Seeing by Smelling – How to Enhance the Experience for Blind and Low Sighted People in a Museum of ‘Visual’ Art

In 2015 I embarked on one of the greatest adventures of my life. IFF (Hilversum), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and I (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) reconstructed a dozen historical and other scents for our joint project ‘In Search of Lost Scents’. All scents were related to art works from the so called ‘Highlight tour’: a unique project combining the best of (very different) worlds.

Right before the lockdown (due to corona) I was able to introduce some of these scents to a group of blind and near sighted people during a tour at the Rijksmuseum, organized by Hannes Wallrafen of Stichting Geluid in Zicht and Cathelijne Denekamp. Denekamp is manager of accessibility in the museum and is convinced the senses can play an important role in inclusivity:

“In order to make objects come to life, touch and smell are essential tools for blind people or people with low vision. The Rijksmuseum is considered a very visual museum. As a museum we acknowledge our responsibility of giving blind people or people with low vision access to art and history without using their eyes. Scent and story-telling enable us to do that.”


Olfactory tour for blind and near-sighted people at the Rijksmuseum. Some (including me) are wearing especially designed scent necklaces which are a co-creation and -design by Caro Verbeek, Justus Tomlow and Bernardo Fleming (IFF).

Understanding rituals by the sense of smell – The Adoration of the Magi

We started our multi-sensory tour in the dimly lit vaulted rooms that store medieval and renaissance art works. We halted at the painting ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. The artist confronts us with lavishly dressed men holding precious gifts in front of a new-born child sitting on the lap of his mother. After this description the participants recognized the biblical story of the three kings offering frankincense, myrrh and gold to Jesus without even hearing the title of the painting. Not mentioning such details leaves more room for the mind to explore and imagine.

Frankincense and myrrh were meant as burnt offerings to pay honour to kings and gods. In antiquity  resins were burnt ‘per fumum’ (through smoke) to make its fragrant emanations reach the nostrils of divine beings. Every contemporary viewer of this painting would have understood that by offering these fragrances these royals symbolically acknowledged the divine and profane superiority of Christ; a meaning that got lost somewhere over the past centuries. And so did the meaning and aromatic quality of one of the scents.

The participants were enabled to actually smell myrrh as part of a story-telling technique. Its aromatic quality (bitter) is connected to its historical meaning: besides being an offering to a god, the bitterness of this resin was considered prophetic and referred to the future suffering of Christ. This means that sensory engagement can actually lead to a better understanding of past rituals. Here’s what participant Emilie De Lanoy Meijer recalled months later:

“Because of the scent of myrrh I instantly felt transported to the story and time it took place.”

Scents are in fact known to elicit intense historical sensations, according to neuro-scientist Richard Stevenson; even more so than images or sounds.

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

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Adoration of the Magi, 1480 – 1485. Two of the gifts offered to Jesus were scents. Myrrh literally translates as bitter and smells accordingly. 


“As a fully blind individual I do not feel any connection to paintings, but rather to stories”

We then took a small detour to a so-called ‘pomander’ in the department of the ‘special collections’. Pomanders are metal jewels filled with fragrances, worn by people of high status such as doctors and lawyers. They were hung from a chain or ‘chatelaine’ so the scents could be taken to the nose at will. Fragrances were supposed to help protect people from diseases, which were thought to be caused by bad smells (think of ‘malaria’ which literally means ‘bad air’). Baring in mind the story surrounding the three magi: a pomander could also function as a prayer nut which contents were an offering or wordless prayer in itself.

Poor people had to make do with strong smelling cheaper products such as vinegar and rosemary to stay healthy, strengthening the already existing olfactory dichotomy poor/ foul – rich/ fragrant that still exists today.

The 17th century pomander in question consists of six compartments, not unlike an orange, or a hand with the palm facing up and the fingers brought together at the top. It can be opened by taking down one of the slices and opening its little drawer.  I brought a pomander of about the same size from my own collection and made it pass from hand to hand so people could palpate it. The accompanying scent was a reconstructed recipe from a 16th century book of secrets (recipe book) which is also part of the collection of the Rijksmuseum. It contains nutmeg, clove, cinnamon, rose and (artificial) civet. One participant later recalled this part of the tour very vividly. Anita Gonzalez explained why:

“I clearly remember that silver piece of jewellery. Maybe because we both smelled it and were able to hold one in our hands. More in general the scents really contributed to the stories surrounding the objects, not the artefacts themselves. Being 100% blind I do not feel any connection to –  for example – paintings. The scents really made me empathize with people from different eras though. I have an excellent sense of imagination.”


Anonymous, compartmentalised pomander, 16th century, 1600 – 1625.


“Art always alludes to its original invisibility, which belongs to the nature of all things, ill-represented by words”

One could argue that museums of visual art are all about objects and their visibilty, but as the quote by Gonzalez illustrates this isn’t the case. Artefacts and paintings refer to and represent concepts, multi-sensory experiences and stories that aren’t just accessible through the eyes, as Bacci and Melcher explain in ‘Art & The Senses (2011):

“The meaning of art can be revealed in many ways. One can carry out a historical, critical, iconological, or iconographic analysis […]. Here we try a different way […]. Here we examine art as a reality that can be seen and sensed […]. In fact, art always alludes to its original invisibility, which belongs to the nature of all things, ill-represented by words.”

That is why giving access to artefacts and stories though different senses really works for  people of different abilities.

Explorative hands and curious noses in an 18th century canal house

Our next stop was the 18th century interior of an original canal house, also known as the ‘Beuning Room’. Here we were able to touch (of course with gloves) the fireplace and mirrors adorned with detailed ornaments of leaves and nuts as well as smell the original ambience. I’ve never seen hands as explorative and gentle or noses as curious as the ones beloning to this group of people.

blind tour beuning

Participants gently touching elements in the 18th century Beuning Room, ca. 1745.

Amsterdam was a very damp place, due to the many canals and lack of double walls. In order to keep moist levels down and fight the smell of mildew and mold (which in Dutch would be described as ‘muf’) burnt fires and people threw resins and spices in the fireplace, rendering the air sweet and pleasant. The outdoor smells of horses, the canal (which was used as a sewer) and the many lime blossom trees, would still penetrate the interior of the house and mingle with the others.

Smelling, touching, listening and also kinaesthesia (sense of space through movement), can really transform a distant object, into an immersive lived experience.


The emanations of the Battle of Waterloo

We then set off to the department of 19th century art and history (we crossed the entire museum) to find out more about the largest painting in the collection “The Battle of Waterloo” by Jan Willem Pieneman (1824). I first walked the full length of the painting so people could hear its vast size by listening to my footsteps. Only then I tried to explain the depicted situation. Several victorious and heroic men on horses are set against a background of thousands of soldiers depicting different stages of the battle. Wellington with his shiny leather boots takes centre stage. The top half of the painting is filled with dark clouds, giving an indication of the harsh weather conditions on that fateful summer day. In the foreground we see wounded soldiers lying on the floor. A lonely canon ball stuck in a muddy puddle tells the story of Napoleon’s defeat: he had hoped his artillery would have led him to victory. But the mud prevented the cannon balls from reaching their desired destinations.

The scent that was especially composed for this painting – created by senior nose Birgit Sijbrands of IFF –  reflected many of the visible elements of the story: the weather, damp earth and grass, gunpowder,  leather and horses. Even the smell of anxiety, expressed most lively in the eyes of the horses, made its way into the smell. Since human beings are capable of smelling emotions, the smell yields more discomfort than the painting itself.


In front of the Battle of Waterloo by Pieneman, 1824. 

But one element that was present at Waterloo is not accessible through our eyes at all. Everyday, and also the day of his defeat, Napoleon wore his favorite perfume: acqua mirabilis by Farina. He used it to mask the evil smells of battle but also to stay healthy (remember the pomander). This perfume was used in almost every war since by many soldiers and for the same reasons.

Since this scent is now widely known as 4711 Eau de Cologne, many participants relived episodes from their childhood or suddenly remembered their mothers. That means that a smell can make us feel more closely connected to a historical episode while simultaneously addressing individual experiences. This might be why most participants remembered this part of the tour most clearly:

De Lanoy Meijer recalls:

“Your story was like an explosion of scents before my mind’s nose. When finally you made us smell it, I recognized it even though I hadn’t experienced it before. That made an impact.”

Another participant Hannes Wallrafen (a photographer who had turned blind later in life) commented on the same painting:

“What I remember most clearly of the tour, is the Battle of Waterloo. Its size and complexity were illustrated by your footsteps, story and the scent”.

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Hannes Wallrafen smelling the Battle of Waterloo composition by Birgit Sijbrands. Picture by Cathelijne Denekamp.


