I am an amateur historian. My amateur status doesn’t arise from a deep shortfall of knowledge, research, or enthusiasm, but from the fact that I have been a “closet” historian. Other then teaching a dozen classes in Classical and Medieval history at the 3rd grade level at my son’s primary school in the Mexican countryside, I haven’t taught. Or have I, to date, written ponderous essays that have been published in arcane journals. I have given only one public lecture, at the highly prestigious Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida, on the subject of the Grand Tour and its effect on art and architecture in eighteenth century England. My intention now is to ramp up my historian status. In this blog, I want to share what I know and think about random historical subjects that I find fascinating with a broader audience than my family and friends, and learn what others who read my blog know and think. My ultimate goal to increase the crosscurrent of facts and ideas available to me.
I remember in my childhood reading a story (I can’t remember what it was called), describing the marvelous discovery that the planet Earth from its origins to the then present date had been filmed by intelligent beings on another planet. The most exciting news was that the film would be made available to view by Earthlings. Most questions as to the history of the Earth could be answered by the film, i.e., by what process did the dinosaurs become extinct or did the Minotaur exist and all other subjects of particular interest to this inquisitive eleven-year old. How long it might take to gain any such information from a film covering untold millennia remained unanswered and unanswerable, but the basic idea gave me much to ponder. I still think about having access to the “film” when encountering serious lapses in the history of a subject I am researching. The thrill of being able to fill in those gaps by the simple expedient of viewing portions of that film on my laptop.
In the same vein, I have also wondered what an inanimate object, such as a painting or a mirror, “saw” over its existence; and, I have often fantasized means of extracting those visions from otherwise mute surfaces. Among other things, wouldn’t it be a marvel if a seeming Jackson Pollack lacking a provenance were able to speak the identity of its master instead of perplexing experts by offering up only telltale brush strokes, paint chemistry, or even a finger print; or, for those romantically inclined, would that a superb 18th century trumeau mirror once hanging at the Petit Trianon chose to trump supermarket tabloids by nattering on the nature of Count Fersen’s visits to Marie Antoinette.
Absent access to such fantastical means of historical extractions, I am grateful for the Internet, which precludes the arduous process of haunting libraries and specialty bookstores to gain information now available simply by pressing a few letter and number buttons on a keyboard. The information one can gain from the Internet may not ultimately be definitive, but it is obtainable more quickly and more fulsomely than any other sources hitherto available during pre-Internet history. However, I must that the Internet seemed a “fantasy” not too many years ago.
What stirs me most about acquiring historical knowledge is the surprises that challenge one’s erroneous impressions of the past as well as gaining new insights as to how our ancestors functioned. I also find it exhilarating to discover individuals who were justifiably well known while alive and whose current repute is as dead as they are. I welcome the opportunity to gain information that my readers can offer, to fulfill or correct what I write, offer new challenges to impressions of the past, or introductions to personages who were remarkable when alive and are no largely forgotten.
To begin, I have recently finished writing an historical novel called “Magritte” that wanders over 400 years. The novel has as its central core an eponymous French perfume created in 1660, not for commercial reasons but to cover the nasty smell and taste of an aphrodisiac. In the course of writing “Magritte,” I of course researched the general subject of perfume and its history, of which I had known nothing other than the names of a perfumes, particularly those worn by my wife and my mother and the scents they emitted. The topic of this “first issue” is to set out some interesting and random facts I learned about perfume.
One of my chapters in “Magritte” has to do with the peddling of Magritte at the Palace of Versailles in the 1680’s. This perfume, by reason of its being strongly aromatic, quickly broke out of its founding role as an adjunct to an aphrodisiac. Versailles has always been a subject of interest to me; and, I have visited it frequently along with its ancillary buildings, such as the Grand and Petit Trianon, which are relatively small get-way residences for the Royals, and the Hameau, which was Marie Antoinette’s faux farming village where she and her pals pretended to be bucolic country girls.
The Palace itself is vast (covering more than 720,000 square feet), and has grand and beautiful public rooms, and small and delicious private rooms located largely on back palace courtyards, some of the latter have become open to the public. However, it also has an unvisited rabbit warren of diminutive apartments (some 220 in number) and 450 very small single rooms that served to house hundreds of resident nobles of the highest French aristocracy. Many of them, who didn’t as well keep decent, supplementary lodgings in the town of Versailles, subsisted at the Palace in discomfort or even in abject squalor, contrasting strongly with the spacious chateaux many of them had sprinkled throughout France. The nobles were at Versailles to orbit about Louis XIV, not for nothing called the Sun King who radiated privileges and financial benefits on his aristocratic boarders. All in all, Versailles seems slightly a mad creation to me. Even the royals who lived there from its builder Louis XIV to its last queen,Marie Antoinette, had to escape frequently to smaller residences on the Palace grounds or elsewhere, presumably to keep their sanity and avoid the boredom of deliberate and utter grandiosity of Versailles.
