The Museum of Smells; In Search of Lost Scents at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

“I wish I had some kind of smell museum, so certain smells wouldn’t get lost forever”, Andy Warhol, 1975

For the fifth edition of ‘Stedelijk Statements’ I was invited to present my PhD research ‘In Search of Lost Scents – Reconstructing the Aromatic Heritage of the Avant-garde.  I felt like a child in a candy store, being handed the symbolic key to one of the most important museums of modern art and design in Europe. I was able to invite my favourite scholars and experts on the topic,  curate a one day exhibition with works from the collection, shoot a small clip, and last but not least to work with a contemporary artist on a new piece, inspired by olfactory heritage. Needless to say I had the time of my life being able to add an olfactory dimension to the deodorized white cube. But more importantly, an audience of 200 people was able to witness olfactory art history intellectually AND aromatically, thanks to the support of I.F.F. who reconstructed several scents based on my research. The night and exhibition were dedicated to Andy Warhol, who had expressed his dream about a museum of lost smells in 1975.

During the event there was a lecture by renowned olfactory artist Peter De Cupere, by literature scholar Piet Devos, and a performance by the artist-choreographer Amy Toner, performed by dancer Maroula Iliopoulou and scented live by aromajockey Scentman. During the intermission, visitors had the opportunity to smell different moments in art history.  The goal was to explore the possibilities and challenges of presenting, critiquing, preserving and reconstructing historical and contemporary olfactory art in the museum.

Here are some pictures of the evening and exhibited smells (I wish I could digitally convey them to you all….) along with the texts that were presented in the Audi room of the museum.

introductietekst museum of smells

The introductory text for the one day exhibition ‘The Museum of Smells’, text and photo by author.

museum of smells installatie 2

Installing the art historical olfactory reconstructions at the Stedelijk Museum. Images on the pedestals were placed as visual documentation to accompany the scents on top.

museum of smells installatie 3

Installation view of the exhibition where 5 scents were placed chronologically (1912 – 2015), ranging from Futurism to installation art.

IValentine de Saint Point Metachorie

Scent no 1. Valentine de Saint Point dancing her choreography ‘Metachorie’, in Paris, 1912

valentine saint point metachorie

Scent no 1 on sniff:

Valentine de Saint Point, Métachorie (1913)

olfactory reconstruction by IFF perfumer (2018)

Métachorie was the first futurist performance that involved fragrances. In combination with the music and decor, they formed a synthesis with the movements by dancer and choreographer De Saint Point. A critic who attended the performance described the fragrant smoke curtains as exotic, which around the fin-de-siècle implies the then-recently Westernized colonial fragrances of – among others – patchouli and sandalwood (source: C. Verbeek, In Search of Lost Scents, PhD, expected in 2019).

photo by author

piet devos smelling metachorie

Scholar and expert of sensory literature Piet Devos sniffing ‘Metachorie’

Photo by Justus Tomlow

Eau de Cologne Cucina futurista

Scent no 2 on sniff:

Eau de Cologne

From La Cucina Futurista/ the Futurist Cookbook (1932)

Olfactory reconstruction by IFF perfumer (2018)

In the thirties, the futurists organized politically tinted artistic banquets, where no sense was left unaddressed. For example, they spread the fragrances of ozone (as a reference to electricity) and Eau de Cologne, which is originally an Italian toilet water. The latter had connotations of war, as it was used to treat wounds at the front. Furthermore, ‘Aqua di Colonia’ literally means ‘colonial water’ in Italian (source: C. Verbeek, In Search of Lost Scents, PhD, expected in 2019).

Peret Odeurs du Bresil

Scent no 3 on sniff:

Benjamin Peret, Odeurs du Brésil at the International Surrealist Exhibition, Galérie des Beaux Arts, Paris (1938)

olfactory reconstruction by IFF perfumer (2018)

According to nose-witnesses Man Ray and Simone de Beauvoir, the 1938 surrealist exhibition strongly smelled of Brazilian coffee. During the opening, Benjamin Pérèt roasted coffee beans on an electric stove. Looking back, Marcel Duchamp described the aroma as an independent surrealist artwork. The fragrance may have been a reference to Brazil’s joining of the surrealist movement that year, or to the place where the surrealists were most commonly found: the café (source: C. Verbeek, In Search of Lost Scents, PhD, expected in 2019).

Duchamp first papers of surrealism

Scent no 4 on sniff:

Marcel Duchamp, First Papers of Surrealism, Reid Mansion, New York (1942)

olfactory reconstruction by IFF perfumer (2018)

 ‘Vernissage consacré aux enfants jouant, à l’odeur du cèdre’ (Opening dedicated to children at play and the smell of cedar), said the invitation to the exhibition First Papers of Surrealism. The fragrance of cedar wood may have been a reference to the cigar boxes in which the artist – an avid smoker – kept his papers, and which he regularly used to create artist’s books and artworks. Even though one of the last nose witnesses was interviewed, he didn’t recollect a scent (source: C. Verbeek, In Search of Lost Scents, PhD, expected in 2019).

esther brakenhoff smell capsule 2015

Scent no 5 on sniff:

Esther Brakenhoff, Geurcapsule / Fragrance Capsule: Edward Kienholz, Beanery (1965), 2015

plastic and aromatic substances

This fragrance capsule is a visual and olfactory homage to Edward Kienholz’ art piece The Beanery, a replica of a bar in Los Angeles. Kienholz added smells to enhance the work’s realism. Brakenhoff’s clock-shaped capsule – a reference to the shape of the customers’ heads – contains a reconstruction of the smell Kienholz had in mind: ashes, stale beer, mothballs, rancid grease and urine.

Photo by author

Eshter Brakenhoff Fragrance Capsule

View of the interior of ‘The Beanery’ (1965), by Edward Kienholz, collection Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

photo Wikimedia Commons

stedelijk installatie parole in liberta

A very precious and rare object on display:

F.T. Marinetti and Tullio d’Albissola, Ritratto olfattivo di una donna/ Olfactory Portrait of a Woman

from: Parole in libertà futuriste olfattive tattili termiche/ Futurist Olfactory Tactile Thermal Words in Freedom, 1932

lithography on tin

This artist’s book, based on the idiom of the machine, is exceptionally sensorial. It feels cool, smooth and hard to the touch, with a metallic smell. Its contents also address the olfactory experience; in the exhibited poem, a man tracks the scents of the object of his lust. The smell of moist earth and milk suggest the conclusion: the birth of a child after a bout of love-making on the ground  (source: C. Verbeek, In Search of Lost Scents, PhD, expected in 2019).