Nostalgia for the nose

We concluded our tour in the ‘attic’ of the museum, touching and smelling the 20th century Bantam airplane. As clinical and pristine as it may look in the museum, it was originally a machine of war that made loud violent noises, that shook heavily, and that spilled motor oil all over the pilot’s face. Since many people still recognize the scent of oil and gasoline, this scent brought up a lot of memories:

De Lanoy Meijer:

“This scent really reminded me of going to the beach as a young girl. I would often step into bits of tar that would stick to my shoes. This is the same scent”.


blind tour rijks bantam

Participants touching and smelling the 1918 Bantam Airplane.

The beauty of a scent tour is that its effects last for months (or even years). Half a year after conducting the tour I spoke to participant Joris Rademakers who is low sighted and also slightly anosmic (smell-blind). The strong smell of oil and gasoline evoked in him a great sense of freedom and pleasure, by just imagining it:

“The scent reminds me of boats and the harbour. My father was always afraid something would happen to me and I felt very restricted in my behaviour. But the moments my uncle took me on his sailing ship, there was this incredible sense of freedom and light-heartedness.  I can say that I don’t remember the trip, but actually relive it when I think of this smell. I feel exactly the way I felt back then and the joy this brings lasts all day and makes me forget about other misery.”

Again, a personal story is connected to an artefact by means of the sense of smell, enhancing the memorability of a scent tour.

You see more when you smell

A smell tour for blind and low-sighted people in a museum of visual art has multiple and profound effects:

  • smell evokes personal memories as well as historical sensations (a sense of being transported to the past)
  • smell is evocative of moods and weather conditions
  • smell lifts the boundary between perceived object and perceiving subject
  • smell stirs the imagination
  • smell makes impressions last longer
  • smell adds to the meaning of stories and facilitates the understanding of the original use of artefacts.

Wallrafen summed up the experience of this multi sensory way of telling stories poetically:

“Smelling and listening stimulated my creativity. The multi-sensory way of delivering a story resulted in a very sensual state of mind. I already realized I could ‘see’ through my sense of hearing. But after today I know I can also ‘see’ by my sense of smell”.

As a final take home message I cannot emphasize this enough (and this goes for people of all sensory abilities):

You see more when you smell.


Caro Verbeek is an art and scent historian, specialised in creating smell tours for museums and reconstructing olfactory heritage.

Bernardo Fleming  – leader of the olfactive design studio – was the project leader of ‘In Search of Lost Scents’ from within IFF.

Cathelijne Denekamp – head of accessibility within the Rijksmuseum – co-organised this scent tour for blind and low sighted people.

Pauline Kintz – head of adult education – was the project leader of ‘In Search of Lost Scents’ from within the Rijksmuseum.

Inger Leemans – professor of cultural history – was the supervisor of my PhD-project ‘In Search of Lost Scents’ and my PhD-manuscript ‘Smelling Time – the Olfactory Dimension of Futurism’ from within Vrije Universiteit.

‘Odori spiralici’ and ‘Aeroprofumi’ – the Unique Olfactory Vocabulary of the Futurists

There appears to be a dramatic mismatch between smell and language, at least in most western vocabularies. Most people have a hard time describing scents. But exactly this lack of vocabulary inspired the Futurists to invent their own words to describe their innovate olfactory practices and modernist relation to smell. They tried to bridge the gap between the sensory world and the words that represented this by transforming words into sensory elements themselves.

Scent played an important – yet overlooked role in Futurism – as preluded by the very first manifesto Marinetti wrote exclaiming that “il fiuto, il fiuto basta alle belve!” (“The scent, nothing but the scent. That’s all an animal needs!”, Fondazione e manifesto del futurismo, 1909). Furthermore the Futurists aromatized theatres (Marinetti), dance (Valentine de Saint-Point), cinema (Bruno Munari and Castagnetti) and allegedly possibly also sculptures (Fedele Azari) and toys and ‘oggetti plastici’ (Fortunato Depero).

What follows is a list of words referring to olfactory phenomena as found in Futurist, Symbolist and other contemporary texts between ca. 1850 and ca. 1950. These might help scholars and enthusiasts to relate to scent culture and describe and understand their olfactory environment better. This research is part of the PhD-project “In Search of Lost Scents – The Olfactory Dimension of Futurism (1909 – 1942) by Caro Verbeek).


F = Futurist (invented by the Futurists)

C = Contemporary (invented by contemporaries, such as the Symbolists)


aeromet F (aero-dish)

French equivalent for ‘aerovivanda’. Aeromet is probably derived from the French medieval ‘entremet’; a term used to describe a multi-sensory dish. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.


aerovivanda F (aero-food)

A contraction of ‘aero’ (a prefix invented by the Futurists to indicate speed and modernity)) and ‘vivanda’ (food). A typical aerovivanda contained scents, tastes, sounds and tactile elements. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.


aeropofumi F (aeroperfumes)

A contraction of ‘aero’ (a prefix invented by the Futurists to indicate speed and modernity) and ‘profumi’ (perfumes). ‘Aeroprofumi’ were typically Italian smells. Sanzin (1942), Fiori d’Italia.


accordi di fetori F (stench chords)

Literally ‘chords of stench’. Valentinelli, (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


allons au parfum C (let’s go to the scent concert)

Literally ‘Let’s go to the perfume’ or to the perfume concert.  Montesquiou (1900), Pays des aromates.


arpeggio (of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon)

Literally a ‘broken chord’ (of thyme and lavender, of rosemary, basil, myrtle, tarragon). An arpeggio consists of a succession of notes rather than a chord played at once. An olfactory arpeggio would consist of rapidly alternating olfactory notes. Huxley (1932), Brave New World.


concerto di profumi (perfume concert)

Literally ‘concert of perfumes’.  Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


conprofumo F (harmonic perfume?)

A contraction of ‘con’(with) and ‘profumo’ (perfume). A term used to indicate the affinity of a given perfume with the taste of a certain type of food, such as mashed potatoes and roses. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.


disprofumo F (dis-perfume, contrasting perfume?)

A contraction of ‘dis’ (counter/ opposite) and ‘profumo’ (perfume). A term used to indicate the complementary character of a given perfume with the taste of a certain type of food, such as raw meat and jasmin. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.


caldagrodolce F (warmbittersweet)

A contraction of ‘caldo’ (warm), ‘agro’ (sharp/ bitter) and ‘dolce’(sweet). Marinetti (1932), “Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.


fetori, storia dei F (history of stench)

Literally ‘history of stench’. Valentinelli wanted to include stench in the renarrating of the history of smell, since only perfumes are described. Stench would heighten the lyricism because of the intriguing contrast they would pose. Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


forces odorales (odorous forces)

Literally ‘olfactory forces’. The concept was used in in the scented Total Work of Art Cantique des cantiques van Paul-Napoléon Roinard. Roinard (1891), Les miroirs.


frescacido F (freshsour)

A contraction of ‘fresco’ (fresh) and ‘acido’ (acid/ sour). Marinetti, Il tamburo di fuoco, 1922.


homeopathie nasale (nasal therapy)

Olfactory therapy based on the healing power of scent memories. Huysmans (1884), À rebours.


idiome des fluids C (perfume language)

Literally ‘grammar of fluids’ or language of perfumes. Huysmans (1884), À rebours.


lirismo olfattorio F (olfactory lyricism)

Letterlijk ‘olfactorische lyriek’. Zie ook het verwante begrip ‘stances aromatiques’ van Piesse. Bron: Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


litanie odorante C (fragrant prayer)

Fragrant prayers or burnt offerings were a means to communicate to the gods.  Montesquiou (1900), Pays des aromats.


mise en senteur C (scent composition)

Literally a ‘scented composition’ derived from ‘mise-en-scène’; a concept taken from the realm of theatre. It was first used for the scented Total Work of Art ‘Cantique des cantiques’ by Paul-Napoléon Roinard. Roinard (1908), Les miroirs.


modulations (of spice keys into ambergris)

Also see ‘modulazioni olfattive’. Huxley (1932), Brave New World.


modulazioni olfattive F (olfactory modulations)

Literally ‘olfactory modulations. A modulation is a rapid shift from one tone to the next and back again. According to Avery Gilbert the human sense of smell cannot detect such shifts. Sanzin (1942), Fiori d’Italia.


musica di odori F (music of scents)

Music of odours. Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


narines excédées C (extraordinary nostrils/ sense of smell)

Literally  ‘extraordinary nostrils’, or a keen sense of smell. Huysmans (1884), À rebours.


octave of smells C

Septimus Piesse believed that every note corresponded to an odorant.  Piesse (1857), The Art of Perfumery.

