Some people might be shocked to hear that Venice is the real birthplace of perfume and perfume, as we know it today, was actually invented here. Currently one of the leading producers of perfume in the world, the art of perfumery originated in the ‘Serenissima’, thanks to the curiosity, skill and pioneering spirit that has distinguished the Venetians for centuries!
For lovers of signature essences, for aficionados of history and local customs, but also for those who are eager to have more thought-provoking information about this time-honoured trade, our tour starts in Santa Croce 1992, home to the ‘Museum of Fabrics and Costumes’. This museum now boasts an entire section dedicated to perfume, a must-visit stopover for a real olfactory experience in Venice! After leaving the museum, our tour will take us to a more modern but equally fascinating location, where you can purchase exquisite aromatic souvenirs. From here we will travel onwards to the foot of the Rialto Bridge to discover the most recent ‘luxury destination’ of Venetian shopping.
A TRIP BACK IN TIME
Venice could be described as a city of achievements! In addition to its better-known accomplishments in the fields of commerce and tourism, it also boasts several records in the perfume sector. It’s interesting to note that the modern versions of perfume and soap (only used at that time for technical purposes), were invented in Venice.
The magnificent Palazzo Mocenigo houses these products and other treasures. This is a beautifully restored private residence which is worth a visit in its own right. While walking through its rooms, make sure to allow your gaze to travel upwards in order to admire its magnificent frescoes and paintings! This one-of-a-kind tour, dedicated to ‘old world Venice’, is suitable for people of all ages, and has been curated to enlighten the public about all aspects of the art of perfume-making; a fascinating mixture of alchemy, science and experimentation.
The museum was established in 2013 thanks to the perfume company, Mavive, and the Foundation of Civic Museums in Venice. Featuring a combination of two of the greatest manifestations of Venetian creativity, namely the art of making perfume (and soap) and decorated glass, the museum offers a collection of exquisite historical artifacts (including perfume phials and atomizers), as well as rooms just waiting to be discovered. There are also paintings, clothing from past centuries and, above all, a parfumer’s workshop dedicated to the art of perfume-making both past and present.
While wandering through the different rooms, visitors will have the opportunity to explore the history of costumes and perfumes and learn some interesting historical facts. For example? Deer musk, a substance obtained from the gland of the male musk deer, was first brought to Venice by Marco Polo. A key constituent in many perfumes, it acted as a fixative when mixed with alcohol, and though commonly used today, this technique was adopted for the first time ever in Venice.
Other interesting objects that were extremely popular during that era, were perfumed gloves, widely used as a form of protection against harmful bacteria. And what about the ‘mude’? Between the Medieval ages and the early Renaissance, the Republic of Venice was built on commerce, acting as a centre of trade between Asia and Europe. The routes were organized into seven naval caravans, known as ‘mude’: the Muda of Syria, the Muda of Egypt, the Muda of ‘Tana’ and Romania, the Muda of ‘Trafego’, the Muda of ‘Barbaria’, the Muda of ‘Acque Morte’ and the Muda of Flanders. These ancient caravans or convoys allowed for the brokering of merchandise and exotic goods coming from the East, including spices, incense, wood, silk and perfumes. Thanks to the distillation of health remedies at monasteries in Venice and the production of cosmetics at apothecaries and spice shops, the Serenissima became the European centre of the art of perfume-making within a very short time.
THE ART OF PERFUMERY
At the Palazzo Mocenigo Museum, in addition to enjoying an olfactory experience and deepening their knowledge about the history of perfume, visitors will also have a chance to discover several treasures and rare objects.
Here is presented an overview of the most interesting locations dedicated to the fascinating world of Artistic Perfumery including Palazzo Mocenigo with its sections devoted to perfumes and rare items, the historic boutique and sought-after fragrances of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ in Campo San Fantin and, last but not least, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi, Venice’s brand new, scintillating temple of luxury shopping located just steps from the Rialto Bridge.
Today Palazzo Mocenigo offers visitors an insightful journey through six rooms featuring displays of artifacts and ancient documents, multimedia instruments and sensory experiences. A private residence turned museum, the rooms of the Palazzo are now used as spaces for educational purposes, and feature olfactory stations designed to enlighten visitors about the history of perfume and essences.