Photo by author

parole in liberta stedelijk ritratto olfattivo

Installation view of the poem ‘Ritratto olfattivo di una donna’, 1932

photo by author

beeld ritratto olfattivo di una donna voor tv montage door andy

‘Ritratto olfattivo di una donna’, a poem on metal, the words positioned in the shape of a female body.

This poem is one of the very few avant-garde texts on scent expressed through movement as it speaks of mobile arches, moving volumes and spirals of scent (see a previous blog about that here). This gave me the idea to ask a choreographer to create a scented dance based on it. I immediately thought of the highly talented dancer and choreographer Amy Toner with whom I had worked before for Mediamatic. She was inspired by both the dynamic nature of the poem, and the ‘male gaze’. The sentence ‘Do not see her, sniff her’ (non vederla, fiutarla) lead to the title of her artwork ‘Beneath her Eyes’.

photo by author

final AMY_TONER_9688-LOWRESTia Török foto amy toner performance mediamatic maria iliopoulou 2

Amy Toner’s contemporary choreography ‘Beneath Her Eyes’ (2018), performed by Maroula Iliopoulou. The performance was first staged at Mediamatic’s Odorama – Scent and Movement (where she was offered a residency) and a few days later at the Stedelijk Museum.

Advisors on scent script: Caro Verbeek, Bernardo Fleming (I.F.F.). Scents provided by I.F.F.

  1. Natural sweaty animalic Jasmin
  2. Luscious Rose
  3. Wet Soil
  4. Smokey / Sensual skin- like scent

Diffused by aromajockey Scentman.

The performance, Beneath Her Eyes, is a physical and olfactory response to the futurist poem ‘Ritratto Olfattivo di una Donna’ (1932) (Olfactory Portrait of a Woman) by Marinetti. This work of art, printed on a piece of metal, addresses both olfaction and movement as it follows the scent trail of a woman. The performance explores notions of beauty, the (male) gaze and the olfactory body of a woman (source: Text provided by Amy Toner for the event).

Photo above by Camilla Greenwell

Photo below copyright Mediamatic

caro stedelijk statements

At the beginning of the evening, a very pregnant and odour-sensitive researcher (…) talked about the role of smell in Futurism and Surrealism. ‘The scent, the scent alone is enough for us beasts’, Marinetti stated in 1909 in the founding manifesto of Futurism. The leader of the Futurists drew the attention to this lower sense which he would address much more often during his career. To him and his fellow artists the sense of smell represented a different kind of knowledge, namely intuition; a notion taken from Nietzsche. ‘Fiuto’ means both ‘acute sense of smell’ and ‘intuition’, so the English translation doesn’t really suffice. Paying attention to the sense of smell as an artistic medium defied the ocularcentric perspective of the bourgeoisie, which the Futurists despised, making their olfactory practices a political act in themselves.

In the next presentation, Peter de Cupere drew on his own experiences to explain the added value of working with scent, highlighting the challenges and limitations encountered in working with scent in a museum setting.

In the final presentation Piet Devos connected the multisensory experiments of the historical avant-garde with the contemporary interest in disability aesthetics. He focused particularly on the Surrealist exhibition of 1938 (scent on display in the museum), full of exotic fragrances and disorienting haptics, and on Eline van Ark’s The Invisible Dancer from 2015, in which a blind (or blindfolded) audience was invited to listen to dance. These two case studies demonstrate both the richness and potential pitfalls of such experiments, and at the same time illustrate the challenges involved in analyzing and preserving multisensory art.

(more information about these lectures on olfactory and ephemeral heritage will follow in another blog in which I interview Peter de Cupere, Piet Devos and Amy Toner)


Final note to researchers and authors: If you would like to refer to any of the above, I would first of all be honoured, but would kindly like to ask you to use the title of this blog or my PhD ‘In Search of Lost Scents’, expected in 2019.

Talking Wine and Making Sense of Scents with Dr. Ilja Croijmans

“It takes practice to master something, and olfaction is no exception. Smells deserve our attention too”, Ilja Croijmans

We all know it is incredibly difficult to describe scents. Is this any different for wine experts? What kind of words do they use? And does their vocabulary extend to other areas than wine? For N.O.S.E. (Netherlands Olfactory Science Exchange) Caro Verbeek (scent and art historian) interviewed dr. Ilja Croijmans (neuroscientist and psycholinguist) on his recently published PhD ‘Wine Expertise Shapes Olfactory Language and Cognition’, supervised by Asifa Majid.

What it’s all about

CV: Can you describe your research and its scope in a few sentences?

IC: During my PhD, I’ve investigated what the influence of wine expertise is on olfactory cognition. I’ve focused in particular on language, memory and imagery. In various experiments, I compared wine experts, who have years of experience with smelling, tasting and describing wines, to average wine consumers (novices). Wine expertise has a profound impact on these aspects of cognition: wine experts are better at describing wines, they have a better memory for wines, and their ability to imagine smells and tastes of wines is more vivid than that of novices.

CV: What makes wine tasting such a suitable and compelling topic to study olfactory language and cognition?

IC: Wine is highly multisensory – it involves both orthonasal (“normal smelling”) and retronasal (“smelling through your mouth”) smelling. Olfaction is really important to experience wine, without smell, wine tastes bland or plainly sour or sweet (ask an anosmic!). In addition, there is a lot of variation in wine expertise. By studying and practicing, you can really become an expert in wine, but there are many people that just like to drink it occasionally, and that is fine too: that gave me the opportunity to compare people with very high levels of expertise to casual wine consumers.

CV: Can you give some examples of typical and consistently used words to describe wine (not referring to colour or mouthfeel, but only olfactory words)?

IC: Most of those words are source based and some of them are abstract words referring to flavour. Examples are smooth, minerality, medium-bodied, red berry, fragrant, plum, white pepper, firm, pruny, thick, herbes de provence, big, kisselguhr, filtration, precocious, forward, concentrated, vegetal, hedonistic, sharp, perfumed, flabby, monopole, elegant aftertaste, meaty, lush, oaky, delicate, morsellated, savoury

 Important definitions

CV: For novices and non-experts: can you explain the difference between smell, taste and flavour? Retronasal and orthonasal smelling? And what does Somatosensory mean?!

