Stories of perfumes and perfumers: Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone and Gi.Vi.Emme
The great fragrance houses that in the twentieth century made the art and style of Italian perfumery known all over the world
Learning about the history of Italian perfumery and its most distinguished protagonists: it is not a matter of love for the past, but of the need to be the architects of our future.
Subject of the history are humans and their activities, and the itinerary round the globe of Italian perfumery that we will narrate here episode after episode, and which has as its main characters people who were able to interpret their time through fragrances, creating successful products and industrial realities. It may then happen that a person biography becomes the story of different worlds, of intertwining lives, of epoch times that are moving away.
Just like the story of Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, the first one with which we begin this column, where the leading figure conceived a scent and Gi.Vi.Emme the company that produced and marketed it was the perfect entrepreneurial support where artistic skills were combined with the advanced findings of the chemical industry.
The numerous lessons we draw from this historical recounting have a very current validity for today’s perfumer.
From the importance of raw materials and their supply, to the attention to new technologies and next-generation chemical formulas; from identifying the target audience for the launch of a new fragrance, to going against the tide in the perfume formulation; from the preliminary and necessary sociological analyses (for example, about the meaning of gender), to the value of traveling the continents in order to grasp the expectations of each market; from the relevance of naming and packaging, to the advantages of relying on the culture and art realm to introduce new forms of communication; from the potential inherent in every aspect of modernity, to the significance of knowing how to read topical events without forgetting one’s roots.
It is precisely by re-appropriating the past that it is possible to give meaning to a future in which to be protagonists. Keeping track of facts and events also helps to pinpoint the right analogies in a virtuous path that is unavoidable if you want to create a great scent suitable to conquer a new clientele and become a legend at global level.
All of this without nostalgia and without indulging in stereotyped conventions, but always remembering, as Henry Kissinger warned, that “History is not, of course, a cookbook offering pretested recipes. It teaches by analogy, not by maxims.”
At the origin of Italian excellence
Even in the mid-nineteenth century, after perfumery had left the artisan shops behind to become an industrial produce, scents were created, as it had been for centuries, by deriving various fragrant substances from nature, from plants grown in particular geographical areas.
Perfumers, fragrance houses and producers of “essences” (such was the term with which we indiscriminately referred to the different raw materials and formulas of the world of fragrances and flavors), that thanks to technological innovations, railways and steamships had more and more possibilities of spreading across the globe their perfumery specialties, soon found themselves in a difficult situation due to the supplies of natural raw materials, which could vary in quantity and quality according to weather conditions.
Rainy periods or lengthy droughts indeed affected crops, and consequently prices, often making production and sales planning problematic.
Raw materials and synthetic products
In 1800s, the progress of research on the molecules responsible for smells, and their isolation from natural raw materials, stimulated the searching and desire of scientists to manufacture artificial ones in laboratories. Progressively, more molecules responsible for known smells were identified, synthesized and made available to perfumers who, however, continued to consider them with suspicion until the end of the nineteenth century.
The success of Fougère Royale (1882) created with coumarin synthesized by the British William Henry Perkin in 1868 marked, for various reasons, the beginning of modern perfumery and the official approval of the synthetic chemicals usage in the formulation of fragrances.
The perfumers and companies on the other side of the Alps were the first ones to take advantage of the new discoveries, and could finally stock up on some flavor components, often excessively expensive or insufficient for the composition of their own specialties, by purchasing them directly from chemical laboratories at low prices and guaranteed by steady quality.
Already in the early years of the twentieth century, the Italian fragrance houses had multiplied owing to industrialization which had determined an increased economic affluence on the part of a predominantly female clientele that in the big cities had access to work, and used a share of their wages to buy beauty products.
Furthermore, in the years between the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, for their creations the Italian perfumers also used, in addition to natural products from Liguria, Tuscany and Calabria, industrially manufactured synthetic chemicals by specialized firms, such as Subinaghi, Valsecchi & Morosetti, Angelo Gabbiani and Carlo Erba, mostly located in Milan and its hinterland.
If until not long beforehand, the producers of essences were fit for creating scented works of art by amalgamating in perfect combinations approximately two hundred natural fragrant elements, now their creativity could span the boundaries of the impossible thanks to the continuous progress in the field of chemical fragrances.
Not a day went by without modern science providing new aroma chemicals capable of producing olfactory effects unimaginable until few years earlier.
Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone: the art of daring and innovating
Nevertheless, it did not happen painlessly. A multitude of skeptics had labeled the new and unreleased fragrant amalgams that upset the order of creation by naming them “nature violators,” while the substances artificially produced in laboratories were defined as “criminal and spellbinding fairies;” but by now the most innovative creators of essences got to realize the enormous opportunities which were offered to them.
One of those creators, although not an insider, had within himself the gift that nature assigns to a handful of people, the ability to “go the extra mile,” namely to integrate the innovative vision of society with a remarkable artistic potential: Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone.
In the year 1900, when he was just twenty-one, Visconti had married Carla Erba, granddaughter of Carlo Erba who founded the pharmaceutical empire of the same name: the Milanese nobility of ancient lineage had joined with the rich bourgeoisie born after the unification of Italy.
Nothing could suggest that the aristocratic and talented Visconti, shrewd entrepreneur of the textile industry, good painter, playwright and actor for the amusement of Palazzo Visconti friends, apprentice architect in the construction of the sixteenth-century-style village of Grazzano, and with vast interests in the domain of art and fashion could extend his passion also to the creation of perfumes.
In the autumn of 1910, during his stay in Paris, after conversations with Aimé Guerlain and François Coty and visits to the Piver, Houbigant and Guerlain plants, the noble Visconti developed an interest in the olfactory sector; and, as it was his habit when something attracted his attention, he wanted to deepen the subject by studying the various olfactory families, the essences, the methods of fragrances manufacturing and extraction, and as a good industrialist, in case he decided to pursue the enterprise by analyzing the best means to turn the product into a commercial success.
The birth of Italian “emotional perfumery”
What thrilled the count was the recent evolution of the art of perfume: the new smells resulting from the blending of materials never combined before.
He was fascinated by the new findings and technological developments which made it viable to break down a complex and multifaceted smell by the isolation of the elementary chemicals responsible for every single olfactory note composing it.
The latter ones could be reorganized in different percentages from the ones established by the laws of nature, or yet, it was feasible to subtract or add one or more extraneous elements.
In a short time, the noses had at their disposal a plenitude of new available essences with which they were in a position to go beyond the imitation of a flower smell or a set of natural elements. Using the wide range of unreleased fragrant substances that came to life in the laboratories, it was even achievable to create scents generated by a sensation or by the power of suggestion: emotional perfumery was born.
It became possible to conceive fragrances based on the emotion conveyed by a song, or on the poignant melancholy originating from a sunset or on the trepidation aroused by a romantic encounter.
Giuseppe Visconti quickly learned the art of creating perfumes, their structure, olfactory families and fragrance accords which in those years were divided into five main categories: oriental, fougère, leather, chypre and floral scents.
Some had ancient origins, such as chypre fragrances, that it was claimed were used during the rites of the goddess Aphrodite at the island of Cyprus in some enveloping, tender and velvety blends of lily of the valley, oak moss, dog rose, narcissus and bergamot, combined with others components which over time had faded into oblivion; then there were the oriental fragrances, once created with frankincense, cinnamon, patchouli and myrrh, while the olfactory notes then defined as “modern” included leather (containing quinoline, a chemical compound with the mild smell of tanned leather), and the fougère family (felce, in Italian): an abstract category since the fern is odorless and is composed with synthetic flavors obtained by coumarin with the smell of freshly cut lawn.
The perfumes that most enthralled Giuseppe Visconti at the time were Chypre, a fragrance created by Bourjois in 1895, and the brand new Chypre de Paris created by Jacques Guerlain in 1909.
The rediscovery of femininity
The sweet sensuality of the two fragrances gave the ladies wearing them a seductive femininity factor, which was reminiscent of the soft intimacy of a head abandoning itself on the shoulder of the beloved, a yearning desire inflaming the soul.
Yet, in Italy a respectable woman would have never wore one of those perfumes that contained notes of jasmine, tuberose or ylang-ylang in a decisive connotation.
Those scents exhaled the smell of sensuality, malice, ambition; but, Visconti envisioned, appropriately dosed and mixed with other green and delicate fragrances, the elixir which would emerge could capture an emotion by conveying an idea that never existed before.
Just what Giuseppe Visconti was looking for: an emotional perfume
He had come to realize that an era, the one later named Belle Époque, was about to end.
Paul Poiret, the most prominent couturier in Paris, had upset customs and society by throwing the female corset to the winds.
Now the woman body was free, no longer imprisoned in a garment made of strings, tight laces and whalebones, worn to please the man when he socially put his wife on display.
