My The Decameron Stories and Perfume article was first published in Cafleurebon, and this is the version I edited in 2021.
“And the plague gathered strength as it was transmitted from the sick to the healthy through normal intercourse, just as the fire catches on to any dry or greasy object placed too close to it.
Nor did it stop there: not only did the healthy incur the disease and with it the prevailing mortality by talking to or keeping company with the sick–they had only to touch the clothing or anything else that had come into contact with or been used by the sick and the plague evidently was passed to the one who handled those things.”
― Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron
On a cold day of Winter in Anno Domini 2021, approximately one horribilis year after The Virus started to spread rapidly all over the world – I am still in (partial) lockdown.
And I continue to read books, observe physical reality and Zeitgeist, and write about fragrances: this is my (edited) story about The Decameron and Perfume in Quarantine.
Here we go again, Anno Domini 2021, and the new plague is mutating, changing, and gathering again its strength. Brace yourself.
Those were my immediate thoughts as I started to re-read Boccaccio’s Decameron, just as all the libraries closed down their doors in 2020 and I was left with a pile of books I couldn’t return. To be stuck with Boccaccio is not bad, not bad at all. Anytime. One cannot fail to notice similarities of times long gone and events we witness today.
Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a masterpiece and a very accurate overview of the human condition. The Decameron is the most vivid account of societal breakdown in the times of The Black Death (written between 1348-1353). He captured the complexity of human nature, value systems, the reality of life, and earthy pleasures.
I’m certain that I’m not the only one to savor the same book yet again in 2021 – not only because of the quality of its prose, its precision and elegance, but because I needed to reassure myself that regardless of Quarantine-induced confinement, life HAS meaning and joy CAN be a part of it. Enjoying fragrances, for example, brings me joy, and I cherish my beloved perfume in quarantine.
The Decameron resonates with us today more than ever: human nature is constant, and history repeats itself. Another occurrence is also universally valid: all levels of the society suffer(ed) the same. Florentines reacted to the plague threat differently: there were those who ran away to the outskirts of the city, isolating themselves with close friends and family members, and enjoyed fine food and wine, music, art, and reading.
Then there were those who stayed in Florence, deciding to live like there’s no tomorrow, enjoying wild parties, including all the possible vices. There were also citizens that took a middle path, tried to preserve their sanity while carrying around herbs, wearing leather masks, gloves, and long coats as protection.
And then there were the poor: Boccaccio notes that thousands of lives were lost, those who died from malnutrition, inadequate housing, and because they couldn’t afford to leave the city at all. The rich got the best available medical treatment, but the city of Florence paid wages to plague doctors to take care of the poor as well: they knew that the disease didn’t care about the number of gold coins in your sack.
The Decameron consists of 100 tales told by seven young women and three young men that range from romantic to erotic, full of life, and touchingly human. This merry bunch had fled the city of Florence during the plague to live in isolation for 40 days (Quarantine, literally) in the safety and beauty of the nearby Tuscan countryside.
Worldy pleasures were not unknown to post Middle Age – early Renaissance bourgeoisie women and men; the new humanist approach suggested even then that a person might well enjoy life without offending God, and our merry bunch surely enjoyed secular goods such as art, fine food, clothing, creativity…and perfume!
Perfume is and was an inseparable part of human life. Always, even in the darkest moments of human history.
At that time valerian, musk, civet, amber, clove, jasmine, rose-water, citrus blossoms, lavender, herbs, and tuberose were aristocrats and bourgeoisie “approved” scents.
Perfume in Quarantine
Which fragrance could possibly be Fiametta’s, Filostratos’, or Pampinea’s signature scent? What was the scent of their bedrooms? Of food they ate? How did the forest where they danced or the garden where they gathered smell like?
Let’s take a closer look at what could be the “most odoriferous and could possibly yield so sweete a savor.“ if we set the stage for Decameron stories here and now. My mission was to find perfumes to correspond with terroir, atmosphere, and characters, to scent the tales as if these events are happening today. And they are happening, we just have to choose a matching perfume in quarantine!
Mise-en-scène~Stories of the Third Day: sex, voice, and morals. On the beautiful Sunday our storytellers move to a special place: a palace, adjoined by a lush garden. This garden is described in the Introduction: full of exotic fragrances, suggestive of spices of the East, with an exquisite design. “If Paradise was constructed on Earth, this would be it. A perfect place, for perfect love.“
All ten stories of the Third Day and Paradise Lost are dedicated to masculine-feminine relations, and not quite innocent ones at all: each novella raises questions about different sexual issues. The necessary “Gardening“ described here doesn’t refer to flora only, nor is any a garden prone to blossom fully without “gardening”. And love – love is invincible! Scents described in these stories are orange and lemon blossoms, jasmine, white and red roses, spices, and woods.
Acqua Colonia Rosa Novella Santa Maria di Novella Perfumes: My first association was immediately Rosa Novella, from the house of Santa Maria di Novella Perfumes, bringing back memories of all my visits to their flagship store in Florence. In Decameron, it all started in Florence and it all ended right where it started: in front of the church of Santa Maria di Novella, in the 14th century.