IC: I hinted on this above. In Dutch, we make no distinction between taste and flavor (both smaak): a pity! With smell, people normally mean what they perceive when they stick their noses into something, scientists call this orthonasal smelling. What most people are not really aware of is that they smell through their mouths too! In the back of your mouth, there is an opening to the nose. If you chew on something, vapors rise through this opening and are perceived by the olfactory bulb in the nose: retronasal smelling. You can test this using a blindfold and holding your nose, and then try to distinguish between the taste of an apple and an onion: without your nose, this is almost impossible.

orthonasal smelling source- Monell interview Ilja Croijmans

Source: Monell Center

Taste is what the tongue registers: the basic tastes sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (and possibly fatty, creamy, high in carbs, spicy/heat/pain…).

 Flavor is the combination of taste and retronasal olfaction (in addition to other sensory experiences in your mouth, such as pressure (chewing/crunchy), temperature, pain), and influenced by what you see, smell, feel and hear during eating. Flavor is the whole multisensory experience. 

 Somatosensory means what is perceived by the body (“soma” = Greek for body), and mainly applies to things like touch, pain etc. This plays a role in flavor too, since the somatosensory system is also involved in taste, and registers how hard something is to chew, how warm it is etc, could all be called somatosensory.

“coffee experts were not more consistent when describing coffee, but wine experts were when they described wine”

CV: What was the most surprising outcome of your research?

IC: In the first study I did, I asked wine experts, coffee experts and novices to describe wine, coffee and common smells. I found it really surprising that coffee experts were not more consistent when describing coffee, but wine experts were when they described wine. Perhaps that for coffee, the balance between tastes plays a bigger role, or it could be that coffee experts talk less about the flavors of coffee with each other than wine experts discuss wine. Another pleasant surprise was that when we followed this experiment up with a new study (this time looking at memory for wines), wine experts were again more consistent when describing wines. So we could replicate the finding, which is really important for scientific progress.

“I think it becomes easier to describe scents given proper training and practice, even when you have no abstract vocabulary”

CV: It’s very difficult to describe scents because there is no vocabulary, at least in western languages. We often resort to hedonic values or sources. Are there words used by wine expert that describe aroma or flavour that aren’t source based or hedonic?

IC: I didn’t really come across terms that meet those criteria. Perhaps the Dutch words ‘weeiig’ and ‘rins’? I think there is also a tradeoff between being specific (i.e., using source terms) and using abstract vocabulary, with most wine experts preferring the first, while people in ‘smell cultures’ preferring the latter.

I think it becomes easier to describe scents given proper training and practice, even when you have no abstract vocabulary.

CV: What can ‘we’ learn from wine experts when it comes to training our linguistic and perceptual skills?

IC: It takes practice to master something, and olfaction is no exception. Smells deserve our attention too.

Imaging scents or ‘olfactorisation’

CV: You argue that the more words we have to code or label an object or experience and the more features we can linguistically discern, the easier it gets to imagine it. People from the Philippines report cases of odor imagery more often than Americans. Can you elaborate on this relation between language and olfactory imagination? Why does it differ between populations? And how does imagery relate to expertise? Can you imagine odors yourself?

 IC: This is a really difficult and technical question, don’t know if this is appropriate. Here we go:

Some scholars argue that imagery is purely semantic: when you imagine something, you think of the words. Others argue it is perceptual: when you imagine something, it gives the same experience as when you actually have it in front of you (without interference from words). In between these two views is a whole range of other views. Imagery is a form of memory: when you can imagine something, you recall it from memory. A sound or picture is relatively easy to imagine, but a smell is more difficult. Yet some people do report to be able to imagine smells, and for some professions is it pertinent (such as perfumers, or when a wine expert comes up with a new wine-food pairing or blends a new wine vintage).

I argue that experience makes the concepts for smells, including wines or wine prototypes, stronger and more elaborated. This includes semantic information, i.e., the words and language to describe smells, but also includes perceptual information. By training and practicing you elaborate on these concepts (describe more smells etc.) and pay attention to particular features of it. This strengthens the concept and makes it easier to recall. Having the words allows paying more attention to particular features, but just knowing words won’t allow you to imagine smells, it will just allow you to imagine the words. It is a combination of practicing and experiencing, and language can help. I see language as sort of a spotlight: it can direct your attention to particular aspects of the world. Having words for smells and using them (as some cultures do) will make that you have more attention for the smells around you. So it is an interplay between language, attention and experience.

grapevine interview Ilja Croijmans

History and fashion

CV: There were many more words for everyday smells in the past in the west (see here . Did people have more words for flavours and tastes in the past too? Has vocabulary for wine changed?

IC: I’d love to learn what these were! Wine vocabulary changes frequently, and follows particular trends in wine too. For example, James (2018) argues that Robert Parker, with his preference for so-called “coca cola wines’ (i.e., big, bold, sweet red wines), and his vocabulary attuned to this preference, has changed the way wines are being described as well as what wines are produced.

 Other authors (e.g., Shesgreen, 2002) argues that whereas it was common to describe how a wine ‘was bred’, i.e., some metaphorical extension taken from vocabulary on class and gender, this has shifted to the ‘italian fruit and herb garden’ way of describing wine, i.e., talking about diverse fruits and spices one may recognize in a wine.

Accuracy and ‘objectivity’: Knowing what the other person smells….

CV: Apparently there are 146 words that are consistently used by wine experts. Are these words used consistently in general or also for the same wine? [ed. see page 201 of the PhD manuscript, link below this article]

IC: These are the words that every wine expert in the sample of 13 used to describe a wide range of wines, used more frequently than how they are used in the comparative corpus (i.e,. a corpus made by google containing a trillion words sampled from a wide range of sources). The other analyses in that chapter show wine experts describe wines from the same grape variety and color in a consistent matter, and this analysis shows they use those words. We haven’t explicitly compared whether those exact words are used consistently for the same wines. 

CV: If one expert describes a wine to another and this other person could choose from let’s say 10 wines how likely is it the latter will choose the one described by the first?

IC: 66.7-69.3% 😊

There are a few studies that have investigated this. Solomon (1990) found out that experts could match other experts description to wines way better than chance, but not descriptions from novices (novices performed quite poorly in both directions). Gawell (1997) replicated this finding.

CV: You wrote that wines can contain 800 different aromatic compounds. Can’t wine experts just learn these by heart and name them just like perfumers learn about names of molecules?

IC: I think they could, with experience, sure. Complicating matter is that not all of these contribute to the flavor of a wine equally, and that some may overpower other flavors. Perhaps different from perfume is that wine is not a static entity, but a dynamic mixture that develops and ages.