Also see ‘smound’.


odorant souvenir C (olfactory memory)

The olfactory memory was not first described by Proust, but by the ‘Professor of Beauty’.  Montesquiou (1900), Pays des aromates.


odorante orchestration C (fragrant orchestration)

Orchestration of scent.  Huysmans (1884), À rebours.


odorat, hallucinations de l’ C

Fictional character Des Esseintes smelled things that weren’t there. Huysmans (1884), À rebours.


odore, archi mobili di F (moving arches of odour)

Marinetti described ‘moving arhces of odour’ as part of the olfactory aura/ scent trail of a woman. Marinetti, (1932), “Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.


odore azzuro F

Blue odour.  Carrà, 1913/ Azari, “Milano-Montecarlo in direttissimo Pullman”, 1920.


odeur azure F

Blue odour. Montesquiou (1900), Pays des aromates.


odore concavo F

Concave odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore conico F

Cone-shaped odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore convesso F

Convex odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore elissoidali F

Elliptical odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore giallo F

Yellow odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore oblungo F

Oblong odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odeur opaline F

Intensely blue odour.  Montesquiou (1900), Pays des aromates.


odore ovoidale F

Oval odour.  Marinetti, (1932), “Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.


odore rosso F

Red odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”, Marinetti, (1932), “Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.


odore sferico F

Spherical odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore spiralico F

Spiral-shaped odour. Carrà, 1913/ Fedele Azari (1920), “Milano-Montecarlo in direttissimo Pullman”, Marinetti (1932), “Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.


odore tondo F

Circular odour.  Marinetti (1933), “Teatro totale

per masse”, 1933, Marinetti (1932), “Paesaggio di odori del mio cane-lupo”.


odore triangolare

Triangular odour. Carrà (1913), “La pittura”, Azari (1920), “Milano-Montecarlo in direttissimo Pullman”.


odore turchino F

Turquoise odour.  Carrà, “La pittura”, 1913.


odore velutato

Velvety odour. Marinetti (1932), ‘”Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.

odeur vert C

Green odour. Baudelaire (1857), Correspondences.


odore verde F

Green odour. Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odore violetto

Purple odour.  Carrà (1913), “La pittura”.


odori, monotonia di F (monotony of odours)

Literally ‘monotony of odours’. Valentinelli wanted to replace existing smells attached to places with more appropirate ones in line with activities and functions.  Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


olfatto-immaginazione F (olfactory imagination/ olfactorisation)

There is no word for ‘olfactory imagination’ in Italian. Marinetti used it in the context of the scent of female skin and how it aroused him (as opposed to perfume).  Marinetti (1920), Il lusso femminile.


ondate olezzatrici F (fragrant waves)

‘Ondata’ means ‘waves’ and ‘olezzatrice’ means ‘giving of scent. In the 19th and early 20th century smells were thought to travel as a vibrating electro-magnetic waves.: Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


ondes odorantes C (fragrant waves)

Literally ‘fragrant waves’. In the 19th and early 20th century smells were thought to travel as a vibrating electro-magnetic waves. Huysmans (1884), Á rebours.


paesaggio di odori F (scentscape)

Marinetti was the first artists to use this word for the spatial and temporal organization of scents. Marinetti (1912), “Manifesto tecnico della letteratura futurista”, Marinetti (1932), “Paesaggio di odori del mio cane-lupo”.


polibibita F (multisensory cocktail)

Contraction of ‘poli’ (plural/ several) and ‘bibita’ (drink). The polibibita is the Italian equivalent for ‘cocktail’. A polibita could even consist of sounds. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.


profumatóio (a tastiera) F (scent organ)

Marinetti described a scent organ in a manifesto. It was supposed to answer to indivudual tastes and playe by the audience (odience) at their own table. Marinetti (1933), “Teatro totale per masse”, Battaglia, Dizionario Italiano, 1961.


polifonia di profumi F (polyphony of perfumes)

A ‘polifonia’ di odori’ is a controlled synthesis of different perfumes. Bron: Sanzin (1942), Fiori d’Italia.


ritratto olfattivo F (olfactory portrait)

Marinetti described the dynamic scent trail and exhalations of a woman he found attractive and that he traced by following his nose. Marinetti (1932), “Ritratto olfattivo di una donna”.


sapore-colore-odore F (taste-colour-odour/ flavour)

There is no word for ‘flavour’ in Italian, so the Futurists contracted taste, colour and smell to emphaisize the synthesis of these sensory stimuli during culinary activities. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.


scent organ C

Aldous Huxley’s scent organ was able to modulate and switch odours very rapidly. Huxley (1932), Brave New World.


semi-odors C

Semi-odors are half-notes – like the black keys on a piano – and are derived from the ‘octave of odours’ by Septimus Piesse. Deze metafoor is verwant aan ‘octave of odours’ en ook afkomstig van Septimus Piesse. Piesse (1857), The Art of Perfumery.


sinottico- singustativo F (synoptic-together/syn-gustatory)

When diverse tastes come together to become a new whole. Marinetti, Fillìa (1932), La cucina futurista.



A contraction of sound and smell. Septimus Piesse believed that sounds triggered the olfactory nerve and vice versa. He was right. Piesse, The Art of Perfumery, 1857.


stances aromatiques C (aromatic verse/ poetry)

An aromatic wordless type of poetry. Huysmans (1884), Á rebours.


syntax/ grammar of perfume C

Piesse (1857), The Art of Perfumery.


uniodorità F (monodority)

Contraction of ‘unione’ of ‘unità (unity) en ‘odore’ (scent). Valentinelli wanted to break down the dreaded monotony of odours in certain places and argued for a scented narrative in line with the environment. Valentinelli (ca. 1916), “L’arte degli odori”.


vaprofumo F (vapodour)

Contraction of ‘vapore’ (vapour’) and profumo’ (perfume) to emphaisize the volatility and dynamism of an odorant. Giacomo Balla, Vaprofumo, 1928.

verdeazzurrodorato F (greenish-blueish-scent)

Contraction of ‘verde’ (green), ‘azure’ (blue) and ‘odorato’ (scented). Bruno Sanzin (1942), Fiori d’Italia.














Smelling Time? – On Scent as a Vanitas Symbol in Art

In the 16th and 17th century, the ‘Vanitas still-life’ was an immensely popular genre. Iconographically this category represented the fleeting nature of life and how we should not spend it in vain (vanitas) by simply satisfying our primary needs. Many items found on these still-lives refer to the passing of time and death, earthly pleasures and fragility: hourglasses, skulls, soap bubbles, musical instruments and flowers are just some examples.

blog smelling time vanitas hourglass

Dutch 17th century vanitas.

Depicting the Invisible

A vanitas element that is often overlooked – partially because it is invisible – is smell. Scent, being inherently volatile, disappears. Its very essence is ephemeral and transient, just like time itself. In fact, the flowers in still-lifes should be regarded as multi-sensory carriers of meaning. As their petals and stems wither, so will their aroma, from floral to putrid until the scent completely disappears. Incense burners visibly emitting smoke are a more explicit and very clever way of depicting that very aspect of scent, like in this still life by Edwaert Collier from 1693.

edwaert collier vanitas still life with incense burner

Edwaert Collier, “Vanitas Still Life” with an incense burner at the top right, 1693.

But there are even more explicit examples. This 18th century pomander disguised as a (mock) watch is one of them. A pomander (derived from ‘pomme d’ambre’) was an item (usually made of metal) filled with fragrant substances such as clove, nutmeg, musk and ambergris. Pomanders were used to protect oneself by ‘cleansing the air’, since bad smells (miasmas) were thought to transmit diseases such as the plague (more on miasma-theory here and a top 10 of fragrant remedies here).

blog smelling time pomander-watch   blog smelling time pomander watch inside

Pomander-watch. Before 1750. Currently owned by Dekker Antiquairs, Amsterdam.

Could it be that handling what seems to be a watch was more accepted than sniffing a pomander in public? Or was it considered humorous to make people think one was ‘smelling the time’? Both watches and pomanders were hung from chains and could be looked at or sniffed whenever necessary by lifting them. They are of a similar archetyptical shape. Furthermore both pomanders and watches share the vanitas-motive of time. This is emphasized by the division of the scent compartments into quarters (of an hour).

A Modern Vanitas Still Life Featuring Scent

In the 20th century scent has continued to symbolise vanity and time. In 1965 installation artist Edward Kienholz created a down-sized replica of a bar in Los Angeles known as ‘Barney’s Beanery’. The replica doesn’t just look like a bar, it also sounds AND smells like a bar. The artist had mixed stale beer, cigarette ashes, rancid grease, moth balls, and of course urine (allegedly Jim Morrison had once even peed on the counter) and had smeared the paste on a ventilator. The Stedelijk later replaced this ingredient by ammoniac.

blog smelling time kienholz beanery

Edward Kienholz, inside of “The Beanery”, 1965, collection Stedelijk Museum.

The visitors on the stools and elsewhere in the bar all have clocks for heads, the clock-hands fixated in an eternal smile at 10 to 2. This scene can actually be considered a 3-D vanitas still-life visually frozen in time whereas the sound and the smell are actually time-based performative elements that keep on unwinding.