When you stand on the square in front of it you can easily travel back in time within an eyeblink: just close your eyes and imagine people surrounding you wearing medieval clothes…
A very romantic May rose from Tuscany, fresh and flowery. It’s so easy to see it blooming in the gardens of the Santa Maria di Novella, under the specific blue color of the sky above Florence. That garden was planted centuries ago, and it is still standing, full of roses. Rosa Novella is a cabbage rose at its finest, almost a soliflore.
Refreshing and sensual at the same time, and so befitting the imagery from the book of strolling carelessly around a garden and inhaling deeply the sweet, fresh, soft, and slightly spicy fragrance of roses and other spring flowers in full bloom. Timeless and uplifting, soothing, and playful. So youthful, and yet so ancient at the same time, creating a surreal scented bubble of romantic, youthful optimism around the wearer.
Notes: lemon, petitgrain, rosa centifolia, white flowers, spicy aromatic notes, patchouli, sandalwood, cedarwood, musk.
Mise-en-scène~ Ninth Day, under the rule of Emilia: there are no prescribed themes for the Decameron stories.
Quite a few are about cunning tricks performed, and, of course, some lascivious ones. Location: old woods not far away from the palace. When the protagonists of the book had returned to their quarters, they were all “garlanded with oak leaves, and their hands were full of sweet-scented herbs and flowers, and anyone who had come across them would have thought: “Either these people will never be overcome by death, or else they will die happy.“
Scents described in the book: green, bright notes, herbs, flowers, oak leaves.
Young Hearts, Bruno Acampora/ by Miguel Matos (an Art&Olfaction Awards 2020 Finalist): Green it is, and also a classic-structure Chypre-green, joyful and bursting at its seems. It could very well fit into the 1470s, or anytime, even if inspired by the 1970s: a very natural and fresh opening, with fresh-green tree branches and lush pink roses rolling around in oakmoss, drunk with joy.
With a pinch of saffron, just to mess up the greens a bit – and let me tell you one little secret: saffron used here is the key to unlocking all the facets of this fragrance, to understand all the directions it pulls in and pushes to.
Intensely green, slightly bitter, and earthy galbanum perfectly fits into this atmosphere, and prances around with patchouli. It smells like unrestrained laughter coming from a party set in the woods. A wild party it was, the kind that makes you feel alive and happy, drunk with fresh air, blossoming Spring, and high on serotonin – the “happy“ chemical.
Living life at its fullest, like there’s no tomorrow: fearless youth unleashed, unrestrained, free. In the forest. Unmasked.
Notes: Bergamot, galbanum, birch leaf, pine, saffron, jasmine, fir balsam, rose, oakmoss, patchouli, musk, amber.
Mise-en-scène: Second Day. Fortuna is the central theme, and in the Fifth Story Andreuccio of Perugia is on his way to Naples to buy horses.
He is in one night the victim of three misfortunes: he fell into waste, into the water, and into a grave, yet he overcomes them all and comes out with a ruby: nothing lost, wisdom gained.
When he had entered the home of what he thought was a noble lady, our dear young Andreuccio was convinced that she couldn’t but love and want him, since he considered himself to be absolutely and irresistibly handsome (in the city of irresistible man), and that the fact that he carried 500 gold florins had nothing to do with it – in a pretty shady neighborhood.
She led him “by the hand into her drawing-room, and from there, without saying a word, into her bedroom, which was scented with roses, orange blossoms and other flowers.“
Scents perceived from the tale: orange blossoms, roses, a bouquet of flowers, softest skin ever, naivety, and sweet lies.
Angel’s Dust / Francesca Bianchi Perfumes/ Francesca Bianchi: with its Tuscan origin and vintage references, it does take you back to the times of Early Italian Renaissance: sweet and seemingly innocent, divine and elegant, and simultaneously exhibiting the scent of boudoir behind the closed doors.
Angel’s Dust seems soft, tender, and powdery, but beware! This fragrance was meant to seduce you without notice. A touch of fluffy winged angel covered in heavenly body powder, smiling sweetly at you. Teasing. What a perfume in quarantine!
Comforting? Definitely. Innocent? Just give it time. It’s a sensuous floral with buttery-creamy iris and honeyed-resinous reflections on naked, musky, and pearl-like glowing skin.
Erotic. Who wouldn’t fall for that, even if far more experienced than our dear, naive Andreuccio, even today, even under masks?
Notes: black pepper, mimosa, rose, iris, musk, sandalwood, tolu balsam, benzoin, vanilla.
We don’t know how long all this will last but every day is an opportunity to write your own, scented story with your perfume in quarantine.
Make your each day memorable: one day we shall look back at these times, and search our memory for moments that brought us beauty, joy, and made us feel vibrantly alive.
The Decameron began and ended in front of the church of Santa Maria di Novella. I cannot wait for the moment when I’ll be standing again in this exact spot in Florence.
Soon, I hope: we’ll talk about perfume in quarantine, laugh, and hug each other tightly. One day…soon.
The Plum Girl
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