Like our image that ancient Greece and Rome was populated by stark and pristine white marble temples and statutes is fallacious, so is our impression that the Palace of Versailles, even in the period of Louis XIV, was an immaculately maintained edifice. Indeed, Greek and Roman temples and statutes were vividly colored and would probably be considered as gaudy by current Western aesthetic standards. See below the Frieze of the Parthenon and the Augustus Prima Porta as they might have appeared in ancient times.
Similarly, the 10,000 or so occupants of Versailles, both aristocrats and servants, peed and defecated wherever they felt the need, in its marble stairways and halls. Its public indoor latrines scattered around the Palace were often clogged, and clean up and repair was sporadic. We know also that clothing (other than undergarments) worn by the King, nobles, and servants were never cleaned. Or were their bodies washed with any frequency outside of faces and elsewhere that skin was bare, i.e., hands, neck, and, in the case of women, arms and bosoms. The Palace had no central plumbing, and water was brought to the quarters of the nobles in small basins, how often, I don’t know. Needless to say, elimination of human waste product from the noble habitations was irregular. The stench of the Palace emanating from that waste and other garbage from feeding 10,000 people and the like diffused over at least two miles in diameter, serving as a milestone for seventeenth century visitors, signifying that they were heading in the right direction absent modern road signage and the GPS.
The Duke de Saint Simon, a resident at Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV, in his secret memoirs of daily events and court gossip, wrote about the Princesse d’Harcuort who was a glutton at the table and took laxatives enabling her to eat beyond satiety. The laxatives too often worked before a meal was completed, and she would leave the table hurriedly, leaving a trail of odiferous stool behind her. This was met by laughter from her fellow diners;and, Saint Simon doesn’t suggest her lack of future dinner invitations. Louis XIV rewarded resident nobles with permission to attend his daily scheduled defecations. Also, the King was amused to realize that his daughter-in-law, the Duchesse de Bourgogne. whom he was visiting one evening at her apartment, was undergoing an enema under he voluminous skirts as he was speaking to her. What is remarkable is that this was a court having innumerable rules of etiquette; one rule required women to walk as though they were drifting over space, and another for all to scratch rather than knock at doors to gain admittance to a room so as not to offend delicate eardrums. Contradictions, at least for us, abounded at Versailles.
If Versailles and its noble denizens reeked, what would lesser abodes and people further down on the societal scale be like? The King himself in his late middle age had terrible halitosis due to rotten teeth, a problem that his substantial use of perfume couldn’t cover; his body was bathed every morning in perfume, and afterward his clothing and most likely the towering wigs that he wore were spritzed with scent.
Clearly, eighteenth century people of all classes had a much higher tolerance for nasty smells than we do in the fortunate Western world. However, the massive use of perfume at the Court of Louis XIV and by the King on particular indicates strongly that there were definite limits to that tolerance.
I can’t prove, but nevertheless believe, that perfumes in various forms must have existed before recorded history, to relieve the stink of decay, human and animal excrement, unwashed bodies, and accumulated rubbish. Even in the classical Greek and Roman civilizations as well in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, no garbage collection service was offered by the the state or municipal authorities Inhumation by fire, whether for disposal of the dead or the dispatch of heretics at the Autos de Fe under the Inquisition and similar events, has always required large doses of incense to make the process acceptable to mourners or the sadists who congregated to watch the hideous effects of fire on living humans. In fact, the brisk trade in frankincense and myrrh carried on by merchants from the Arabian Peninsula (where those varieties of full-bodied incense abounded) fell off sharply when Christianity took hold in Italy and the rest of Europe. Burial of the intact bodies of Christian dead, in the earth or in tombs, to promote physical resurrection as promised by Jesus Christ, replaced the pagan custom of burning their dead. The continued use of incense in Roman Catholic church services, which really was adapted by the early Church to provide continuity with pagan practices to comfort new converts, required a fraction of the incense that was needed to mask the horrid stench of burning human bodies. The incense merchants never recovered or did the various oasis they stopped at en route to delivering their wares, which had inns for sleeping, meals, and refreshments.