Aesthetic appreciation

CV: One final question: have your cognitive and sensory skills for describing and tasting wine improved and does it make you enjoy it more?

IC: Yes and no. By learning what makes a good wine or any other enjoyable beverage, you can appreciate the craft and skill put into it more, and this enables me to appreciate the aesthetic value better. It is also enjoyable to talk about what you smell and taste, even though I may not be particularly good at it (I wouldn’t consider myself to be a wine expert). That said, it can be annoying sometimes too, since when you have a sense of what is good, you also have a sense of what is not good.

CV: Hope to share a wine with you after our next NOSE symposium!

ilja als denker

Caro Verbeek interviewing Ilja Croijmans

For the entire publication, please click here

 

 

 

 

Culturalising the Smell of Death? – From Warzone to Pedestal

A nose witness report of the worst smell in the world

War correspondent Robert Dulmers (Amsterdam) is one of the few people that encountered it. A smell that is banished from our daily lives and society. Only in rather extreme circumstances, such as war, one is faced with it. With a horrified facial expression, eyes fixated on an invisible distant scene, he described it to me:

“The first time I smelled it, I automatically flinched and stepped back. It’s as being stung by a wasp. And even though I had never smelled it before, I knew…. This is the scent of a human decomposing body”

Dulmers – who is also a scholar and an author – continued talking about his experience by comparing it to a famous literary scene:

“What struck me was how immediate and unmediated my reaction was. Like the main character in “À la recherche du temps perdu” (In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust who suddenly recalls his early childhood after dipping a madeleine in lime blossom tea, as he had done numerous times in the past. But the difference was: I had no recollection of this smell. Yet my whole body, my whole mind knew… or rather felt [slowing his pace of speech] this… is… death…”

After my question how he would describe the scent, and not the experience, he gave a rather surprising answer:

“I had smelled rotting animal flesh, and cooled bodies placed on biers, but that’s different. The smell of putrefied bodies is sickly faint and sweetish. It is extremely repulsive. If I had to compare it, it’s a bit like mashed baby food, but much worse”

Dulmers – after a multitude of experiences – realized there is no such thing as ‘the’ smell of death. There are several:

“It depends on how someone died. If there was struggle and agony – so called ‘death sweat’ – bodies can smell more sour and salty. Like the body odour of a runner but a hundred times stronger. It also depends on age”

The smell of death in art

In ‘normal’ circumstances, bodies would never start to reek to the extend described by Dulmers. They are cooled and then buried or cremated within a limited amount of time before the miasmas can reach the noses of the living. A rare historical example of a smelly rotting corpse, was handed down from the biblical and art historical tradition. But this too was a very extreme (and unlikely situation). When Jesus planned to raise Lazarus from the dead, bystanders objected: ‘but the body already reeks!” Yet Jesus performed this miracle by both overcoming the worst enemy of humanity, and the malodour that comes along with it. In some works of art we see the disgust manifested in the pinched and covered noses of those present. Christ however, as a supernatural being, always remains unaffected.

blog dood giotto lazarus padua

figure:  In this fresco only the ‘faint-hearted’ women cover their noses. Giotto, Raising of Lazarus, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua.1304 – 1306

Smell control

But even before bodies start to decompose, cultures all over the world (subconsciously) practice some sort of smell control rites. Certain rituals such as putting flowers around graves and caskets are actually driven by the sense of smell. Have you ever wondered why the lily is a funerary flower? It contains a lot of indole which doesn’t just mask putrefaction, but actually perfectly blends in with it.

lily blog death

‘A God walks into an exhibition…’

Unlike in chaotic warzones, in rare cases this extreme smell is framed in an organized way and displayed in a museum. In 2016 olfactory artist Peter De Cupere (Belgium) organized the exhibition ‘The Smell of War’ commemorating the centennial of the first gas attacks during The Great War, which actually took place around the venue in Poperinge (Belgium). De Cupere invited several artists and perfumers (such as Gayil Nalls, Sue Corke and Hagen Betzwieser) to reflect on the smell of war (which isn’t always disgusting but can be quite pleasant at times) and some participants even created new work.

the smell of war poperinge blog death

Figure: the venue for ‘The Smell of War’, curated by Peter de Cupere, Poperinge

The Juice of War

Maki Ueda (Japan, Netherlands) was one of the participating artists. Ueda recreated the scents of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki for her work ‘The Juice of War’, which was actually based on a visual memory:

“When I was a child, my bedroom contained a shelf of my mother’s books and one of these book was about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Inside I found photos of burned and rotten bodies.[…] . It was in the high summer season so the bodies would quickly rot… The photos were so shocking to me that for nights I was afraid to go to sleep”

The artist (a vegetarian) distilled burnt and rotten meat in order to obtain the right odour. I asked her about the process of working with these disgusting scents. Her reaction is comparable to that of Dulmers:

“I didn’t want to overreact to the scent, but it was so powerful that it gave me a headache and made me vomit in the process. It was more of a biological reaction, like when I was pregnant I could not stand the presence of garbage”

So it turned out the scents were even more shocking than the images. Maki had to alter them in order to make them presentable:

“….when the scent was extracted with alcohol […] it did not have the power as I smelled it before. However, if I would have brought the original smell, there would be flies permanently and the exhibition would have had to stop. (Actually it once happened at Lakenhal, where I exhibited the smell of meat as one of the Dutch scents that Geisha’s encountered in Deshima. So I was a bit afraid….)”

ueda juice of war flemish prime minister

Figure: the Flemish prime minister smelling ‘The Juice of War’, 2015

We tend to contemplate and react more intellectually in the dystopian atmosphere of the museum. But is this actually possible when it comes to the smell of death? Even by culturalising, framing and trying to control it, the real thing remains too disgusting, too immediate, too primal as the reactions of these nose witnesses confirm.

Maybe only gods can visit exhibitions about the smell of death.

 

 

 

 

Spring is Fragrant and so is Venus – Botticelli’s Primavera Explained by the Sense of Smell

la primavera botticelli

In 1481/1482 renaissance artist Botticelli finished the immense painting ‘La Primavera’, which he created for the occasion of the marriage of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. It is one of the most famous paintings in the world and can be admired in its place of ‘birth’ Florence.

The flowers and plants in Primavera (spring) are an important and very striking part of this work of art. The antique gods Mercury (to the left) and Venus (in the center) are surrounded by colourful fruit trees with juicy oranges that arise from a fresh green meadow, and flowers in bloom scattered all over the place. Botticelli portrayed these flowers with such great care and detail that they are actually recognizable as real specimens. Guido Moggi – former director of the Botanical Garden in Florence –and Mirella Levi d’Ancona identified almost  200 of them in 1984.

