In early modern Italy, perfumes were powerful substances whose therapeutic properties could generate pleasure and preserve or remedy one’s health if worn on or consumed by the body. In this post, I feature a typical Italian perfume recipe, “To make perfume for clothes,” from the Italian engraver and author Eustachio Celebrino’s (c. 1490-after 1535) printed vernacular pamphlet, Opera nova piacevole laqvale insegna di far varie compositioni odorifere per far bella ciaschuna donna…intitulata Venusta (Venice, 1550) intended for female consumers. Celebrino’s formulaic recipe books, typical of the genre, are printed records of socially important topics, like women’s health and adornment.
I made this recipe in Dr. Chriscinda Henry’s graduate seminar, Materiality and the Senses in Late Medieval and Early Modern European Art, at McGill University in the Winter of 2023. Celebrino’s recipe allowed us to work through experimental research methodologies in our final week dedicated to Embodied Knowing and Experimental Methods, which I co-led with fellow seminar member Mahdis Mohajeri. Making this perfume recipe raised questions about what it means for art historians living in one sensorium and studying others, like early modern Italy, where smelling amber rosary beads during prayer might bring one closer to God, chewing myrrh pastilles could prevent plague or wearing musk might help conceive a healthy child.
“To Make Perfume for Clothes”
The first step toward integrating embodied research in our art history seminar was to choose a recipe with accessible ingredients that was relatively quick to make. Celebrino’s perfumed sachet was just right since it simply asks one to take “fresh rose leaves & dry them in the shade & then take two carats [or vials] of musk, and make it into a powder, & two coins of fine cloves, and mix together, & then put it [all] in one or two little bags in the clothes.”
Before our seminar, I assembled a recipe kit with instructions and ingredients for each participant. I found cloves and dried roses from a local herbalist shop, while I substituted musk root for musk, whose extraction from the musk deer’s preputial gland is primarily illegal today.
Next, I transcribed and translated the recipe, placing that information in a PowerPoint. This left more time in class to examine primary texts like Pliny’s The Natural History and Pietro Andrea Mattioli’s Commentaries (1565) to understand the varied classical and early modern uses of musk, roses, and cloves. At the same time, selections from Sven Dupré et al. Reconstruction, Replication and Re-enactment (2020) and Pamela Smith’s From Lived Experience to the Written Word (2022) grounded our entrance into an aromatic art history, offering insight into how hands-on historical recipe experiments can help make students more resourceful researchers and inform early modern health, hygiene, and beauty practices.
The final step consisted of interpreting the recipe through practice. Students opened their kits and began to crush, mix, and add the ingredients to a draw-string bag.
The recipe’s flexible ending tells one to put the sachet “in the clothes,” possibly in a chest, carried in a pocket, worn under a skirt or attached to a belt. Making the recipe together allowed us to pose questions, such as what types and materials of bags might be preferred, how much musk equals a carat or vial, and share reactions like musk stinks!
Implications for Sensory Research in Art History
Embodied research welcomes questions about the sensuous relationships between the ephemeral body and its material culture. Things like perfumed sachets for clothes hinted at but not seen in visual media reveal how olfactory experiences in the early modern period are everywhere and nowhere. For example, middle- and upper-class women often had the luxury of owning multiple sets of clothes. When not worn, women stored their clothes in chests with sachets made from pure ingredients like musk or, for aspiring citizens, a counterfeit version made of spices and toasted breadcrumbs to preserve the fabrics’ quality and cleanliness. One can imagine only the finest ingredients perfuming Lambert Sustris’ Reclining Venus (c. 1548) in this wholesome atmosphere comprised of a downy mattress sprinkled with fragrant pink and white roses, sumptuous fabrics, and a woman playing a folding harpsichord, whose charming sounds vibrate through the clean air wafting through an open colonnade window.
But of course, we cannot see the physical sachet made from Celebrino’s recipe that may lie nestled inside the elegant cassone (chest) in the background of Sustris’ painting. We cannot sniff notes of rose, musk, and clove possibly escaping the fibres of the pastel pink dress that a woman holds above the chest. Only by reconstructing these sachets can we begin to sense smell’s critical role in preserving hygienic bodies and homes as well as in observing or challenging socially constructed gender and class hierarchies in early modern Italy.
Embracing what we cannot see or smell through embodied research allows us to imagine how Celebrino’s recipe and Sustris’ painting document once fragrant interiors. An art historical approach to making recipes aims to recenter early modern sensuous practices and experiences in artworks so that teaching and academic scholarship can help us bridge two sensoria—that of our current moment and overlooked pasts.