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

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

By Caro Verbeek,

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.

for more information on smell in museums, scent reconstructions or olfactory history send a message to

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

By scent historian Caro Verbeek (

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.

A Soft Manifesto on Scent Culture – and the Importance of (Female) Historical Figures

Recited at the Oude Kerk by Caro Verbeek, in Amsterdam, on May 19th 2019, during the annual Art & Olfaction Awards, surrounded by the scent of roses and altered with a female gaze for this blog.

«I can sniff out the truth»

Such a strong and evocative sentence. Although it sounds like something a contemporary artist (like Peter de Cupere or Sissel Tolaas) could have said, these are the exact words of one of the most influential philosophers of the modern era. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900).

The explanation for his statement was twofold.

In the first place the philosopher referred to the so called miasma theory: before the discovery of biologist Pasteur that viruses and microbes spread diseases, people used to believe stench could transmit diseases. The aroma someone exhaled conveyed a lot of information on a person’s condition.

Secondly, and more importantly, Nietzsche – who was quite rebellious – responded to a dominant belief among Enlightenment thinkers that smell (and the other so-called lower senses, taste and touch) could never lead to aesthetic experience or knowledge like sight and hearing could, because these senses don’t allow for contemplation. Nietzsche however was a firm advocate of intuition as the supreme provider of knowledge, not opposed to but encompassing intellect and ratio. Smelling and intuition were highly intertwined concepts at this time (in many languages there is only one word for the two notions, such as flair in French and fiuto in Italian).

A contemporary of Nietzsche was also convinced that without the senses, and I mean all of them, there was no way of understanding the world.

I am talking about the famous education specialist Maria Montessori (1870 – 1952).


Montessori stated that without training the senses the world would be unknowable to mankind. Even moral judgment would be impossible. Without sensory perception, it is after all impossible to understand the relationship between words and objects, between our inner and external existence. She made her young students touch, smell and taste and even weigh objects and relate their findings to vocabulary and to emotions.

These two iconic figures – Nietzsche and Montessori –  weren’t even the firsts – to support the thought that sensing, and smelling in particular could lead to profound knowledge.

And one of them comes from an entirely different unexpected field. Namely from religion.

Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century, highly respected and well-known mystic, even though she was a woman. She was able to read and write and considered an intellectual. In fact, besides being a mystic this German Benedictine Abbess was a writer, composer, philosopher and visionary. Although retrospectively one might rather say ‘olfactionary’.

One of her most striking thoughts was, and I quote:

«By our nose God displays the wisdom that lies like a fragrant sense of order in all works of art, just as we ought to know through our ability to smell whatever wisdom has to arrange»

One of the olfactory phenomena she was referring to was the so-called ‘odour of sanctity’, an invisible aura exuded by saints thought to have a pure soul, obtained by prayer and asceticism (not eating and drinking). This odour was an earthly expression of a divine characteristic and a sign sent by god, following the theological principle that everything earthly (or satanic) smelled foul, whereas everything divine was fragrant.


The most famous saint who died in an odour of sanctity was Teresa d’ Avila, best known for the  sculpture Bernini created hundreds of years later, capturing one of her visions in stone, with an eternal orgasmic expression on her face.

“The moment she died her bedside attendants said the room filled with the scent of roses that grew to saturate the building.  The convent smelt like it had erupted into bloom and cascades of invisible blossoms poured from the windows”, activist and scent expert Nuri McBride wrote so eloquently.

And everyone knew and felt, just by inhaling, that Teresa was a Saint of the highest order.

teresa d'avila

Some 600 years after Hildegard von Bingen’s era, scents weren’t only considered the highest manifestations of divine presence,  learning from smells could even save lives here on earth.

Alain Corbin reconstructed the social history of 18th century France through the perspective of the nose, or with an olfactory gaze. Physicians and medics and other professionals at the time were employed by the city to detect, describe and eliminate the foul and dangerous smells of the French capital to safeguard public health. This means that these professionals entertained a vast and more or less objective olfactory vocabulary.

Finally I would like to mention the realm of ‘visual art’. Unlike classic art history books (usually) convey, the sense of smell played a role in symbolism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism, arte povera and so on. Within futurism olfaction was even embedded in the political and societal theories and art practices of this first true avant-garde movement. In line with their avant-garde approach – yet to my surprise – the first artist within this movement to not just write about the sense of smell, but to actually address it, was…… a woman!