There is an old newspaper outside the bar that says ‘children are killing children in Vietnam’. The overall message is clear: while the people in the bar are spending their time in vain, innocent children at the other side of the globe are murdered and nothing is done to prevent it.

The Time Capsule Preserving Scent

Although (or rather because) the olfactory dimension of “the Beanery” is  time-based it is also limited. It had to be reconstructed several times by the conservators of the Stedelijk Museum.

Exactly half a century after “the Beanery” saw the light artist Esther Brakenhoff (who works at the library of the Stedelijk) was inspired by the analogy between time and smell in Kienholz’s installation. She created a capsule shaped like a classic clock with a reconstruction of the scent inside of it.

esther brakenhoff smell capsule 2015

Esther Brakenhoff, “Fragrance Capsule, Edward Kienholz – the Beanery”, 2015, private collection artist. Someone had tipped over the sculpture, spilling urine all over the pedestal. Kienholz would probably have loved it.

Smell is connected to time in both a concrete and poetic manner. They are both invisible and immaterial. Both force us to pay attention to the present moment. And they are interwoven phenomena: as time ‘keeps on slipping into the future’ so does scent as time passes by. Dogs are even said to experience time by their sense of smell. They know when their owners are returning from work because their scent trail has diminished to a certain extend.

Ironically some scents fade slower than sounds and images. They can linger for a while as an olfactory echo until these too vanish forever, reminding us of the temporality of life (memento mori!).





When an Olfactory Artist Loses Her Sense of Smell – An Interview with Josely Carvalho on Dealing with Corona

Through emails and a Zoom-meeting with an ocean between us and isolated in our homes, I interviewed olfactory artist Josely Carvalho on her work and recent experiences with Covid-19. What happens when an award winning olfactory artist – and of course ‘simply’ a human being – loses her sense of smell?


  1. You are an artist working on several social and political themes. You often use smell as a tool. Why is smell such an effective medium in the messages you want to convey?

Smell emanates from the guts of my artwork – from the necessity to articulate issues, anxieties and questions through affections.

From the beginning my artwork has taken the sensorial as a layer to discuss feminism, political actions and nomadism. I am also interested in individual and collective memories that can be accessed through the senses. Smell had always been an underlying concept in my work, but I didn’t use actual scents in the beginning.

Then in 2009, I started a series of photographs of a bird killed in the process of making his nest which I used in the installations ‘Nidus Vitreo’ built with 1000 resin glass molded branches through avian architecture. It was a continuation of an examination of our need to be sheltered in a moment in history where our sense of home had been shifted by ethnic wars, migrations, political divisions and the fragility of our environment. The turtle, my avatar, was the visual metaphor for this phenomenon. That year, after having been away from Brazil for 25 years, just like turtles, I emotionally returned to the beaches I was born in. I was looking for the smells of my childhood although I knew they were not there anymore. I had to create smells. By pure chance I met someone at Givaudan [Fragrance industry Brasil] and since that moment they became the nest I was looking for.

Smell is poetry without words.

Could this be one of the reasons that our smell vocabulary is so poor?

Smell has taken the place of poetry in my artwork today.

Can we live without poetry?

blog josely nidus vitreo 2

blog josely nidus vitreo

Installation views of Nidus Vitreo, 2010.


  1. About a year ago you won the prestigious Sadakichi Award for Experimental Work with Scent issued by the Institute for Art & Olfaction. What was it like to receive that kind of recognition?

Honestly, I was flabbergasted and speechless. I have had three recognitions that made a mark in my art practice. In 2000, when working and ready to give up, an experimental webwork I received the Creative Capital Foundation grant. The second, in 2017 I was having serious economic difficulties because of a few years of maintaining home care for my companion, I received the Pollock-Krasner Foundation and last year, the Sadakichi Award again gave me the necessary confidence to continue to have smells as protagonists in my visual and sound work. It also opened my horizons giving me the incentive to look for other venues, perhaps in Europe, now disrupted by Covid19. In the last few years, I have felt that the United States are too closed for the emotions connected to olfactory works which are not sellable on the market. I have never worked with a commercial gallery although I know I have paid a price for it. Ironically, this April, I was going to have an individual exhibit in a commercial gallery for the first time here in Rio de Janeiro (parallel to a museum installation). I was going to show ‘Smell of Fish’. Needless to say, it never happened.

blog josely sadakichi

Josely Carvalho (right) receiving the Sadakichi Award for Experimental Work with Scent, Grote Kerk, Amsterdam, 2019.


2. About 6 weeks ago, something devastating and life-changing happened to you. You were hit by the corona-virus. How did you feel when you first found out?

I didn’t know what to think. I felt terrible. I had a fever for several days and lost all my energy. I was so exhausted. I went into self-isolation on March 12 and haven’t been outside since.


  1. What were the first symptoms? Was the loss of smell one of them? Did you immediately realize you had lost your sense of smell?

I immediately realized I had lost my sense of taste and smell. But I thought it had to do with another condition and didn’t think of Corona. I was suffering from a stomach ache and got medicine for that. It was only after a few days that I realized with fever it had to be COVID. Without the availability of tests, we live in uncertainty.

blog josely turtle

Print from ‘The Book of Roofs’. The Turtle is Carvalho’s ‘avatar’.

  1. How did losing your sense of smell impact you on both a personal and artistic level? One can imagine that it’s more dramatic to lose one’s sense of smell when it is the primary tool in one’s professional life as well.

On a personal level: the loss of smell is the loss of joy. And I completely lost my appetite. I didn’t and still don’t feel like eating spicy foods. I only eat because I know I have to. All the time I was partially anosmic. And I didn’t worry as much about losing my sense of smell, as actually dying. When you stop breathing you stop smelling. It did make me realize how incredibly closely intertwined these two are: breathing and smelling. They are fundamental for living.

On an artistic level: coincidentally I had just finished working on the smells for my latest project “Entre os Cheiros da História” (Within the Smells of History) in the Garden of Cannons of the Museu Histórico Nacional in Rio de Janeiro. And they are here (points at her heart). I can still smell them in my mind. They are so incredibly closely conceptually intertwined, that I could still recall them outside of my olfactory bulb. The exhibition I had planned was about the history of war. I created 10 new scents that could be smelled from the mouth of the cannons and reflecting their own history of battles. For example: one cannon was made of a melted church bell and it participated in the war of Brazil and Paraguay. In this war Paraguay suffered so much losses that they had to call children to fight as soldiers. For INCENSE, we chose olibanum (frankincense) and myrrh, the traditional Christian religious incense and added pau santo and aromatic herbs such as sage to bring the memory of indigenous services during the Jesuit’s indoctrination.  Another smell is FEAR, experienced during the wars and now with our life with Covid19, living with an invisible creature inside our bodies. Both macro and micro wars are geared to inflict pain in the body. Covid19 directs towards our essential organ, the lungs, affecting breathing and consequently, the act of smell. Another smell is INVASION represented by metallic notes of blood, pus and putrefaction. To it, we added animalic notes such as castoreum and civet for the anxiety and fear that accompanies the invaded body. When Macron at the beginning of the crisis declared ‘we are at war’ it resonated with me. I realized I had chosen the cannons and the smells kind of prophetically: all the scents relate to COVID. The Olibanum and Mirha (myrrh) are now a traditional symbol of the vehicle that transports the spirits to heaven. And the analogy continues: whereas cannonballs penetrate bodies, buildings or ships, COVID penetrates us. Whereas the ships that were equipped with cannons went out to conquer the world, to open up countries, decimate indigenous populations to enrich the countries behind the invasions, COVID makes the world smaller and shows the inequalities we live with. We human beings become closed countries in our own home and our own bodies. So the disease inspired me artistically, even before it was here.

Although my work is based on an awareness and participation with the dramas taking place all around the world, COVID forced me to enter deeper into my own self as an artist. It brought me a deeper and wider introspection. it established a new relationship with time and space and it created a training ground to live in the here and now.
blog josely cannons

Cannons in the courtyard of the Museu Histórico Nacional in Rio de Janeiro where ‘Within the Smells of History’ is supposed to take place.

  1. Is your sense of smell returning?

Luckily it is. In my case it didn’t vanish completely. What I noticed is that instead of layered, smells became ‘flat’. Like seeing one colour instead of an entire composition.  After a while I could also smell strange things I had never smelled before. For example, I noticed a really sour and dark, acrid smell near my back door kitchen. But I couldn’t trace the source. My sister mentioned she felt in her place a sweet smell of cheap perfume in the back kitchen door during the same period. She didn’t have the Covid virus. I smelled nothing sweet. We both thought about our mother’s death in 2001. Could it be that she visited us to assure we were ok?

Another strange thing I noticed has to do with my own body odour. I never sweat. I don’t have smelly feet or armpits. But my body suddenly gave off bad smells. Also my feces smell terrible. I guess it’s because you have to get rid of toxins. But I can also imagine this disease actually has a smell. Just like doctors from the past used to recognize smells with their noses, COVID smells. But only once you got it. Once established in the host, it may disperse body odors. It doesn’t seem COVID has a a smell before it enters bodies, like the miasmas described in the past. Probably, we will know later about this reaction being different within each body. Also probably, not everybody will smell them.