Aromatic symbols

These and most other scholars discuss the visual beauty of the botanical specimens and the myths they were mentioned in as an explanation for Botticelli’s choice of depicted flora. But what about their aromatic dimension? This painting is one big open window exuding the most wonderful and characteristic scents of Tuscany in spring. Is there an olfactory iconography to this work of art? There is in fact proof Botticelli has intentionally added aromatic – not visual! – symbols.

Botticelli most probably took several renaissance texts as a starting point. In ‘De Rerum natura’  by Lucretius, there is a very clear reference to both the visual and olfactory appeal of spring, which is represented by the goddess Venus. I found a good English translation:

“Spring-time and Venus come, and Venus’ boy, / The winged harbinger, steps on before, / And hard on Zephyr’s foot-prints Mother Flora, / Sprinkling the ways before them, filleth all / With colors and with odors excellent”

In another Latin (sorry) contemporary poem called Rusticus by Poliziano – which the painter most probably also used as a source of inspiration – again, Venus’ fragrant exalations are central:

“Semper odorati Venerisque stipendia flores. Vitarumque altrix urbi male nota voluptas”

Venus is always fragrant, it says. It is clear that the poems visually quoted by Botticelli do not just revolve around visual beauty. Taking that into account, we take a closer ‘look’ at the flowers. In fact, ALL (!) of them aren’t just colourful, but highly fragrant. Coincidence?

Love is fragrant, and so is Venus

primavera mirte blog spring smell

Venus in the centre of the painting, is surrounded by myrtle, beautifully defined against a pale blue sky. This is a smell informed choice. This plant with its very strong scent was well known in ancient Greece and Rome for its healing properties and associated to the island of Cyprus, the birth place of Venus. Myrtle was used as a fragrant offering to statues representing the goddess of Love, known in Greece as Aphrodite. Its perfume is fresh and warm at the same time, sweet yet savoury, and smells slightly medicinal or anti-septic (which it actually is).

In 2006 archeologist Maria Rosario Belgiorno excavated an ancient perfume factory on Cyprus in which she found several traces of the essential oil of this plant. Many of the oils and perfumes produced there, probably had both esthetic, medicinal and spiritual purposes. She reconstructed some of them by doing chemical analysis and replicating ancient maceration and distilling techniques. This ancient heritage eventually lead to one of the modern perfume categories ‘Chypre’.

The other very fragrant flower dedicated to Venus is the rose. It is very (very very) likely that this flower was chosen as an attribute of the goddess exactly for its aromatic properties. Aromatic plants were thought to be a manifestation of divine presence in ancient Greece and Rome. The attar of roses was one of the most costly perfumes. It was praised by the likes of Pliny the Elder for its sweet, long lasting scent. Until the present day lovers still give each other roses.

 

In the hair, dress and hands of Flora – standing right next to Venus – we encounter the same flower, in addition to  tiny blue myosotis flowers, also known as ‘forget-me-nots’ or in Italian ‘non-ti-scordar-di-me’. It goes without saying they are strong smelling. This would certainly help with their memorability.

 

On Flora’s dress we also see embroidered carnations (representations of representations of flowers, clever Botticelli), which exude a somewhat green, sweet, yet bodily scent. Both the light pinkish colour and scent refer to sensuality. How these flowers are placed on her body, along with the position of her hand, definitely has an erotic touch to it.

The Smell of Victory

Other very strikingly scented flowers exit from the mouth of Chloris on the extreme right. Chloris was a nymph chased by Zephyrus, one of the winds. The moment he catches her, she turns into Flora. This transformation is depicted by Botticelli by placing Flora and Chloris right next to each other. The flowers she seems to exhale are probably sweet smelling roses or anemones, strawberry flowers and cornflowers. Zephyrus is surrounded by laurel, which gives of a very sweet and refreshing scent. This freshness was the reason for Romans to coronate heroes with laurel wraths so they could literally breath the sweet smell of victory, as could fellow soldiers.

 

In the field below the feet of all these figures we find a whole amalgam of flowers that have been used in perfumery for thousands of years, such as the iris, jasmin and the grape hyacinth.

 

Figure showing a very small depiction of a grape hyacinth, almost absorbed in the background.

 

Depiction of iris flowers, very precious perfume ingredients, and also the symbol of Florence.

An allegory of the senses?

Furthermore art historian Marieke van den Doel, came with an interesting analysis of the painting as the representation of the hierarchy of the senses as a whole. The pleasure seeking Zephyrus, Chloris and Flora represent the ‘lower senses’ of smell, taste and touch, whereas Mercury and two of the three graces (the dancing figures) stand for the higher senses of seeing and hearing. The lower senses were associated to youth, lust and foolishness, whereas the higher senses were linked to the intellect and to true beauty, according to renaissance humanist Ficino. Venus, symbolically located at the center, supposedly forms a bridge between these opposites.

So what we have here is the visual representation of all the senses, which together might lead to the marriage, not just of two people, but also that of the senses, of love and carnal desire, through a synthesis of seeing and smelling.

  1. Marieke van den Doel, Ficino en het voorstellingsvermogen. ‘Phantasia’ en ‘imaginatio’ in kunst en theorie van de Renaissance’, 2008
  2. Mirella Levi d’Ancona, Botticelli’s Primavera. A botanical interpretation including astrology, alchemy and the Medici, Olschki, 1983

 

 

Smelling Can Make You a Better Scholar and a More Sociable Human Being – If You Educate Your Nostrils

blog nose institute art and olfaction materiality course

Studying fragrant materials at the Institute of Art & Olfaction, L.A., Courtesy  IAO

In a recent article in Time Magazine Dr. Asifa Majid pointed out that there is a whole world to be gained from training our poorly educated sense of smell.

But how and where can we learn to be better smellers? Courses for perfumers are intensive, long, expensive and inaccessible (there are more astronauts than perfumers!) and the output (industrially produced perfumes) is somewhat limited.

Luckily, educating our nostrils in a conscious way has become more accessible and meaningful than ever. Universities, art academies and cultural institutions offer courses all over the world. Over the past few years (fashion) designers, artists, philosophers, (art) history students and theatre makers have been training their sense of smell. Here is why we should do that according to professors, museum directors and artists.