Over time, the museum has been enlarged with the opening of three new spaces: a Perfume Workshop, a Multi-media Workshop and the ‘White Room’ for temporary exhibitions. One of the main attractions offered by the museum is a 2-hour course (including a visit to the museum). This course is designed to teach visitor show to create and mix perfumes. Although you might not become an expert perfumer, you will be treated to a unique experience, which includes being offered a perfume kit to create your own special signature perfume! Opening hours of the museum: November-March 10am-4pm. April-October 10am-5pm. Closed on Mondays.
The second stage of our tour to discover the art of perfume-making in Venice takes us to Campo San Fantin, home to the headquarters of the historic The Merchant of Venice boutique, located just steps from Teatro La Fenice. The ancient apothecary of San Fantin, founded around 1600 as a Spice Shop ‘under the insignia’ of San Paolo, was redesigned in Neo-Gothic style in 1864 by Giambattista Meduna, the architect who also transformed the nearby Teatro La Fenice.
At this exclusive location, you can find perfumes inspired by the essences that Venetian merchants imported from the Far East, a line of contemporary perfumes associated with the art of Venetian glass-making. The feminine fragrances of the Murano Collection are contained in elegant bottles inspired by exquisite hand-crafted glass, while the essences used reference the famous ‘mude’. On the other hand, the flagship store’s line of men’s perfumes is bottled in phials reminiscent of the different patterns found on olden-day Venetian costumes.
The latest addition to the collection is the new ‘Rosa Moceniga’ fragrance. A floral native of China, its name derives from the Mocenigo family, owners of a rose garden in Alvisopoli for the past 200 years. The rose species in the garden were imported from France by Lucia Mocenigo, a close friend of Josephine Bonaparte, who was passionate about these flowers. Distinguished by silvery pink petals and light veining, this lavishly feminine fragrance is the perfect expression of a rose in its natural habitat.
NEW LUXURY LIFESTYLE VENUE
We end this short tour of artistic perfumery near the Rialto Bridge, now home to T Fondaco dei Tedeschi’, the new temple of shopping in Venice, which also hosts a corner showcasing the fragrances of The Merchant of Venice.
The Fondaco dei Tedeschi has been a part of the history of Venice for eight centuries. It was the home and workplace of a confederation of German merchants. First constructed in 1228 and then rebuilt after a devastating fire in 1508, it was converted into a Post Office in 1808, a purpose that it served for almost a century. The building is one of the most recognizable in Venice overlooking the Grand Canal. Extending over a surface area of 7,000 square metres, T Fondaco dei Tedeschi hosts the collections of the best Italian and international fashion brands and accessories, as well as some of the most sought-after beauty products and fragrances.
This lifestyle department store will be used as a public space for events, exhibitions and cultural initiatives and as a place to promote and preserve authentic Venetian craftsmanship. The location also boasts a top-notch restaurant named “AMO” helmed by starred chef Massimiliano Alajmo, who offers visitors a one-of-a-kind gourmet gastronomic experience in perfect keeping with all its other upscale amenities.
AN ODE TO PERFUME
In his book entitled ‘A Small Guide to the Secrets of Venice’ (published by Proedi Editore), Luciano Gianfilippi says “The first scientific treaty on the subject of perfume appeared in Venice in the mid 1500s”.
Giovaventura Rosetti, the author of “Notandissimi secreti de l’arte profumatoria”, was a steward of the Arsenal of Venice. The Republic of Venice sent him on a special mission to the Middle East to learn about the secrets of perfume-making and to choose essences and spices for import to Venice. This resulted in the birth of the Venetian perfume industry which made the “Arte dei Saoneri e Profumieri della Serenissima”(The Art of Soap makers and Perfumers of the Serenissima) famous. The book was reprinted by leading Venetian perfumery and cosmetic company Mavive thanks to the interest and passion of its owner Marco Vidal. The book is now available at “The Merchant of Venice” boutique in Campo San Fantin.