Now the lady could move freely, engage in some sports, endure hours of activity without extended breaks to let the body rest and breathe, and this, however illogical or excessive it may seem, helped to give women greater awareness of their self-reliance.
It was not uncommon to see ladies sitting alone or in their girlfriends company at a bistro, or otherwise strolling not being arm in arm with a companion.
It was time to make room for a new femininity, to create a scent in which the woman identified the new era that was advancing: a fragrance that was an expression of the consumer identity.
The Poet’s suggestions
Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone had set himself the task of being the first in Italy to create it: hadn’t he after all learned enough during those prolonged stays in Paris and while dialoguing with the largest producers of essences in the world? Didn’t he possibly have at his disposal the Carlo Erba laboratories and all the chemists he could wish for?
In Paris, the patrician had also met Gabriele D’Annunzio, “the Poet” as he used to define himself, sheltered abroad due to the chase by creditors, and even with the Poet, Visconti had had lengthy talks about his personal projects regarding essences.
D’Annunzio suggested him a concept: to create an aristocratic perfume.
For Giuseppe Visconti, the invention of an out of the ordinary and enigmatic scented creation, in contrast to every fragrance known till then, was a thrilling challenge.
The right path consisted in condensing the emotions and perturbation of every woman into an essence, resurrecting in an amber liquid the colors of early morning, the scent of the air before a summer storm, the smell of sun-dried hay, the sweet quiet of the postmeridian hibernation in the torrid August month, the rain playing on the windowpanes.
All this stimulated in the nobleman the deep desire to bring into being an innovative element, a perfume speaking of the woman who was wearing it.
Every elegant and refined woman had to find in such elixir the enchanted sentiment felt by enjoying a melodrama from the dais of Teatro La Scala, the emotion perceived at the departure for a first-class carriage trip directed to exotic countries, at the embassy dance, at the parties with royal guests.
Visconti was well aware that such essence would remain associated to his name: therefore, through the elixir he recounted the tenderness felt during the afternoons when Donna Carla in her evening dress sat at the piano in Villa Erba playing Ponchielli, while he listened enraptured, enveloped by the smell of branded cigarettes; during the walks along mountain paths strewn with small pink geraniums, in the certainty that the golden age would keep up aristocratically unchanged. The count knew what the perfume shops in Milan, Rome, Venice or Sanremo sites where he gladly stayed for short periods offered to their female audience.
He had often accompanied Donna Carla to the luxurious essence shops and witnessed, sitting in the small pink velvet armchairs of the waiting rooms, the ritual of the mouillettes touching lightly his wife nostrils. He had absently observed the bottles, often with French names, neatly displayed on the shelves.
On the Italian bottles, which contained perfumes produced by the Bertelli, Migone, Lanza, Borsari, Fontanella and Colli Fioriti fragrance houses, he had read common names: Rose, Origano, Giardino Fiorito, Gelsomino d’Italia, Eva, Acacia, Acqua Elegantia, Trionfo di Violette, nearly always mono floral scents, tending to imitate nature, created with different substances, but where the note of the flower that gave its name to the essence dominated the senses.
Not copying, but… creating
Visconti observed that most of the ladies who frequented the perfume shops bought rose fragrances, but for those who did not like a so discreet and sweetly pleasant scent, there was a wide selection, such as the formulas of gardenia, lilac, lily of the valley, or the delicate scent of Parma violet, or the personal one of Empress Maria Luisa of Austria, second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte.
All those perfumes, although excellent, did not represent the philosophy that the aristocrat intended to pursue. He did not aim at copying, but at creating.
Returning to Italy from yet another trip to Paris in the spring of 1911, the count immediately set to work.
He summoned some chemists from Carlo Erba’s and with them began the research to realize what he had in mind.
The first fragrances did not bring the desired outcomes.
He wanted a perfume not recalling anything already existing in the fragrance world: moderately sensual so as not to unsettle the temperament of the Milanese ladies, albeit with a mysterious and hidden load of promises; a creation so abstract as to appear rich in meanings, an artificial scent to revive timeless memories, belonging to a distant past, an undefined, indecipherable, new and ancient smell, recognizable by primordial memory even without being able to grasp where and when it had been perceived; a fragrance which, by balancing natural musky notes with other modern synthetic elements, would transfigure reality.
It was the perfume of the new woman who looked to the future, but at the same time maintained a more than firm bond with the past.
