Venice, the European perfume capital

Mara Noveni | Live the World

May 29, 2024

When choosing a place to discover, what matters most is the experience that lies ahead in the mind and heart. And, probably, this is why, in our travels, we are always looking for sensory experiences capable of enveloping and involving us. So, we rely on sight to admire beauty and colours, on touch for what we can touch, on taste for food and wine itineraries, and on hearing to get in tune with soundscapes. But what about the smell? A wonderful experience that passes through perfumes leads us to Venice, the European perfume capital.

Since the Middle Ages, Venice has been the European capital of commerce and perfume. Caravans of merchants arrived here by sea from the East and the Middle East and imported spices and incense. The story tells of the Byzantine Teodora Ducas, a very beautiful woman who, in the 11th century, married the Doge of Venice, Domenico Selvo. She was famous because she made great use of perfume. Marco Polo, returning from his travels in China, also brought back many unknown perfumes. Thus, Venice became the most crucial perfume production centre in Europe.

© iStock / kittimages

The city had a period of great splendour thanks to the art of perfumery, and it refined the production techniques of perfumes by replacing the oils with alcohol (brandy) to make them more storable. In Venice, many shops sold perfumed waters and ointments, and in the city, there were at least 400 hairdressers and barbers, demonstrating how much the Venetians cared about their image.

Even today in Venice it is possible to retrace the history of perfume, crossing its places.

The Museum of Perfume in Palazzo Mocenigo

A trail of perfume, light but perceptible, wafts throughout the building. Each room has a different fragrance, linked to the history of the Serenissima: rose, orange blossom, amber, and sandalwood. The seat of this museum is Palazzo Mocenigo, in the Santa Croce district, the residence of the most illustrious Venetian families since the early 1600s. Frescoes and stuccos, marbles, magnificent wooden ceilings and briar doors, the beauty lives here… Everything suggests the splendour of the Venetian nobility at the end of the 18th century. In 2013, a section completely dedicated to the history of perfume was added to all this beauty. One room evokes the almost alchemical laboratory of the ancient master perfumer, among alembics, Murano vases and precious finds, such as a 16th-century herbarium. The ancient perfume bottles and containers of the Storp collection are splendid, with 3000 unique pieces from the Egyptians to the present day.

Another unique piece is the perfumer's organ, the work table where the master perfumer, surrounded by about 200 vials of essential oils, created the new fragrances. Finally, at the end of the path, there is also the laboratory where, under the guidance of an expert, a personalized fragrance can be created: to take home a little bit of the aroma of Venice.

© iStock / Stae

The Perfume Library

Not far from the Basilica of San Marco, in calle Canonica, is the olfactory bookshop of The Merchant of Venice, a place for enthusiasts but also those curious about the world of perfume. Here, meetings, courses and reading groups centred on the theme of perfume are held, and in the laboratory space, you can create your own personalized fragrance.

© iStock / Canon

The Ancient Pharmacy San Fantin

The San Fantin pharmacy was located here in the 1600s, right next to the Gran Teatro La Fenice. Nowadays, the perfumery of The Merchant of Venice still exhibits period objects, books and perfumes. It is one of the many historical shops in Venice that tells the city's story.

© The Merchant of Venice / unknown

Ex Spezieria all’Ercole d’Oro

This apothecary was located in the Cannaregio district, where the Jewish ghetto of Venice was located, at number 2233 of Strada Nova. Now, the space houses a shop of The Merchant of Venice, which preserves precious sculptures, glass vases and precious woods.

© iStock / fosk

Bottega Cini

In the Dorsoduro area, a few steps from the Peggy Guggenheim collection, this workshop is in the style of a Renaissance shop. Some historical fragrances have been created here, such as the one dedicated to the Gran Teatro La Fenice in Venice.

© Bottega Cini / unknown

If you are looking for souvenirs, avoid the junk the shops are full of, which damages the economy of Venice and the authentic traditional craftsmanship. Instead, try to buy small souvenirs to remember Venice, the European perfume capital. Even a bar of soap, a flavoured disinfectant gel or a package of mignon perfume. You will thus give a multisensory experience even to those who have not visited Venice yet and who will want to go there immediately, guided by a magical perfume full of history and stories.

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