  1. Did losing your sense change your relation to scents?

Yes it did. My sense of smell once it returned has become much sharper somehow. I smell things in the house I have never smelled before. Maybe because people become so adapted to the smells around us. But now I smell everything. I still haven’t gone out of my studio since March 12. I’m curious what I will smell out there. I didn’t want to go out but now my curiosity was incited to walk one block and smell the ocean.


  1. Is there anything you would like to share with the readers of this interview?

Because I am so aware of smell, I immediately noticed it was gone, but I didn’t relate it to COVID. I know many people don’t pay attention to their sense of smell and don’t realize it’s gone until it’s too late. What I also know is that many people do pay a lot of attention to what they eat. People working with scent know that 80 % of what we perceive in our mouths is due to the sense of smell. So when you stop ‘tasting’ your food, start paying attention. It could be the first symptom of this dreaded disease. And that’s when you can make a difference, to be tested and isolate yourself.


Final observation by the interviewer: it is remarkable that Carvalho’s sense of smell seems to have improved after a temporary loss. This demonstrated how smelling is not a just mere physical act, but a – culturally informed – mental activity as well.


For more documentation on Josely Carvalho’s oeuvre:

The video documentation of Diary of Smells: Glass Ceiling at the Museu de Arte Contemporanea, São Paulo in 2018

The video of Diary of Smells: Affectio at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes, Rio de Janeiro 2019


Caro Verbeek is an olfactory art historian and sensory museologist now mapping the effects of corona on our sense of smell.

Smelling Transformations in Times of Corona – The Revival of Turkish Cologne-Culture

About 6 weeks ago – shortly before the ‘intelligent lockdown’ – the familiar smells that characterize my neighborhood in the west of Amsterdam suddenly changed. Not in an unpleasant way, but quite dramatically. I followed my nose and wound up at the small grocery store where I usually do my shopping. A strong refreshing scent seemed to emanate from it, covering the entire block. I figured it was a citrus fruit of some sort, but it was extraordinarily strong.

Upon asking the shopkeeper he promptly replied: “It’s cologne from my home country Turkey. I use it to protect myself and keep the store safe!”, and he showed me how he did it by applying some of the liquid lavishly on his hands directly from a big bottle. I wondered if this sudden change of habit, perceivable outside his shop, was connected to the outbreak of Corona. It was. The next day I read in a news item that the phenomenon I had noticed on a local scale, was taking place on an international level. Even the BBC recently picked it up. They merely focused on the economic impact though. But there is so much more to it.

blog eau de cologne

The zesty smell is so well-known and typical for the country, that a national representative – when asked by artist Gayil Nalls what the national scent of Turkey could be – said that:

“The scents of lavender and pine grow lavishly in Turkey. However, if you must choose the most applicable of fragrances, the lemon and rose are certainly the ones that are most popularly used. And of those, Turkey would be represented by lemon. It’s everywhere. The lemon cologne is sprayed on you, given to you, 100% of Turkish people have lemon cologne in their homes. Lemon is a very culturally important smell for us” (Birnur Fertekigil, Counselor and Staff, Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations).

The BBC reported that the current purpose of cologne is novel, but its practical and medicinal use stems from a long tradition that actually wasn’t lost at all: “I associate lemon with being ill”, a Turkish museum expert had told me during a meeting just a few days prior to the lockdown. “Whenever I was sick as a child my mother gave me cologne”.

In fact, when the first cologne (by the Italian barber Gian Paolo de Feminis and Farina, not by 4711) was marketed in the city of Cologne, it was already promoted as a miracle water, a cure-all elixir, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ as literary historian Richard Stamelman explains:

“In an early attempt of self-promoting hyperbole, Feminis’s “miraculous” water was advertised as a remedy for problems of the stomach, skin and even for women going into labour” (2006)

blog eau de cologne farina

The shift from the medicinal to the aesthetic use of eau de Cologne must have occurred in the 19th century:

“Although eau de Cologne was originally introduced to the public as a sort of “cure-all,” a regular “elixir of life,” it now takes its place, not as a pharmaceutical product, but among perfumery” (Septimus Piesse, 1857).

But in advertisements from the 20th century, there are plenty of examples of the medicinal use of eau de Cologe. Apparently it could kill lice as this 1906 example from the collection of the Rijksmuseum shows.

blog eau de cologne als medicijn

Eau de Cologne is the oldest still marketed scented product. The recent rise in sales shouldn’t just be explained as an economic phenomenon, but as a historical and cultural development. Its use is as versatile as it is intriguing, and it perceivably connects the present to the past, especially today.

Read more about the history of Turkish cologne here.

You can read more about Gayil Nalls’ olfactory social sculpture World Sensorium and find out which culturally important scent was selected by your country here

How People Fought Diseases in the Past: a Top 10 of the Most Potent Smells

The current situation has given new impetus to olfactory history. For hundreds of years foul smells were thought to be responsible for the spread of diseases (think of terms as ‘malaria’ which literally means ‘bad air’) and doctors recognised diseases by their sense of smell. On the other end fragrances and strong smelling substances were expected to counter foul smelling miasmas by transforming the air, rendering it more ‘elastic’ and therefore healthy. Strikingly, people still connect clean and fresh air to health and bad smells to hazard and it is a known fact that diseases – covid-19 among others – have a specific scent.

Here you can find a top 10 of smells that were considered particularly effective in preventing diseases.


  1. Goat

The smell of goats has intrigued great scientists for centuries. The botanist Linnee even classified it is a separate category: ‘Hircine’. As many of you know the smell of a (male) goat is very peculiar and can be perceived from afar. In the treaty ‘How to avoid the Plague’ from 1630, an author recommended sharing a space with this capricious animal. Its strong scent was thought to operate as an antidote against the Plague, because its voluminous emanations prevented the atmosphere from being polluted by miasmas.

blog top 10 smell remedies goat

How to avoid the plague, 1630


  1. The ‘Tussie mussie’ or ‘posie’

To protect oneself from pestilent air in Victorian times people carried around ‘posies’ or ‘tussie mussies’ which were bundles of fragrant herbs or flowers. The nursery rhyme ‘ring-a-ring o’ roses’ is actually a reminder of that habit:

Ring-a-ring o’ roses,

A pocket full of posies,

A-tishoo! A-tishoo!

We all fall down

One of the most popular posies to carry around was the highly fragrant ‘wallflower’ or ‘Erysimum cheiri’. The second name indicating the species was given because ‘cheiri’ means ‘hand’: the place people kept it so they could sniff it at at will. Its scent is as sweet as it is fresh and sour, voluminous and honey-like; a scent that was once well-known and associated to medicine instead of spring in which it blooms. Wallflowers are arguably depicted in an allegory of smell by Guillaume Collaert on which I wrote this blog (in Dutch).

blog top 10 smell remedies wallflower    blog prent inger muurbloem

Wallflower and detail of ‘Allegory of Smell’ of the same flower by Guillaume Collaert, 17th century.


  1. Theriaca

Theriaca was used in Europe for almost 2 millennia. It consisted of a sticky mixture made from about 50 precious fragrant and venomous substances like opium, myrrh, rosemary, pearls, flesh of poisonous snakes and blood of ducks fed with toxic substances. Mithridates VI Eupator – toxicologist and king of Pontus (120-63 B.C.) developed Theriaca out of fear of being poisoned, but later on it was primarily used against plagues.

After Mithridates’ death, Theriaca was taken to Rome, and it was there that I smelled Theriaca in the ‘Antica Farmacia di Santa Maria della Scala’. During my residency at the Dutch Royal Institute a friendly monk gave me and a couple of other residents a tour through usually restricted areas. I found myself grasping for air when he lifted the lit of a huge vase that contained a very dark dried up substance. It was very exciting because after all that time it still turned out to be fragrant. Some of us clearly perceived rosemary and myrrh.

The intriguing part is that these substances might actually have been effective to some extend: they are highly antibacterial and antiseptic. The plants in question (and many others) contain them to protect themselves from diseases, viruses and bugs.

blog top 10 smells illustration Tacuinum sanitatis

Apothecary shop where Theriaca was made and sold. Illustration from Tacuinum sanitatis, 14th century.


  1. Pomander

The word ‘pomander’ is derived from the French ‘pomme d’ambre’ or ‘apple of ambergris’. Pomanders – which are often spherical in shape –  were hung from a neck chain or from a ‘chatelaine’ around the waist so they could be brought to the nose at any desired moment. One of the substances carried around in these metal jewels was ambergris; the highly priced strong smelling secretion of the sperm whale. Other strong substances such as musk, and civet were also utilised against pestilent air. Sometimes they contained several partitions, in each of which was placed a different perfume, like in this specimen from the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. After the 19th century pomanders were merely worn as aesthetically pleasing objects and some couldn’t even be opened, losing their original function. This is indicative of a paradigm shift: after Pasteur’s discovey of germs, people stopped fearing stench.