The secrets of a winning packaging
The nobleman had also visualized the bottle for the fragrance and the evocative image on its label: it recollected the gala dinners, the receptions held at Palazzo Visconti with the nobility of Milan, the wealthy bankers, the most prominent industrialists, the French ambassadors with their ladies, as well as the smoky French places where you could drink absinthe, snort drugs and dance the can-can, where brilliant artists would spend all their lives. What was never lacking both in one setting and in the other, were the bottles of champagne, which became the symbol of a cosmopolitan, modern, sophisticated aristocracy, and of an excited, reformist society on the verge of a crisis that few years later would overwhelm it.
The perfume bottle which Visconti was about to create had to recall the design of an inverted glass of champagne, with a content that would inebriate the ladies like the bubbly French wine.
Even the image on the label belonged to the aristocratic world: an eighteenth-century dame looking in the mirror while powdering her face with a powder puff.
The drawing had formerly been made and was enclosed in the leather case where the count kept all his sketches, ready to be taken to the printing office.
So on a spring night in 1911, after numberless experiments, the much idealized and envisaged fragrance was finally ready.
Visconti, tightly holding in his hands the carefully sealed laboratory bottle, rushed into the courtyard of the Dergano workshop where he was operating, and abruptly woke up the driver of the horse-drawn carriage patiently awaiting him, as the aristocrat demanded a vehicle always ready to transport him quickly wherever his intervention was urgent.
The night porter threw open the gates of the factory and at a full gallop from Dergano, where Carlo Erba workshops were located, the carriage reached Loreto, up to the plant of the Migone fragrance house, and here they turned to take the ancient Strada per Bergamo (in 1906, renamed from Road to Bergamo to Corso Buenos Aires on the occasion of the Universal Exposition), flanked by mulberry trees, workmen dwellings and workshops.
After passing Porta Venezia, the vehicle fast arrived at Palazzo Visconti. In spite of the late hour, the nobleman wanted to get to Donna Carla rooms to have her breathe in the perfume before anyone else. Her judgment would be crucial.
Donna Carla, sleepy, but aware of how important such test was for her husband, sat up on the large bed and, opening the bottle, moistened the inside of her wrist with a drop of essence, waving her arm to make the top notes vanish; then, with half-closed eyes, she deeply inhaled the scent which was being released.
After a few seconds her face lit up in a smile. Yes, that was the elixir women wanted.
Contessa Azzurra is born
The next day, Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone wrote to his friend Gabriele D’Annunzio to communicate the good news, asking him to conceive a name with which to baptize the fragrance.
The prompt reply sent by telegram stated, “An aristocratic perfume for the classy lady can only be called Countess.”
But another telegraphic message from Paris reached the count when the preparations for the launch of the scent on the upcoming Christmas holidays were already well underway.
In fact, on October 4th of the same year, the Italian prime minister Giovanni Giolitti had undertaken the conquest of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica by declaring war against the Ottoman Empire that occupied those regions.
More than 1,700 sailors under the command of Captain Umberto Cagni sailed off to the African coasts from Brindisi to the sound of Tripoli bel suol d’amore, a song brought to success by Gea della Garisenda who sang it on stage wrapped in an Italian flag.
A surge of Italianness had traveled the peninsula and D’Annunzio did not want to escape the celebration of the national military glories.
“Azzurra!” imposed the telegram from Paris. Contessa Azzurra, just as the azure banner of the House of Savoy.
This would be the ultimate name of the Italian fragrance for the patriotic women of Italy.
Few days before Christmastide, the bottles of Contessa Azzurra were on display in the best perfume shops in Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples, thus celebrating the first great Italian scent.Contessa Azzurra narrated Italy in the early part of the twentieth century, from the time when World War I officers brought a bottle of the fragrance as a coveted gift to their fiancées, up to the performances of the actress and opera singer Lina Cavalieri who loved to redeem her childhood as a seller of violets in the Roman squares by spreading the magical essence in the theaters where she made her debut, unleashing the applause of the audience entranced by that mix of singing, show and perfume. With Contessa Azzurra, Gabriele D’Annunzio charmed and led the actress Eleonora Duse into his love nest, after leaving Luisa Casati in tears, the Divine Countess to whom he had given a bottle of the sublime fragrance as last farewell. Likewise the director Luchino Visconti, son of Giuseppe, while filming the most sensual and troubled moments between Massimo Girotti and Clara Calamai in his movie Ossessione, wanted the scene to be impregnated with the scent of Contessa Azzurra, and again the set of his film The Leopard was constantly pervaded by the fragrance created by his father.
With such a success, one wonders how Contessa Azzurra could be revived today in a new modern version...
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