As early as 1912 the French affiliated artist Valentine de Saint-Point performed exotic dances accompanied by wafts of scented smoke, in order to create a synaesthetic and multi-sensory Total Work of Art. It would take almost 20 years until Marinetti – the leader of the futurist movement – made use of perfume in one of his theatrical pieces.

valentine de saint-point

The reason I mention all these historical examples is because:

  1. an apparent lack of olfactory vocabulary,
  2. smell’s supposedly historical insignificant role in society,
  3. smell’s association to the feminine,
  4. the subjective nature of smell,
  5. olfaction’s low position in the classical hierarchy of the senses and subsequently ,
  6. olfaction’s  absence in historical philosophical and aesthetic debate,

are often mentioned in the opening sentences of articles as reasons for the suppression, underestimation or even seclusion of the sense of smell in art and science. We retrospectively seem to think that smell has always been treated this way, that we never had any words to describe what we smell, and was always ranked as one of the lowest senses.

If we keep communicating about the sense of smell this way, we are – perhaps unintentionally –  actually emphasizing and helping sustain olfaction’s inferior position.

Institutions such as the Institute for Art and Olfaction, artists, scholars, critics, scientists and curators have put the sense of smell on the map.

It wouldn’t be exaggerated to speak of an olfactory renaissance.

But this renaissance is a relative one. Because it is still often taking place in encapsulated spaces and communities.

When we talk about a ‘rebirth’ (the actual meaning of ‘renaissance’), this presupposes there has been an era in which olfaction was celebrated before. And we now know it was.

If – with this historical knowledge in mind – we advocate the sense of smell as something that has been held in high regard throughout the ages by doctors, mystics, educationalists, philosophers, artists and society at large it would be much easier to elevate the status of olfaction among the people who are still oblivious of smell’s agency and capacity.

I would like to do a few modest suggestions to possibly obtain that:

  1. To all scholars (including myself):  stop using the word ‘lower’ as an adjective for the sense of smell, taste and touch, and speak of ‘intimate’ or ‘proximate’ senses instead.
  2. To art historians: stop using the adjective ‘olfactory’ in ‘olfactory art’ in the long run and participate in symposiums that don’t revolve around the sense of smell as to grow awareness among those that aren’t familiar with the subject.
  3. To chemists, curators and conservators: let’s set up a course and guidelines for how to use smell in museums of fine art and take away the fear of smell among museum professionals.
  4. to all artists and perfumers: keep doing what you do! You are the vehicle of a revolution.
  5. To everyone in the realm of scent culture: emphasize that smell WAS NOT excluded from art, society at large, religion and philosophy, but a fundamental part of it
  6. To everyone in general: Just like olfaction, women’s role in history has retrospectively been underestimated. Both these (sometimes intertwined) can be highlighted simultaneously by acknowledging the pivotal role women played in scent culture

That way olfaction can finally be included as a fundamental and self-evident part of the history of art.

In the meantime: let’s inhale and exhale knowledge, let’s restore the fragrant sense of order, let’s sniff out the truth today.


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian


Leonardo da Vinci, Painter, Engineer, Inventor, Musician, Medic, and…. Perfumer

By scent historian Caro Verbeek (

2019 marked the 5th centennial of the decease of one of the greatest minds in history. Besides being a painter, engineer, inventor, musician and a medic, his interests and activities included drawing, sculpting, architecture, science, mathematics, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography. Leonardo was a true polymath, or ‘ homo universalis’.

But one of his most striking professional endeavors is often ignored, and isn’t even mentioned on Wikipedia. Da Vinci was a skilled perfumer.

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Detail from Da Vinci’s Annunciation, Angel with white (fragrant) lily, signifying Mary’s purity. Collection Musée du Louvre

According to his biographer Giorgio Vasari Da Vinci studied plants, trees and flowers meticulously. He depicted them realistically and detailed in many of his paintings (as was the fashion in Renaissance painting, see my blog about Botticelli).

blog da vinci study of violets Study of Violets, Leonardo Da Vinci (Italian, 1452-1519) ~ Study of Violets

study of irises

In his notes there are descriptions of several ways of obtaining the fragrant material (essential oils) of plants, fruits and flowers, among which maceration in alcohol, and enfleurage (which he calls a ‘modern’ technique):

“….di ricavare odori soavi e sgradevoli; ciò egli suggerì di fare con due metodi: l’infusione in liquidi alcoolici, l’enfleurage dei moderni.”

