Our recent trip to Italy included a few days in Florence, our first visit ever to that beautiful city filled with art. In addition to its essential role in all facets of the Renaissance, Florence also became a center for perfume-making, together with Venice — a craft that notably was imported to France by the Florentine princess who became Queen of France, Catherine de Medici. The world-renowned perfumeries of Grasse, France, have their origin in the fashion she inspired for leather gloves scented with perfumes to mask the odor of the animalic substances used to tan the leather. She brought that fashion with her from Florence.
A small perfumery in Florence, Spezierie Palazzo Vecchio, continues the tradition with what it describes as original formulas from the perfumers who served Catherine de Medici, rediscovered after the catastrophic 1966 flood of the River Arno that wreaked havoc in Florence, in a line called “I Profumi di Firenze.” I can’t speak to the foundations of that claim, but some of the magnificent places we visited, like the church of Santa Maria Novella, suffered extensive damage to the priceless works of art they housed as well as their structures, and their restorations include markers showing how destructively high the floodwaters rose. (A famous series of photographs of the flood can be viewed here).
Although the store in Piazza Signoria (location of the famous scene in the film “A Room With A View” where Lucy Honeychurch faints into the arms of George Emerson, setting in motion the rest of the film’s events) was closed when we first stopped by, I was lucky enough to find it open on our last afternoon in Florence.
Even better — they were having a sale! So of course I came home with several bottles; one scent in particular is quite special, as it won first place in a fragrance competition called “I Profumi di Boboli.” The fragrance is called Profumo di Pioggia, created by Luciana Liberati. The assigned theme for the 2018 contest was “the scent of rain”; the winning fragrance was produced in a limited edition of only 60 bottles, one of which, happily, now belongs to me.
Before anyone gasps at any assumed extravagance, however, I note that the prices of I Profumi di Firenze are much more reasonable in their home boutique than they are in the US, especially during their sale. The most I spent for any single bottle, including a 50 ml bottle of eau de parfum and a 12 ml bottle of extrait, was 25 euros. The others were 20 euros or less. On the other hand, you have to get yourself to Florence to take advantage of that — not exactly the worst option, but not inexpensive either!
Profumo di Pioggia is meant to evoke the smell of a gentle summer rain in the wooded hills above Florence. It includes notes of fig leaf, pomegranate, dew, jasmine, lavender, oud, violet leaf, cedar, and white musk. The perfumer describes it (English translation): “A delicate summer rain enlivens pomegranate flowers. I take refuge under the branches of a fig tree to smell the arrival of summer. The scent of violets and woods from the undergrowth returns to my mind.”
It opens with a gentle green note, which I think is a combination of the fig leaf and violet leaf. Given how much I love green fragrances, this immediately won me over! The floral notes emerge; I definitely smell the jasmine and lavender; I don’t know that I would recognize the smell of pomegranate flowers, so I can’t identify that. The dominant note in the heart phase, though, is rain, or “petrichor.” I love it! So what is petrichor?
The word petrichor was invented by two Australian scientists who introduced it in a 1964 paper on the Nature of Argillaceous Odor (pdf), an investigation into the scent of moistened clay, rock, and sediment. They combined the Greek word for stone, “petra,” and “ichor,” which means “the blood of gods”, to coin a name for the scent of rain.
The mineralogists posited that the scent released by rain isn’t that of water, which itself has no odor, but is actually the aroma of organic compounds accumulated in the atmosphere and on surfaces; these are released when rain falls. The compounds include bacteria called geosmin. These bacteria gives beets their earthy flavor and help make digging up soil in a garden so satisfying and soothing.
Rain also releases aromatic terpenes secreted by plants. Terpenes are hydrocarbons found in the essential oils of plants. They’re what makes a walk in greenery both fragrant and healing.
And when rain falls, geosmin and terpenes fly—or more precisely, they fizz.
One village in India famously has a long tradition of capturing the fragrance of monsoon rains in “mitti attar”, or “the perfume of the earth.” As noted by the author of the New York Times article about it, the scent of rain differs widely from place to place and from climate to climate; the remembered smell of rainfall in the woods of Maine will be very different from that of the rain in India, or the American South, or the hills of Tuscany, but they are equally pleasing. Profumo di Pioggia is a gentle green cross between an aromatic and a floral fragrance, with a softly woody drydown. The wood notes in the base are very subtle; I probably wouldn’t be able to detect oud if it hadn’t been listed among the notes. The cedar and white musk notes are very well blended, so that neither one dominates or “hits” my nose. I do smell something reminiscent of beets, which are rich in the geosmin that is known to be a major component of petrichor scents — a delicate, sweetly earthy smell that fits well with the fig leaf.
I feel very lucky to have visited Spezierie Palazzo Vecchio, where the staff were also delightful, helpful, knowledgeable, and kind. If you get a chance to go to Florence, I recommend a visit! The perfumery is on a side street right off the Piazza Signoria, facing the Palazzo Vecchio, and you won’t want to miss those landmarks or the nearby Uffizi Gallery and its priceless masterpieces.
The non-profit organization that sponsors the contest “I Profumi di Boboli” also offers a multi-month perfume-making course that sounds fascinating if you can return to Florence seven times for its regularly scheduled classes. What a great reason to do that!
Have you tried any Florentine perfumes? Many enthusiasts know and love the fragrances of Santa Maria Novella, which I also visited — to be shared in a future blog post! If you know them, which are your favorites?