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

By scent historian Caro Verbeek (

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 Emma, 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


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian

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