Anonymous, pomander, ca. 1600 – 1650, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


  1. Planting grass

William of Orange’s court physician knew exactly what to do when the plague hit the town of Delft in 1657. It was feared that the accumulation of so many contaminated and decomposing corpses at the graveyard (some graves contained 70 bodies) would spoil the air and result in a new outbreak of disease. However, on the advice of Foreest, the city decided to sow grass, and with the desired results. The disease had raged out and did not return to the city.

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Anonymous, engraving after design by Hendrick Goltzius (1558-1617), Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


  1. Vinaigre de Quatre Voleurs, or Four Thieves Vinegar

An old legend tells of a group of thieves during an outbreak of the plague who were robbing the dead and the sick without falling ill. When they were caught, they offered to reveal their secret recipe in exchange for leniency.

blog vinaigre 4 voleurs

An allegedly original bottle containing the miracle concoction was shown at the 1900 World Fair in Paris, much to the surprise of perfume expert Robert de Montesquiou who wrote in his treaty ‘Pays des Aromats’ (1900) that:

“this bottle has never been opened and still contains the well-known scent”

The recipe was documented by Septimus Piesse in ‘The Art of Perfumery’ (1857):

“Take fresh tops of common wormwood, Roman wormwood, rosemary, sage, mint, and rue, of each, 3/4 oz.

Lavender flowers, 1 oz. Garlic, calamus aromaticus, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, each, 1 drachm.

Camphor, 1/2 oz. Alcohol or brandy, 1 oz. Strong vinegar, 4 pints.

Digest all the materials, except the camphor and spirit, in a closely covered vessel for a fortnight, at a summer

heat; then express and filter the vinaigre produced, and add the camphor previously dissolved in the brandy or


  1. Strewing herbs (meadowsweet)

The plague treatise by Jean Vigier mentioned one plant more often than any other: meadowsweet. Its flowers (not blooming until june/ july) indeed smell particularly sweet with hints of hay and coumarine. It grows in meadows and next to water and was known as the favorite ‘strewing herb’ of Elizabeth I. Strewing herbs were cast on floors of castles and churches, allowing those that stepped on it for the herbs to give off of their sweet aroma, purifying the air. It was used in vast quantities. A Dutch traveler wrote about a toilet in Elizabeth’s castle as ‘very fragrant’. You can see a reenactment of how meadowsweet was used here.


  1. Plague masks

We all know the archetypical and somewhat gloomy beak-shaped plague mask. It was worn by doctors or those that had to get rid of infected bodies.

The leather mask covered the entire head, including the eyes, just like some worn in hospitals nowadays. The beak allowed for the necessary space to store herbs and spices to prevent inhaling pestilent air. Lavender, rosemary, cloves, myrrh, cinnamon and mint were most often used. In France the concoctions were sometimes burnt inside the beak to provide enhanced olfactory protection through ‘per fumum’ (through smoke) diffusion.

Plague Doctor

Doctor Schnabel von Rom (plague doctor), engraving, 1656.

  1. Vinaigrettes

Vinaigrettes were tiny boxes, sometimes designed as rings or pendents, containing vinegar and perfumes. Not only did the smelling salt prevent women (wearing corsets) from fainting, but it also safeguarded them from diseases. Septimus Piesse wrote the following about creating vinaigrettes in 1857:

“All these concentrated vinegars are used in the same way as perfumed ammonia, that is, by pouring three or four drachms into an ornamental “smelling” bottle, previously filled with crystals of sulphate of potash, which forms the “sel de vinaigre” of the shops; or upon a sponge into little silver boxes, called vinaigrettes. The use of these vinegars had their origin in the presumption of keeping those who carried them from the effects of infectious disease, doubtless springing out of the story of the “four thieves’ vinegar” (see number 6).

blog top 10 smells vinaigrette

  1. Tar water

Tar water was a popular medieval medicine that consisted of pine tar and water. In 1737 the Irish bishop George Berkeley opened a shop for the concoction of tar water. He had learned about its healing and purative qualities from native Indians. It could supposedly be used against the plague, as well as against fevers in both animals and humans. It was also mentioned in Charles Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’ in which Young Pip and his brother-in-law, Joe, were often force fed it by Mrs. Joe, Pip’s elder sister, whether they were ill or not, as a sort of cruel punishment. Tar water has a very bitter taste and dropped in popularity until it was rediscovered in Victorian times.


The relation between air or atmosphere and health and sickness remains an intriguing one. Miasma-theory was successful because it was effective. Getting rid of stench and replacing it with other fragrances worked to a certain extend because of the disinfecting qualities of resins and spices. After all – just like scent – many diseases are airborne, so it makes sense people held a sickening atmosphere accountable for the spread of diseases. Furthermore smells can warn us and keep us away from dangerous unhygienic situations.

Smells impact our lives and well-being to a much larger extend than we realize. It makes one question what the role of smell as a diagnostic and medicinal tool could be today.













‘Gij zult niet ruiken uit ijdelheid!’ – een unieke allegorie van de reuk

Op het eerste gezicht is dit een heel curieuze voorstelling. Er gebeurt zoveel dat je bijna niet weet waar je moet kijken. Een man in luxe nachttenue snuffelt verlekkerd aan een bosje bloemen vanuit zijn hemelbed, terwijl een rijk uitgedoste figuur rechts van hem zich laaft aan rookpluimen. Een rondboog boven hem geeft een doorkijkje naar een meer verheven tafereel. Een geestelijke doet een brandoffer van een (ongedefinieerd) dier. Rechtsboven zwaait een man in pij een wierookvat richting een altaar.

allegorie reuk collaert

Guillaume Collaert, naar Nicolaas van der Horst, ‘Allegorie van de reuk’, ca. 1610 (voor 1630). 

We hebben hier te maken met een bijzondere uitvoering van een allegorie van de reuk door Guillaume Collaert naar Nicolaas van der Horst uit de vroege 17de eeuw. Waar vaak erotische, culinaire of andere banale aspecten van de reuk (zoals het verschonen van poepluiers) worden uitgelicht in voorstellingen van dit zintuig, nemen in deze prent religieuze en medische functies van geur de hoofdrol in.

Om dit te begrijpen heeft de lezer eerst achtergrondinformatie nodig over de dramatisch verschillende manier, waarop er over de reuk werd gedacht in de zeventiende eeuw.

Ten eerste was er – tot de ontdekking van Pasteur – geen kennis over ziektekiemen of over moleculen. Dat betekent dat de lucht werd voorgesteld als een zogenaamd ‘fluidum’. Stond die lucht te lang stil, dan bestond de kans dat deze verziekt raakte en kon gaan stinken. Stank werd niet alleen gezien als manifestatie van ‘onelastische lucht’ zoals Alain Corbin ons leert (1), maar ook als de oorzaak van ziekte en de verspreiding ervan. Dit geloof staat bekend als de ‘miasma-theorie’ en het werd alom geaccepteerd en gepraktiseerd door zowel de armste sloeber als de meest geleerde dokter. Om de lucht weer gezond te maken, volstonden sterk ruikende en zoete geuren, zoals kaneel, boomharsen en andere planten (zie ook mijn blog over de geurende medicijnen uit deze apothekerskast van het Rijksmuseum). Mensen van lagere komaf moesten het doen met de geur van geiten, azijn en rozemarijn.

De figuur in bed is waarschijnlijk een hooggeplaatste figuur die als remedie tegen een onbekende ziekte aan bloemen ruikt. Dat is waarschijnlijk omdat een van de afgebeelde bloemen heel duidelijk een ‘muurbloem’ betreft die speciaal in Europa werd geplant als ziektebestrijder.

blog top 10 smell remedies wallflower  blog prent inger muurbloem

Muurbloem. De vier bladeren die elkaar overlappen zijn duidelijk te herkennen in de prent.

Het inzetten van geuren als remedie was niet ongebruikelijk. We zien in de aantekeningen van de lijfarts van Willem van Oranje dat hij geregeld geurige medicamenten voorschreef. Toen de prins in 1574 leed aan ernstige buikloop (wat op zichzelf al de nodige geuren voor de geestesneus oproept die waardig zijn voor een allegorie), onderzocht Pieter van Foreestus eerst met al zijn zintuigen diens urine, voor hij bescheiden mededeelde dat de prins het beste wijn met kaneel  kon gaan drinken. Groene takken van loof in zijn kamer zouden de zieke lucht doen verfrissen (2). Na een paar dagen knapte de prins inderdaad op. Deze jongeman in zwart-wit ziet er blakend uit: hebben de geuren hun werk al gedaan?

collaert zieke

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met bloemruikende man. 