The second olfactory turn in the humanities

In the eighties and nineties the humanities faced the first sensory, and even olfactory turn. Influential scholars such as Constance Classen, David Howes, Alain Corbin, and later Jim Drobnick, elevated the sense of smell to where it is now: a serious topic in cultural debates and (art) history. But something has changed since the more recent or second olfactory turn.

Teachers are now actually bringing scents into the classroom, and not just as entertainment or illustrations.

Many contemporary scholars claim that the sense of smell has broadened their visual gaze and that of their students. Smell is no longer something merely studied in textbooks. It has become a tool, and is now considered informative in its aromatic dimension.

Cambridge PhD candidates Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière have recently set up the seminar “Art and the Senses” to do exactly this:

“My co-organiser and I felt that it was important to hold the Art and the Senses seminar as the theme overcomes chronological and geographical boundaries in such a way that other frameworks do not offer. The seminars have been generating discussions about methodological approaches to art history and the merits of studying artworks through the senses”

The same goes for the course ‘Urban Culture’, taught at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. According to urban historian Tim Verlaan:

“In the study of public space, traditionally most attention goes out to visual aspects. However, other senses play an equally important role. I invited sensory specialists from the humanities to teach students how to experience and interpret their daily living environment with their ears and noses, instead of just through their eyes”

From ‘visual culture’ to ‘sensory culture’

Over the past two decades art history has been complemented by and sometimes even substituted by ‘visual culture’. Although this aspect of culture transgresses the boundaries of disciplines such as art history, media studies, anthropology, cultural studies and critical theory, it is excluding the realms of our other senses. Both as a reaction to visual culture, and to stimulate out of the box thinking of his students dr. Patrick van Rossem implemented the course ‘The Senses’ for art, history and philosophy students. His students are sniffing, touching and tasting their way through art history.

How the internet has helped olfactory initiatives flourish

There is a very clear reason why now is the perfect time to start working our noses according to Ashraf Osman, founder of Art Scent Net:

“With the digitization of sight and sound, smell has become one of the last bastions of materiality in an age of immaterial globalization. The resistance of odor to digitization makes it one of the aspects of an artwork that still demands the physical presence of its audience in order to experience it. As such scent is, perhaps unintentionally, emerging as a refuge for the necessity of embodiment in the artistic experience.”

Saskia Wilson – Brown – founder of the Institute of Art & Olfaction in L.A. sees another relation between the digital and the rise of smell culture initiatives:

“I think there is interest in scent because – thanks to the internet – there is quite simply the possibility to do it, now. People are able to learn about it, and most importantly to buy the chemicals and dissemination devices etcetera, to start their own practice. Since it’s possible, people are doing it. And since people are doing it, more outlets are appearing. It begets itself”

So people feel the need for material sensory encounters, that cannot be shared online as a counter reaction to social media, but as a consequence of those same social media, people can form communities and inform each other about programs and actual meetings about scent.

Smell as the social sense par excellence

blog nose klara ravat's piece 'Smell Transplant' at Mediamatic 2017

“Smell transplant” workshop by Klara Ravat, picture Ani Jo studio, courtesy of Mediamatic

Smell is the social sense par excellence. The Institute of Art & Olfaction (L.A.), Mediamatic with its “Odorama“-series (Amsterdam) and the Smell Lab (Berlin) offer courses to create a sense of community, since smell requires proximity of people in the same physical space, sharing ideas around the same topic and collaborating in creative projects.

Klara Ravat – olfactory artist and curator of Smell Lab (Berlin) thinks our need for human contact is the reason for the increase in olfactory programs and courses worldwide:

The increase of the olfactory trend is born from a craving of a society in need of belonging somewhere. Fragrance seems to be just the perfect tool to grant that desire […] Scent can makes people more empathetic towards each other”

In the same line of thinking Dr. Asifa Majid – professor of psycholinguistics specialized in the sense of smell – made it very clear how educating the senses  of children can contribute to more tolerance towards one another

“Schools are a forum where we train our children’s visual and auditory skills, but we neglect their remaining senses […] incorporating all the senses is also an important way of learning another culture’s worldview, especially in our multicultural communities”

blog nose children smelling an olfactory exhibition at Villa Rot

Children are being made aware of their sense of smell at the exhibition ‘Scent in Art’, which I curated for Villa Rot in 2015

Smell courses in art academies: fresh perspectives

More and more art students (the Royal College of Art, the Hague, the Royal College of Art, London and PXL Mad, Hasselt) are taught how to engage with new and demanding (museum) audiences through the sense of smell.

The Dutch-Japanese artist Maki Ueda has been teaching the course ”Smell and Art” at the ArtSicence Interfaculty at the Royal Academy of Arts the Hague for almost 10 years now. Ueda choose the olfactory game as a starting point because it requires a creative approach, that is neutral in a sense that the quality and nature of the scents are less important than the sense of smell itself:

“From the beginning I made a conceptual and abstract approach to medium of smell […] We always have limited fragrance materials but we never end up with thinking of new games”

Beside challenging her students to playfully explore the limits of our most neglected sense in order to get acquainted with its characteristics and peculiarities, there is also a practical dimension. Students actually learn the basic skills of perfume making:

“There needs to be a poetic aesthetic dimension too. That is why I teach students a somewhat scientific approach to the medium of smell by extracting and composing, in order to entertain their audience in a creative way”

blog NOSe the audience smelling Peter de Cupere's work in De Warande, Turnhout

Visitor Smelling work by Peter De Cupere at De Warande, Turnhout

Renowned Belgian olfactory artist Peter De Cupere established the “Art Sense(s) Lab” a couple of years ago. He is specifically interested in the ‘lower’ or rather ‘near’ senses, which have been left out of the aesthetic debate from the 18th century onwards, but which establish very direct and innovative ways of engaging people:

“Museums and exhibition makers show more interest in the near senses and this will increase over the following years […] There is also a greater demand for sensory experiential art because that way the viewer is more personally and individually involved in the artwork and the exhibition visit. Artist can provide in that demand”

Last but not least, I would like to mention the most surprising course in this list. Susan Irvine has set up a course on olfaction for fashion students at the very prestigious Royal Academy of Arts (RCA) in London:

“Exploring the sense of smell feels right for an art college where learning is about experience, about embodiment, about the undermining of the critical norms established by a valorization of linguistic abilities […] It is interesting that among the students working in olfaction at the RCA, many are focused on the smells emitted by the human body.  Others are interested in how odours create a smell-space where we enter a communal, ritual experience. Something that can’t be replicated online”

All the above courses and initiatives demonstrate our collective need of the sense of smell in academic and artistic contexts and beyond. At the same time they provide us with a sense of connection to others, and our shared history.