His reasons for composing perfumes weren’t just aesthetic. He summed up the ingredients for a concoction against sea sickness, to protect oneself from dangerous attackers by diffusing foul and venomous – even lethal- fumes (‘odori nauseabondi e difensivi’) and for medicinal purposes (‘odori medicinali’).

One of the most poetic applications of his ‘smell design’ was for a garden in which he envisioned citrus trees (cedri e limoni) that would create a green and fragrant ‘roof’ so that the music of birds and odours would create a synaesthetic atmosphere.

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Study of roses

Among the flowers he used for their oils were jasmin (Jasminum officinale), lavender (Lavendula spica) and bitter orange (Citrus Aurantium). He also used peeled almonds, as long as they hadn’t turned ‘muffa’ (mouldy).

“Le mandorle senza buccia mettile fra fiori di melarancio o gelsomino o rovistrice o altro fiore odorifero mutandolo ogni dì una volta con i vari fiori acciò le mandorle non pigliassino odore di muffa.”

All of these ingredients are used in perfumery until the present day. But he also extracted uncommon plants such as Ligustrum vulgare.

Even in olfactory terms Da Vinci was a visionary.




Codice Atlantico

Giambattista de Toni, “Le Piante e gli Animali in Leonardo da Vinci”, 1920


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian






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

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‘Blikopeners’ (eye openers) distributing art historical smells during ‘Stedelijk Statements: Caro Verbeek – The Museum of Smells’, copyright Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, photo Ernst van Deursen

By Caro Verbeek (

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.

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Aromajockey Scentman performing, following the scent-scripts provided by the lecturers, copyright Stedelijk Museum, photo Ernst van Deursen

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.

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

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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. Photo by author

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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-LOWRESPhoto by Camilla GreenwellTia Török foto amy toner performance mediamatic maria iliopoulou 2

Copyright Mediamatic

stedelijk statements maroula iliopoulou beneath her eyes 2

Copyright Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, photo Ernst van Deursen

stedelijk statements maroula iliopoulou beneath her eyes

Copyright Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, photo Ernst van Deursen

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).

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.

Peter de Cupere engaging with guests, copyright Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, photo by Ernst van Deursen

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.

stedelijk statements all participants blog

All participants: Caro Verbeek, Piet Devos, Amy Toner, Maroula Iliopoulou, Peter de Cupere, Jorg Hempenius (Aromajockey Scentman), copyright Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, photo Ernst van Deursen

(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)

by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian

for more information on smell in museums, scent reconstructions or olfactory history send a message to

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 (cognitive scientist) on his recently published PhD ‘Wine Expertise Shapes Olfactory Language and Cognition’, supervised by Dr. Asifa Majid, co-supervised by Dr. Laura J. Speed and dr. Artin Arshamian at Radboud University Nijmegen.

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.

Imagining 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?

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


James, A. (2018). How Robert Parker’s 90+ and Ann Noble’s Aroma Wheel Changed the Discourse of Wine Tasting Notes. Revue de l’Institut des langues et cultures
d’Europe, Amérique, Afrique, Asie et Australie.

Shesgreen, S. (2003). Wet dogs and gushing oranges: Winespeak for a new millennium. The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Solomon, G. E. (1990). Psychology of novice and expert wine talk. The American Journal of Psychology, 103(4), 495–517.






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 confronted 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, his sister Martha 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 some of those present. These are probably disbelievers. Christ however, as a supernatural being, always remains unaffected while he performs his miracle and so are those that belief in him and his Heavenly Father.

blog dood giotto lazarus padua

figure:  In this fresco only 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 partially 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 a controlled 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 a museum. But is this at all 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.


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian





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

la primavera botticelli

By scent historian Caro Verbeek (

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 are 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 merely discuss the visual beauty of the botanical specimens and the myths they were mentioned in as an explanation for Botticelli’s choice of the 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? It can be argued Botticelli has intentionally added olfactory – yet visually represented – 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 the following 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 (untranslated) 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 the sense of sight and visual aesthetics. With an olfactory gaze we can now 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. It is highly likely this choice was informed by olfaction. Myrtle –  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. It was used as a fragrant offering to statues representing the goddess of Love, known in Greece as Aphrodite. Its perfume is both fresh and warm, 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 scent eventually lead to one of the modern perfume categories ‘Chypre’.

The other very fragrant flower dedicated to Venus is the rose. Potentially (or most probably) 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 – besides roses we encounter 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 enhance their memorability.