Just as prehistoric man felt compelled to paint the walls of his caves, I suspect that they used aromatic flora, resins, and other pleasant smelling natural substances to make their brutish existence somewhat less disagreeable. I can imagine a Neanderthal lass rubbing scented leaves, such as the prehistoric equivalents of modern mint leaves, rose-scented geranium petals, or sweet basil, over her face to elicit the then current equivalent of a kiss from her would-be mate, which might have been a bop on the head as in the comics.
The city of Grasse in the south of France has been a leading center for the making of fine perfumes since the mid-sixteenth century. The mild climate, good soil, and dependable amounts of rain make the Grasse region a perfect environment for the growing of roses and other aromatic flora. Oddly, the perfumes were first developed as an adjunct to the Grasse’s leather trade, in order to impart a more agreeable smell to the goods produced by the city’s tanneries. Prior to the application of strong perfumes to leather gloves, boots, jerkins, pantaloons, and hats, those articles often reeked of the animal skins from which they had been cut or the human urine in which the skins had been processed to become supple, particularly after a heavy rain or in the heat of summer.
This industry was directly or indirectly a product of Catherine de Medici’s mariage to Henri II, King of France in 1553. She was the daughter of Lorenzo II de Medici, of the Florentine banking family and de facto rulers of Florence. This marriage was a merger brought about neither by love nor lust, but a massive Medici financial infusion to the French throne.
In addition to wealth, Queen Catherine brought to France a cookbook, which established the origins of what we know as French cuisine, but also her personal alchemist to produce perfumes to scent her gloves. Her sweet-smelling gloves caused a similar fashion phenomenon in Renaissance France as did Christian Dior’s post- war New Look in 1947.
From gloves, the use of perfumed leather spread to all leather garments, and, of course, to untold generations of French perfume aficionados.
The first step in the production of traditional perfume has always involved the laying of thousands of rose petals on large beds of animal fat, generally lard. After several months, the fat is distilled to obtain the essential oil that seeped from the rose petals. The resulting rose oil is then mixed with a variety of others oils and alcohols distilled from other flowers, herbs, and leaves, to give the scent distinction and not smell simply like roses.
One of the peculiarities, at least to me, in making exquisite perfume has been the addition of ambergris (gray amber, which has nothing to do with red amber that is derived from tree sap). Ambergris is a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and passed in its fecal matter or regurgitated by the animal into the open sea. Its found hovering on the surface of the water or lying on beaches, and is generally semi-translucent and gray in color. It can harden on dry land and become more resembling of red amber in appearance. Batches of ambergris differ in quality, which is a function of the perfume expert to judge.
Ambergris was added to perfumes by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and continues to be used today in the making of high-quality perfumes because of its fixative capacity that stabilizes volatile and delicate perfume components. The more ambergris used in a perfume, the longer its aroma will endure. This, of course, adds a high price to traditionally-produced perfumes, as ambergris has always been priced as gold.
I haven’t been able to ascertain how the use for ambergris in perfume was first discovered; and, I hope that anyone of my readers who does know that enigma will enlighten me. Like the discovers of tapioca as an edible food, the first users of ambergris had to be intrepid people, although ambergris unlike raw tapioca has never been found to be lethal.
Modern, less expensive perfumes are purely the product of chemistry which bypass the rose oil extraction process; and, ambergris has been replaced by a synthetic version called ambrozyn. These perfumes can simulate the aromas of traditional rose oil based perfumes; however, they generally don’t linger as long or have so intensive an aroma. But then again, they are a fraction of the cost of traditional perfumes and can be reapplied to perpetuate the aroma with being accused of throwing frugality to the winds.
One of the oddest applications of perfume was employed by ancient Egyptian women who wore what seem to be four or five inch cones of perfumed wax on top of their hair (generally they shaved their heads and wore wigs). The cones melted in the heat, to spread sweet-smelling liquid over their heads and below, which had a cooling effect as well aromatizing, or so we are told. Also, interesting to me is the charming use of the term “nose” to refer to persons in the perfume industry whose olfactory sense is superior to that of other human beings and are able to recognize immediately a change in a new batch of perfumes or create new scents from arcane combinations of ingredients. The person who started the eponymous line of varied aromatics, “Jo Malone,” is considered by her peers to be one of the great “noses” of our time. She claims that she “lives” by her nose, and said in an interview with Bryony Gordon in the UK “Telegraph” that she realized her husband was entering a hotel lobby by his scent before she saw him appear. That’s a “nose.”
Next week’s SoRandom: Historical Snapshots will begin a series of issues, having the self-explanatory title: “Three Dead White Men, Whom You should Know.” I think that you will enjoy reading and reacting to them.