Smell can make us better scholars, better artists, and more sociable, tolerant human beings. If we start educating our noses.

blog nose educating the sense of smell

by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian

member of NOSE network

affiliated to Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Mediamatic, Amsterdam, the Royal Academy of Arts, IFF and the Rijksmuseum

http://www.caroverbeek.nl



 

If you would like to train your sense of smell, take a look at the list below. This is an incomplete yet representative overview of what is happening in the field of olfactory education (outside perfumery) right now. This blog and the list of courses will hopefully serve as a valuable document for current and future researchers concerning our attitude towards smell and education in the 21st century.

 

International Scent Programs in the Arts and Humanities

 

Courses within the humanities:

 

What?                     “Art and the Senses”

Where?   Cambridge University

Since when?           2018

By whom?               Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière

For whom?             Art historians

https://www.hoart.cam.ac.uk/images/grasuate-research-smiars-poster-lent-2018

 

What?                     “Urban Culture”

Where?                    Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Tim Verlaan, Hans Fidom, Caro Verbeek

For whom?             Art, architecture, design and media students

 

What?                     “the Senses”

Where?                    University of Utrecht

Since when?           2018

By whom?               Patrick van Rossem

For whom?             (art) history, philosophy and theatre students

 

Grammer school course

 

What?                     “Language of the Senses”

Where?                  Worldwide initiative

Since when?           2017

By whom?               Asifa Majid

For whom?             children

 

Courses in Art Academies

 

What?                     “Smell and Art

Where?                    ArtScience Interfaculty (Royal Academy of Arts), the Hague

Since when?           2009

By whom?               Maki Ueda

For whom?             ArtScience students, but eventually the wide audience they perform to http://smellart.blogspot.com

 

 

What?                     Fashion and Olfactory Art

Where?                   Royal College of Art, London

Since when?           2017

By whom?               Susan Irvine

For whom?             Fashion and design students

 

What?                     “The Other Senses”

Where?                   ArtScience Interfaculty (Royal Acedemy of Arts), the Hague

Since when?           2010

By whom?               Caro Verbeek

For whom?             Artscience students (obligatory)

http://www.interfaculty.nl/programme/courses/

 

What?                     “Art Sense(s) Lab”

Where?                   University College PXL-MAD (Media, Arts & Design), Hasselt (Belgium)

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Peter De Cupere

For whom?             Post-graduate artists and designers, eventually museum visitors

http://www.artsenseslab.be/media/pdf/PXL-MAD-Art-Senses-Lab_2016-2017.pdf

 

Unfortunately the course will cease to exist next year, but De Cupere is working on an alternative course.

 

Courses within art institutions

 

What?                     The Institute of Art & Olfaction

Where?                   Los Angeles

Since when?           2012

By whom?               Saskia Wilson-Brown

For whom?             anyone

http://artandolfaction.com/

 

 

What?                     “Odorama”

Where?                   Mediamatic, Amsterdam

Since when?           2015

By whom?               Mediamatic & Caro Verbeek, co-curated by Sanne Groeneveld en

Frank Bloem

For whom?             anyone

https://www.mediamatic.net/en/page/236592/odorama

 

What?                     “Smell Lab”

Where?                   Berlin

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Klara Ravat

For whom?             anyone

https://.smell-lab.org/

How Charlotte of Bourbon Was Saved by A Foul Smell – or the Womb as an Olfactory Organ

womb funigation in Thesaurus chirurgiae 2, 1610

Device for womb fumigation, from: Thesaurus chirurgiae, 1610

Two noses?

For thousands of years the womb was considered an organ of olfaction. It was thought to have the capacity to perceive and react to odorants.That is why famous doctor Hippocrates (470 BC – 370 BC) prescribed perfumed pessaries to guarantee fertility and healthy offspring:

“..make a pessary the size of a big olive. Then apply into the vagina for the entire night. Let [the patient] sleep lying on her back. During the day let her remove it [sc. The pessary] and cleanse herself with warm myrtle water, as much as possible. Then during the day let her apply [the pessary] when getting close to the night. After that, let her meet [with her husband]”

Helkiah Crooke (1576 – 1648) – court physician to King James I of England – argued that smells could result in equally negative – even fatal – effects. The  scent of an extinguished candle for example, was enough to kill an unborn child:

“Wombs are much affected by sauours and smelles: so that some haue been knowne to miscarry upon the stench of a candle put out” (1)

 

 

Gynaecological odor therapy

According to Crooke odours were very useful to relocate the ‘wandering womb’ to its proper place. Foul smells like a burning feather perceived by the nose, made the womb retreat, whereas fragrant substances such as musk placed between the legs attracted the womb (1). The most powerful therapy consisted of using odorants for both ‘noses’ simultaneously. This is why the womb was sometimes even fumigated, with appropriate pomanders.

A medieval medicinal book – The Trotula – recommended women to smell heavy or repellent odours such as burning wool to drive the uterus from the upper body (2). Fragrant substances had the opposite effect. For pregnant women musk was considered dangerous when placed under the nose: it would pull the womb the wrong way with serious complications.

 

Trotula portrayed in a 14th century copy of the original 12th century manuscript

William of Orange’s wife saved by a scent

The story of the healing of William of Orange’s wife – penned down by their court physician – makes much more sense with these firmly rooted assumptions in mind. I found the story while researching the olfactory dimension of William of Orange’s life for a reconstruction for an exhibition. Charlotte of Bourbon allegedly got sick of the scent of fragrant flowers right before going into labour. According to Pieter Forestus (1527 – 1591) she didn’t feel better until all the fresh flowers had been removed from her room, and something foul smelling had been placed under her nostrils, which was probably a burning feather. (3) Her servants were even prohibited to wear garments perfumed with musk to prevent her from feeling sick. William of Orange himself was once cured by the same physician by doing the opposite: his fever diminished when fresh leaves and plants were placed around his bed (3).

 

Charlottebourbon Daniël van den Queborn1579 blog

Charlotte of Bourbon, 1579. Holding a bell or a pomander at the height of her womb.

The odour-emitting womb; a scientific fact?

Although the womb isn’t known to actually react to odorants, it possibly emits some. In 2012 scientists made an extraordinary discovery. It appears that the odorant ‘bourgeonal’ attracts semen. This lily-of-the-valley like compound is supposedly emitted by the womb. Recently this myth got debunked again.