On Flora’s dress we also see embroidered carnations (painted representations of embroidered representations of real flowers, clever Botticelli), which exude a somewhat green, sweet, yet bodily scent. Both the light pinkish colour and heady indolic scent refer to sensuality. The way 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


by Caro Verbeek, scent and art historian



What We Can Gain from Training our Nostrils – The Sense of Smell in the Arts & Humanities

blog nose institute art and olfaction materiality course

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

In an article in Time Magazine (2018) Dr. Asifa Majid pointed out that there is a whole world to be gained from training our poorly educated sense of smell. An example would be to sniff our food instead of just looking at the expiration date before throwing it away when it’s still perfectly fine to eat it.

But how and where can we learn to be better smellers? Courses for perfumers are intensive, long, expensive and inaccessible (there are allegedly more astronauts than perfumers!) and the output (industrially produced and pleasing 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 or olfactory olfactory turn in the humanities

This is not a typo. In the eighties and nineties the humanities faced the first sensory, and more specifically olfactory turn. Influential scholars such as anthropologists Constance Classen, David Howes, Annales School historian Alain Corbin, and later art historian Jim Drobnick, elevated the sense of smell to where it is now: a serious topic in cultural debates and (art) history.

Paying attention to our senses can truly broaden our gaze according to a new promising generation of scholars. Cambridge PhD candidates Lizzie Marx and Lorraine de la Verpillière have set up the seminar “Art and the Senses” (2018) 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”

Something has changed since the first olfactory turn. And that is the addition of actual sensory sources. I call this the second, or olfactory olfactory turn, because it actually involves the senses, instead of just texts on the senses. Teachers are now actually bringing scents into the classroom, and not just as entertainment or illustrations, but as extra strings of information.

Many contemporary scholars, such as cultural historians Holly Dugan and Inger Leemans, claim that using the sense of smell has broadened their gaze and that of their students. My own practice as a sensory historian, curator and teacher made me realise that smelling even facilitates detecting and better understanding textual expressions related to olfaction. Smell is no longer something merely studied in textbooks. Sensing and smelling have become tools to gather serious information.

Urban Geographer Tim Verlaan, who set up the course ‘Urban Culture’, taught at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, explains why the senses are important in the education of art history and architecture students:

“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 as a scholarly discipline has been complemented by and sometimes even substituted by  ‘visual culture’. Although this emerging field is broad in the sense that it transgresses the boundaries of art history, media studies, architecture, design, anthropology and museology,  it seems to ignore any other sensory phenomena and is therefore actually quite narrow. Both as a reaction to visual culture, and to stimulate out of the box thinking of his students art history professor Patrick van Rossem (University of Utrecht) implemented the course ‘The Senses’ (2018) for art, history and philosophy students. His students are sniffing, touching and tasting their way through art history besides reading texts.

I developed the course ‘The Other Senses’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, The Hague almost ten years ago, about the same time olfactory artist Maki Ueda started her ‘Smell and Art’ program at the same academy. During these classes ArtScience students don’t just study articles, but train their senses and learn how smelling, tasting and touching are related to knowledge, language and art practices in a different way than sight is. In addition At the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam Dr. Manon Parry, Dr. Inger Leemans, Wouter de Vries (PhD) have set up ‘Knowing by Sensing’ as we speak, believing that sensory practice can actually lead to extra strings of information and knowledge building; an idea still quite alien to most text-driven scholars. Sensory training is often associated with grammar schools, and in specific Montessori education. But as we become more and more detached from our lower senses and our body, even adults have a whole world to gain. After all, all cognition is embodied and starts by sensing.

How the internet has helped olfactory initiatives flourish

There is a very clear reason why now is the perfect time to start addressing our noses nd why the sense of smell has become such a popular phenomenon, according to Ashraf Osman, curator and 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”

People feel an urgent need for material sensory encounters (maybe more so than ever since Covid-19 has forced us to stare at our screens), that cannot be shared online as a counter-reaction to social media, but as a consequence of those same platforms, 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 both educate the nostrils AND 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 Caro Verbeek and Stefanie Dathe 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 a quite 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.

Smelling 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


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


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



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)


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


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



What?                     “Odorama”

Where?                   Mediamatic, Amsterdam

Since when?           2015

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

Frank Bloem

For whom?             anyone


What?                     “Smell Lab”

Where?                   Berlin

Since when?           2016

By whom?               Klara Ravat

For whom?             anyone