There are smells that are so faint and yet strong, that they manage to give shape to our memories and forge entire olfactory and literary scenarios. Perfume is an art. And its creation is an exercise in style and, as such, able to interpret the most intimate essence of reality. “Fragrances serve to evoke places, to portray people, to touch the chords of emotion: appearing on the page when mere words are not enough…” This is well known to Giovanna Zucconi, journalist, author and radio/television presenter, who at Pitti Fragranze no. 12 will be curating VERBA OLENT: A journey into the literature of fragrance, a project-installation that offers an original look at the relationship between fragrances and literature.
This is what she told us about this special project.
At Fragranze you will be curating Verba Olent. A journey into the literature of fragrance. Tell us about this project…
I have worked in literature all my life, in fragrances for rather less time, but with the same enthusiasm. They are both wonderful worlds, boundless, with many more, deeper points of intersection than is generally thought. For years I have collected poetry and literary excerpts linked to the olfactory sector. Talking of fragrances means you talk about everything: mysticism and the most bestial carnality, travels and memory, creativity and imagination. Utopias, perversions, racism and social classes. In other words, life and death, which is no small matter. Reading, we discover how authors of very different eras and temperaments have touched these subjects, in often surprising variants, moving and even troubling. “Fragrances serve to evoke places, to portray people, to touch the chords of emotion, appearing on the page when mere words are not enough…”.
The idea of creating a path through literature of the fragrances at Pitti Fragranze is not mine, it was a fabulous hunch by Silvia Bruno Ventre that I greeted with enthusiasm. And here I would like to say a few words about artistic perfumes, the great collective guest at Pitti Fragranze. I think that smell is no longer the neglected sense or at least that it is starting to be neglected less. Which is a paradox, in this very deodorised era of ours. After centuries of dominance by rationality and the visual element, scents and smells are arousing widespread, almost popular, interest, although not always supported by an olfactory culture able to comprehend its very profound, complex reverberations. If perfumery is an art, showing how it embraces other artistic languages can only serve to give it the depth of field it deserves. And if it is a niche, it must be said that great changes tend to spring from well-cultivated niches. The world of fragrances is anything but frivolous; it is, on the contrary, very rich in cultural aspects, and also in stimulation of curiosity, feeling, even entertainment. As I hope and believe will happen at Verba Olent.
You have chosen some 80 literary excerpts… What is the thread running through your search and selection?
There is a main objective criterion, namely the decision to select only classic authors. An enormous, well-established assortment. Seeing them side by side, Baudelaire and the Bible, Catullus and Shakespeare, Melville and Saffo, Francis Scott Fitzgerald and Balzac, and many others, means travelling quite freely and rereading the masterpieces of all time from a different viewpoint. I used the three categories of the olfactory pyramid to guide the visitor in a jokingly serious way through this jungle of voices. Head, heart, base. Where the "head” unites the more abstract and perhaps even more volatile passages, the “base” those liked to raw materials and the primordial aspect of the sense of smell and the “heart” the Eros, journey, memory, in other words the expressive heart of the fragrance.
How can a fragrance express sensations and define a person's identity?
This is a question that finds answers (albeit brief) also at Verba Olent. An example? There is a wonderful poem by Walt Whitman entitled Song of myself, in which the poet describes himself using the fragrance of nature. “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes…”. Or Gulliver, when he returns after his travels and finds his wife’s smell disgusting… Or… Stop me, because I could go on forever! In these cases it is the olfactory language that expresses sensations and defines identities inside another language, that of literature. But anyone who has every really smelt a fragrance – or I could even say: anyone who has ever smelt a real fragrance – knows how powerful it can be. It is precisely to express our personality that we choose “our” scent.
In November you will be publishing a book on the theme of fragrances&literature with Mondadori. How can we translate a fragrance into a verbal form? And which of the authors you have read along this path was the most successful in this intent?
The book will be entitled La sua voce è profumo (Her voice is perfume), from a poem by Baudelaire, but it is also a way of saying how the voices of the writers are steeped in smells, fragrances and bad odours. I would just like to quote one writer of the many: Andrea Camilleri. Read him: his novels are a weaving of fragrances, the word sciauro, which means smell, appears often. The culinary delights of Adelina, Livia’s skin, the sea – they all have their own fragrance. One of his books is called The Scent of the Night. In another, The King of Girgenti, it is the erotic reek of Filònia’s armpits that move the story. A particularly slimy lawyer wears a “profumo diciastro che faciva vinniri il vomito" (a cloying fragrance that made me feel sick). Etcetera. Fragrance manages to touch our deepest chords and the same goes for writers. They too feel the energy and appeal of perfumes.
Close your eyes and think of a fragrance… What words would you use to describe it?
Luckily for both you and me, having worked so much with writers, I would use someone else's words.