But the fact that our bodies possibly perceive and react to chemicals in a much more profound way than contemporary scientists presume, is highly intriguing, especially in the light of two millenia of historical examples.

Futurist Scents is a blog by art and scent historian Caro Verbeek

For more information visit Lizzie Marx’ exhibition ‘Smelly Remedy: Womb Fumigation’

My personal website

References

  1. See Holly Dugan, The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, 2011
  2. Trotula is said to have been the first female professor of medicine in eleventh- or twelfth-century Salerno. See Monika H. Green (ed.), The Trotula – A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine
  3. See R. Fruin ‘Eenige Ziekten van Prins Willem I’, in Bijdragen voor Vaderlandsche Geschiedenis en Oudheidkunde’, 1886

The Nose as an Academic Tool – Understanding Art History by the Sense of Smell at Cambridge University

smelling session at cambridge

The audience at Cambridge University during a Historical Sniffing Session

It probably still smells like ancient resins, modernist perfumes and a hint of Surrealist exhibition design at Cambridge University. On the 7th of February I diffused some (art) historical scents for the program ‘Art and the Senses’, organized by Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière.

Knowing by Smelling

Can adding olfactory illustrations actually lead to more knowledge?

The Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that he was capable of ‘sniffing out the truth’(1), and deemed the sense of smell ‘our most refined instrument’. This consequently lead the founder of Futurism Marinetti to exclaim that ‘The scent, the scent alone is enough for us beasts! (Il fiuto, il fiuto solo basta alle belve!) in his 1909 founding manifesto. The sense of smell and intuition were related concepts around the fin-de-siècle. Marinetti and Nietzsche used the term ‘flair’ or ‘fiuto’ in both senses of the word.

Nietzsche in 1882 and Marinetti. Nietzsche was an important source of inspiration for the olfactory explorations and expressions of Futurism. 

Along the same line of thought scent philosopher Annick le Geurér argued more recently that:

just because the sense of smell is coined as anti-intellectual, doesn’t mean we cannot benefit from its information intellectually. Smell is revelatory not just of substances, but also of moods, climates, and even existential states. The sense of smell is a subtle tool of knowledge that allows for an intuitive and prelinguistic understanding” (2)

Beyond Intuitive Knowledge

The idea that smells can convey subjective knowledge, is now widely accepted. But I am convinced the nose is a tool of knowledge that can provide us with ‘objective’ information as well. If only by classifying materials used in historical objects, such as pomanders. What did they contain? And why?

A couple of years ago I  sniffed a pomander that belonged to Dutch queen Wilhelmina, now part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum. There was clearly olibanum and labdanum in the fragrant substance inside the jewel. These substances can easily impregnate vast areas because these odourants are both persistent and intense. That makes them extremely useful for covering up foul odours. I did not know this until I actually smelled them and experienced their spatial behaviour.

Bitter Myrrh as a Sensory Metaphor – Transhistorical Qualities of Scent

Scent compositions, like paintings, aren’t only affective emotional objects that evoke memories or moods. They sometimes can be analyzed and judged by their abstract characteristics. Odorants have a volume, aromatic quality, duration, trigeminal quality, etc. etc. that can be perceived regardless of a cultural background.

Take ‘myrrh’. This resin was one of the three gifts offered to Christ. At least until the the 6th century the scent itself was thought to have conveyed a prophetic message. Being of a bitter quality, it was believed to forecast Christ’s future suffering, whereas the sweeter frankincense signified his holiness. And there are many more examples, probably more difficult ones to access, of fragrances carrying meaning in their aromatic quality. Of course this meaning still needs to be embedded in its cultural context, just like art historians would do with visual works of art.

Geertgen_tot_St._Jans_-_De_aanbidding_van_de_koningen_-_Rijksmuseum_SK-A-2150 blog cambridge

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, the Adoration of the Magi, c. 1480 – c. 1485, Rijksmuseum

 

Recognising Olfactory Expressions in Texts and Paintings – Smelling is Believing

Even the purely text-based historian can benefit enormously from smelling. Many people in the west aren’t likely to recognise olfactory references in paintings and texts, especially when they are almost invisible. But once you start smelling, it is as if one can switch on special olfactory glasses, highlighting different words and aspects of paintings.

The most beautiful example of a ‘hidden’ aromatic message, must be ‘Isaac Blesses Jacob’, depicted here in this painting by Govert Flinck in c. 1638.

Isaac was old and his eyes had become dim when he was ready to give his blessing to Esau, the eldest of his twin sons. When – encouraged by his cunning mother Rebecca – the other son Jacob approaches Isaac to falsely receive the blessing, he has to deceive all the senses his father can still use. He wore a goat’s skin on his arm to deceive his sense of touch, to seem just as hairy as his brother Esau. But it was the sense of smell that truly convinced him:

“Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said,

“See, the smell of my son
is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!
May God give you of the dew of heaven”

 

Olfaction in mind, Rebecca was clever enough to make Jacob wear some of the hunting gear of his brother. Not seeing, but smelling was believing in this case. Flinck made sure to paint a small piece of cloth, wrapped around the neck of Jacob, referring to his ‘smelly business’. A visually insignificant element, yet essential to the story. While talking about the painting, I tend to diffuse the smell of a field, emphasising the sense of importance by directly addressing it. This generally makes people more aware of the often forgotten dimension of history.

isaak zegent jacob blog cambridge 2

Combining Olfaction and the Intellect to Better Understand History

The idea that scents are just by-products, not having any agency, and not being used for their inherent qualities, prevents us from ‘seeing’ more than we possibly could. The only way to successfully incorporate scents in academia and to reconstruct a ‘period nose’, is to diffuse them, analytically smell them (distinguish subjective judgement from abstract qualities), and contextualize them. Only when the sensory and the intellectual are combined, scents can become serious methodological tools and increase our understanding of the ephemeral olfactory past. Therefore I would like to urge scholars and others to start smelling the olfactory elements and objects of the stories they research.

  1. Nietzsche, F. (1874), Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben in: Labuhn, B. (2017), “Breathing a Moldy Air – Olfactory Experience, Aesthetics, and Ethics in the Writing of Ruskin and Riegl”, in Future Anterior, vol XIII, nr. 2, pp. 103 – 117,
  2. Annick le Guerer, (2002) ‘Olfaction and cognition: A philosophical and psychoanalytic view’, in C. Rouby, B. Schaal, D. Dubois, R. Gervais, & A. Holly (Eds.), Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press