In ‘onze’ prent wordt de lucht daarnaast begeurd – en dus gezond gemaakt – door een ‘brûle-parfum’ of een parfumbrander. De opstijgende pluimen gaan een mooie beeldrijm aan met de veren in de hoed van de edele. Onderin werd de hittebron geplaatst met luchtgaten voor voldoende zuurstof. Typische geurstoffen om hiervoor te gebruiken waren houtsoorten zoals ceder, en harsen zoals labdanum (cisteroos), mirre en wierook. De openingen bovenin zorgden ervoor dat de geur zich kon verspreiden.


allegorie reuk edelman  BK-1957-3 parfumbrander

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met brûle-parfum en rechts een rijkelijk gedecoreerde parfumbrander van Desiderio da Firenze uit ca. 1540, beide uit de collectie van het Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.

Behalve in de medische zorg, werd geur ingezet in religieuze praktijken, zoals bij het ‘bewieroken’ van heilige plaatsen. Linksboven in de allegorische prent van Collaert zwaait een figuur met een wierookvat. Hierin bevindt zich smeulende hars, waarschijnlijk van wierook. Deze vaak in de Bijbel genoemde substantie bestond uit de hars van de – mogelijk uit Ethiopië afkomstige – olibanum; een zoetruikende stof met licht peperige en citrische noten van de Boswellia die nog steeds in de katholieke kerk wordt gebruikt. Zoetgeurende lucht werd kennelijk niet alleen als gezond ervaren, maar ook als manifestatie van het goddelijke. De methode van het branden van harsen om de goden te eren, werd door de Romeinen ‘per fumum’ genoemd, waaruit ons woord voor het meer banale ‘parfum’ is afgeleid.

collaert wierookvat

Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met reukoffer.

Ook een brandoffer was een manier om de neusgaten van God te bereiken. Direct na het bereiken van land, doet de oud-testamentische Noach bijvoorbeeld een offer van ‘rein vee’, hier verbeeld door Caspar Luyken. De rookpluimen vielen in goede aarde: “de geur van de offers behaagde de Heer”, staat vermeld in Genesis.

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Cranach, ‘Offer van Noach na de zondvloed’, 1712.

Het offer op de prent van Collaert is dat van een dier dat zijn noodlot nederig lijkt te aanvaarden, terwijl een aantal honden (uiteraard ook verwijzingen naar de reuk) toekijken. Een biddende vrouw kijkt in hoopvolle verwachting toe. Mogelijk wordt gebeden voor het herstel van een zieke.

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Guillaume Collaert, uitsnede van ‘Allegorie van de reuk’ met brandoffer.

Natuurlijk waren gezondheid en religie nog niet zo duidelijk van elkaar gescheiden zoals ze dat nu zijn. In deze prent zijn beide functies verweven. De glimlach van de bloemruikende man en de luxe kledij van de mannen onderin de prent, lijken ook een waarschuwing te zijn. Gebruiken zij de geuren misschien vooral voor aardse genoegens? De voorstelling mag dan een allegorie van de reuk zijn, maar bevat in feite ook een vanitas-boodschap: ‘memento mori’, of ‘denk eraan dat gij zult sterven’. Ruik dus niet in ijdelheid, want de beste geuren zijn aan God voorbehouden.



Redolent Remedies – Sniffing out an Antique Apothecary Cabinet at the Rijksmuseum

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Anonymous, Collector’s Cabinet, c. 1675 – c. 1685, Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum houses many luxurious and lavishly decorated pieces of furniture. But the most mysterious specimen must be this 18th century ‘collector’s cabinet‘. It houses a miniature apothecary’s shop, and  dozens of hidden drawers. And surprisingly: the contents aren’t just intact, some still give of smell. The cabinet was possibly meant as a tool to enhance sensory skills in order to recognise plants, seeds, roots, gums and resins by their colour, shape, texture, and scent.

Smell and medicine have been closely intertwined for centuries. Before Pasteur’s discovery that some illnesses are caused by microscopic organisms, people generally believed that stench was responsible for outbreaks of diseases like the Plague. This widespread conviction was known as ‘miasma-theory’.

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Not only were miasmas considered harmful, many strong smelling and fragrant plants were thought to have beneficial effects (also see my post on the fragrant treatments of William of Orange and his wife).

As a consequence, doctors and pharmacists were able to recognise both diseases and medicine by sniffing, so with a ‘diagnostic nose’.

Conservation specialist Henk van Keulen (Cultural Heritage Agency, Netherlands) tried to determine the contents of the most fragrant drawer of the cabinet (which contains gums and resins) by means of gas chromatography (GC), but since chemists that work on art, aren’t trained to read gas chromatograms for fragrant substances, the results needed validation. And what better way to do that than by using our own ‘natural equipment’?

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IFF perfumer Fred Tabak sniffing 18th century resins at the Rijksmuseum (2012).

Gaby Joustra, Caro Verbeek and Mirjam Schipper during a historical sniffing session at the Rijksmuseum (2012).

Because (trained) human noses can be just as – or sometimes even more – precise than machines, I suggested to Paul van Duin (head of furniture conservation at the Rijksmuseum) to invite several perfumers to sniff out the apothecary cabinet and compare results. What followed was a 4 hour intensive sniffing session full of wondrous conversations and scents.

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One of the secret drawers filled with gums and resins.

Most resins and gums stored in the cabinet (benzoe, labdanum, galbanum, myrrh and frankincense) are still used in perfumery. Perfume history is actually rooted in medical history, so most of the time, the noses had no problems determining what they were dealing with. In many cases the outcomes were identical. When the GC indicated ‘myrrh’, all three perfumers confirmed this finding. One of the perfumers:

“It smells like laurel and liquorice, so indeed it’s myrrh”

In other instances the human nose and the GC pointed in different directions. Whereas the machine (or rather the professional reading the gas chromatogram) wasn’t able to provide any answers in a particular case the perfumers did have ideas, but there wasn’t consensus:

Perfumer 1: “It smells like styrax with a mineral earthy undertone. With a ‘little’ pepper indicating elemi”. Perfumer 2: “But it is also dry and sweet”.

In a third type of case, machine and nose contradicted each other. One of the substances for example, was unanimously diagnosed as myrrh by the perfumers, while the GC indicated ‘elemi’. One of the perfumers:

“Elemi has more of a peppery, nutmeglike note. The sweetness makes it similar to ambery myrrh”

It was intriguing to compare the dramatically different methodologies. Paul van Duin:

“It was amazing to compare the outcomes of two completely different approaches and to be able to validate results. I am very thankful to you [author] and the perfumers”

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Paul van Duin (head of furniture restoration Rijksmuseum) studying the drawer filled with gums and resins.

Mirjam Schipper recalled afterwards:

“Afterwards we talked a lot about the experience. It was a beautiful occasion to expand my knowledge of smell, but also of olfactory experiences in the past. Learning about smell should be part of our general education and I belief scent experts and museum professionals can learn a lot from each other”

All in all this is a strong case for multi-disciplinary collaborations in museums that want to preserve and analyse artefacts with an olfactory dimension.


If you want to read more about the Collector’s Cabinet please consult:

Paul van Duin, Collector’s Cabinet with Miniature Apothecary’s Shop, 2017


Caro Verbeek is a scent curator and sensory museologist. As a historian she uses the senses as methodological tools. Previously she worked at the Rijksmuseum as a curator of prints and drawings for 6 years.





The First Ever “Human Breast Milk Flavour Wheel”

There are scent and flavour wheels for almost everything aromatic; for cities (very elaborate ones by Kate McLean), cheese, chocolate, wine, cigars and of course perfumes. But how come there aren’t any for the first flavour we perceive as human beings? Right: MILK. Human milk that is.

As a (lacto-intolerant) recent mother, I wanted to know what my baby tasted and smelled. And since we cannot ask infants, I did some serious empirical research. After all, the flavour of human milk determines future preferences and habits of children, so this endeavour wasn’t just in vain.

Not only did I taste it myself, I even had my audience have some (voluntarily!) during ‘Odorama: Milk – Scent of a Woman’ (the first event I organised after giving birth). They described it as ‘good’, ‘fresh’, ‘almondy’, ‘sweet’ and ‘vanillic’. I must say it was pretty scary, since it is really personal, and these adjectives were huge compliments.

The sweetness of milk is caused by lactose. But not all milk tastes sweet. It can get soapy, sour and rancid, due to lipase. This is caused by storing methods and defrosting.

Finally, medicines and diet are of fundamental influence. Mothers with a spicy diet will give spicy milk, etc.

So here I give you the first Human Breast Milk Odour Wheel, crafted manually (I wanted to give it a human touch).

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Copyright: Caro Verbeek. Based on empirical research.

Cleopatra’s Perfume Recovered? An in depth interview with Dora Goldsmith

I already had Cleopatra’s nose (at least that’s what I am often told), and now thanks to Dora Goldsmith I smelled what was very likely her perfume

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Author sniffing Mendesian

Read the most accurate, detailed interview with Dora Goldsmith about the olfactory reconstruction of this enigmatic perfume so far.

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Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra (with her tiny nose)

There is something enigmatic and immensely powerful about the sense of smell. It doesn’t just transport us to our personal past, like Marcel Proust demonstrated in his novel ‘In Search of Lost Time’. According to neuroscientist Richard Stevenson, no other sense is capable of yielding such a strong historical sensation, even if we have never smelled the scent in question before.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that when I – a scent historian – read about Dora Goldsmith’s and Dr. Sean Coughlin’s recreation of the famous Mendesian – a perfume allegedly used by Cleopatra herself – I was close to euphoric.

Recently I was lucky enough to smell it myself, after visiting Dora Goldsmith in Berlin, where she works on her PhD on ancient Egyptian smells at the Freie Universität. I must say the scent evoked very sensory and lively images of Cleopatra. It made her a living and breathing human being, instead of a distant legendary character numerous films and books are based on. To my nose the scent was incredibly voluminous, red-coloured, strong, warm, rich, sweet and slightly bitter. A perfume fit for an elegant gala.

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Dora Goldsmith putting Mendesian on her skin during an interview with the BBC

Goldsmith was willing to answer some questions about the reconstruction to shed some light on this mysterious matter from her professional practice as an Egyptologist:

CV: You reconstructed the famous Mendesian perfume in collaboration with Dr. Sean Coughlin. When it was finished, and you smelled it for the first time, what was that like? Did you feel more closely connected to the past? What was the first thing you said to each other?

DG: I remember that when Sean and I smelled the Mendesian for the first time, all of a sudden, we both understood why the written documents call it luxurious and elegant. That’s exactly what the perfume smells like to me.

I consider the reconstruction of this ancient perfume a learning method – learning by doing or experimental archaeology. By following the ancient sources step-by-step and working with the materials, I believe that researchers can better understand the ancients and the way they perceived the world through scent. Moreover, recreating an ancient scent is a great learning tool. It gives students of the ancient world and the general public an opportunity to learn about ancient Egypt through their nose. Smell is humanity’s long-lost sense, considered primitive and animalistic by many modern scholars, thus left mainly ignored in their work. By engaging with the aromas that the ancients inhaled through their nose, we gain a new perspective into their culture. By reviving the Mendesian, a piece of ancient Egypt comes back to life.

CV: What made you decide to recreate this famous composition and how did you learn about the preparation and materials? 

DG: Prof. Robert Littman from the University of Hawaii contacted me and asked me to reconstruct the Mendesian after he had heard about my perfume workshops, where I recreate an ancient Egyptian scent called kyphi based on the hieroglyphic recipes I translated. Prof. Littman was curious about the Mendesian perfume, since he has been conducting excavations at Tell Timai, the ancient city of Thmouis, which served as the industrial area of the city of Mendes in late antiquity. Mendes and Thmouis were renowned throughout the ancient world for special perfumes that were manufactured in the Mendesian nome. Prof. Littman and his team, including Dr. Jay Silverstein unearthed an extensive complex of kilns that were used to produce perfume at Tell Timai. It was here that the Mendesian, the most desired perfume of late antiquity was manufactured.

My research goal with Sean Coughlin was to combine archaeology, philology and science to recreate the Mendesian, as it would have been found in the ancient world. We translated and followed the ancient sources step-by-step. The botanical identifications of the plants mentioned in the recipes played a key factor in our research. Sean used the most up-to-date botanical identifications in ancient Greek science. I compared these with the flora of ancient Egypt known to the Egyptians before the Greek-Roman period, and assessed which plants could have been available in pharaonic Egypt based on archaeological and philological evidence. We regarded the Mendesian as a case study for understanding the knowledge transfer of ancient Egyptian perfume recipes from pharaonic Egypt to Greek and Roman authors.

CV: Can you elaborate on some of the materials? Are they still used in perfumery?

DG: The main ingredients of the Mendesian perfume, which make up its characteristic scent, were myrrh (Commiphora), Ceylon cinnamon or “true cinnamon” (Cinnamomum verum) and cinnamon cassia (Cinnamomum cassia). Cinnamon is banned from the perfume industry nowadays, as it could cause allergies. Myrrh, on the other hand, is still widely used in perfumes and cosmetics, and even in the pharmaceutical industry.

CV: As the perfume was popular for a very long time, how likely is it that is was constant? Was it adapted over the centuries?

DG: The ancient authors mention that later on, a more elaborate version of the Mendesian was developed, called the Metopion. The Metopion is an Oriental, woody fragrance, which is first very strong, but it becomes subtle with time on the skin. The main ingredients that made up the scent of the Metopion were bitter almonds, cardamom, mastic, myrrh and camel grass.  

CV: Mendesian – named after the city of Mendes – was also referred to as the ‘emblem of Egypt’. Why was that? 

DG: The Mendesian was the olfactory emblem of ancient Egypt in late antiquity, hence its nickname, “the Egyptian”. The perfume unfortunately did not survive in the Egyptian sources, however, numerous Greek writers praise its scent, calling it luxurious and expensive. The perfume was already known in Greece as early as the fourth century BCE, and it was then known as one of the costliest and most desired perfumes available. The popularity of the fragrance quickly spread throughout the ancient world and remained sought after for hundreds of years.

The Mendesian has a great significance in the history of perfumery. It was not only a perfume – it was a piece of culture in a bottle. The Mendesian was a piece of Egypt. Our research suggests that while the perfume was not recorded in the Egyptian sources, there is evidence that its origins go back to as early as the building of the pyramids. Its ingredients are known to have had a long tradition in Egypt for a cultic and medicinal purposes, for perfume preparation and for embalming the dead.

CV: Allegedly, the Mendesian was worn by the illustrious Cleopatra. How likely is this? Would she have worn it all year round or only on special occasions?

DG: We looked through the ancient Egyptian and Greek sources in an attempt to find a link between the famous queen Cleopatra VII and the perfume produced in Mendes. There is no written evidence linking the queen directly with the Mendesian. Nevertheless, it is clear from the ancient texts that Cleopatra was well-known in antiquity for her love of fragrances. The Greek physician Galen informs us that Cleopatra was well-educated and wrote about the application of perfume for medical purposes. Thus, it is highly likely that Cleopatra had access to the Mendesian, which was the most popular fragrance at her time.

CV: Can people purchase your reconstruction of the Mendesian perfume somewhere?

DG: Yes, they can. I have designed a scent collection I call “Ancient Egyptian Smell Kit” for educational purposes. The smell kit includes six of my smell reconstructions, which are all based on my PhD research on the sense of smell in ancient Egypt. One of the six scents in the collection is the Mendesian. The kit comes with a detailed description of the significance of each scent for the ancient Egyptian culture.

About Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin

Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin in Berlin have conducted several experiments in recent months to reconstruct the Mendesian perfume strictly following the ancient sources and employing the latest botanical identifications.

Dora Goldsmith is PhD student of Egyptology at the Freie Universität Berlin. The topic of her PhD project is the sense of smell in ancient Egypt, the exact title of her research being “The Archaeology of Smell in Ancient Egypt. A Cultural Anthropological Study Based on Written Sources”. Dora’s PhD project incorporates linguistic and cultural anthropological research. She records and translates all ancient Egyptian texts that include words related to olfaction, which help her define the role of smells in the ancient Egyptian society. In order to better apprehend the ancient Egyptian documents she works with, Dora also employs the method of experimental archaeology or ‘learning by doing’. She reconstructs the smells the ancient sources describe.

Dr. Sean Coughlin is a research fellow in the department of Classical Philology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften. He works on the history of pharmacology and herbaria, including the theories and practices of flavor and scent in ancient science and medicine. He is currently completing a translation and commentary of one of the most transmitted herbal compendia of late antiquity.

This is Goldsmith’s page on academia with a reference to the kit.

Goldsmith will lecture in Amsterdam at the Odorama-series, and conduct a workshop as well.

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Installation of the ingredients of the Mendesian. Among the main ingredients are myrrh, cinnamon, and cinnamon cassia. Copyright Dora Goldsmith.

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Installation of the ingredients of the Metopian, which was based on Mendesian. Copyright Dora Goldsmith.

Further reading

Stevenson, R.J (2014), ‘The Forgotten Sense’, in Levent, N. and Pascual-Leone, A (eds) The Multi-Sensory Museum, Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield, 157-58.

Goldsmith. D.  (2019), ‘Fish, Fowl, and Stench in Ancient Egypt’, in Schellenberg, A. and Krüger, T. (eds.), Sounding Sensory Profiles in the Ancient Near East, Ancient Near East Monographs 25, Atlanta, GA: SBL Press, 335-360.