perfumery corporation in the history of the West – says Marco Vidal, a well-known entrepreneur in the field of perfumery – The musk, the raw material of animal origin that is extracted from a gland of an Asian cervid, has a particularly sweet smell, and it is used as a fixative of the perfume, so it gives shape to the fragrance. For this reason, the category of Venetian perfumers that worked with this product was called “muschieri”. When analyzing the inheritance left by Marco Polo to his two daughters, we discovered that the value of this gland, which was worth three gold rings with a precious stone, was about 20-30 thousand euros”.  

Heir to a family that took its first steps in this area with the great-grandfather Angelo, Marco Vidal tells a story of ladies and noblemen, ships and spices, beauty creams, bottles for fragrances and of all the places where these workshops were located - mainly between Rialto and San Marco. The reconstruction of a perfumer’s workshop, alembics, precious bottles of Murano glass, the map that describes the “Routes of the spices” travelled by the ancient Venetians to obtain rare and exotic raw materials, a distiller and ancient recipes books: at Palazzo Mocenigo visitors are immersed in a path that illustrates how much Venice has carved into what has become, over the centuries, a must-have product for men and women. 

“The raw materials arrived in Venice through the commercial routes, then the “spezieri di fino” and “spezieri di grosso” (which were the Venetian grocers) sold spices and raw materials to the “muschieri”, who in turn made the perfumes. The production system worked like this, but the ladies could also produce it in their own homes – explains Vidal – Clearly, the perfume was costly, there were perfumers of different levels and there was also a lot of counterfeiting, especially on the most expensive raw materials”. 

In Venice, the passion for perfumes burst during the 16th century: everything was scented, from coins to gloves and rosaries, which were made in perfumed pastes. 

“Even the use of soap for personal hygiene was invented in our city – adds Vidal – The Venetians learned the recipe in the Middle East, in Aleppo, and they studied a new way to dry the soap, without exposing it to direct sunlight. First, they used it for cordage or washing wool, then they started experimenting with it for personal hygiene and added scents: this is how the first soap, perfumed with essences and called “Bianco di Venezia”, was created”. 

Having the monopoly of raw materials and the technical ability to create new perfumes, through absolutely innovative extraction and production techniques: this was the combination that made Venice the capital of perfumery for many centuries, long before it flourished in the rival state of France.  


File allegati: