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Stories of perfumes and perfumers. Acqua di Colonia: German, French or Made in Italy?

Stories of perfumes and perfumers. Acqua di Colonia: German, French or Made in Italy?

09 June 2021

The great fragrance houses that in the twentieth century made the art and style of Italian perfumery known all over the world

Made in Italy is an expression coined by Italian producers, from the 1980s onwards, to re-evaluate and defend the Italian character of the product, and with the aim of tackling the counterfeiting of Italian artisanal and industrial production, especially in the four traditional sectors of fashion, food, furniture and mechanics.

Over time, the Made in Italy has been defining an Italian manufacturing culture and tradition encapsulating creativity, high-level craftsmanship, ingenuity of design and shapes, durability.

This refined style, historically also associated with quality, high specialization, differentiation and elegance, was not the first meaning that the expression Made in Italy had. On the contrary, its origins are paradoxically not so noble.

In the 1960s, in fact, the indication of the country of origin was imposed on Italian producers by the European importers, and in particular by the German and French ones, and mostly on textile and footwear products, so that foreign consumers were aware of purchasing products not made in their homeland. Actually, in the post-war period, Germany, England and France turned down the typology of textile and footwear manufacture as “poor” industry, more suitable for non-technologically developed countries. And it is precisely because of the late abandonment of this type of industry in our country that the “Made in Italy” brand, which once suggested low quality, has continued to live, becoming the symbol of excellence it is today.

By extending the concept of Italianness not only to consumer goods, but also to the identity and events of a people that has given its best, especially in the most difficult moments like the one, for example, linked to emigration, the creativity and value of many Italians, who were successful abroad and are remembered for being capable to fulfill their dream, must be acknowledged.

Among the product sectors for which the definition Made in Italy is indicative of excellence, perfumery does not appear directly, although this industry boasts all the characteristics grouping it in with fashion in terms of tradition and history.

However, the all-Italian origins of Acqua di Colonia is, in the field of perfumery, one of the most striking examples of how an entrepreneurial spirit was able to combine tenacity and imagination in order to impose on the market a product that, exported all over the world, never went out of style, and was loved and used by great personalities such as Goethe, Napoleon, Voltaire and Queen Victoria.

Although currently the name “original cologne” (Echt Kölnisch Wasser or Original Eau de Cologne) identifies a product with protected geographical indication from the German city of Cologne, the creation of a perfumed potion called Aqua Mirabilis is owed to Giovanni Paolo Feminis (circa 1660-1736), and the formula of such water, at Feminis death, passed into the hands of his assistant, Giovanni Antonio Farina (1693-1762). The story of this “solution of etheric oils in wine distillate (ethyl alcohol 70-80%)” is significant from many perspectives and makes us understand why the Italian spirit, which has only recently been transformed into Made in Italy, is endowed with a magnetic touch that has always fascinated millions of people around the world and continues to do so.

Migrating to seek one’s fortune

In the first half of the 1700s, inside the small shop situated below street level in the old town of Cologne, in the Rhineland, a man sat on the stool behind the counter waiting for customers. He had arrived from an area of Northern Italy, between Lombardy and Piedmont - Val Vigezzo, one of the seven valleys which branch off from Val d’Ossola and connects Italy to Switzerland - up to the north of today's Germany, for the purpose of opening an import-export business, on the advice of a relative who had found stability and worked as a travelling haberdasher in that city.

A few years earlier - it was the second half of the eighteenth century - the relative, Giovanni Paolo Feminis, had abandoned his region, situated in the extreme edge of Northern Italy, when a small glaciation had caused the glaciers of the Alps to go down of over 150 meters, swallowing up entire valleys. Within a couple of winters, the grazing lands, which had given nourishment to the cattle, had disappeared and the ancient sheep tracks, trodden for centuries by the hooves of herds and flocks that climbed from the plains to the mountains for the summer pastures, were deserted.

The large and small communities, living on trade, customs duties and activities related to transhumance, found themselves without subsistence. Some mountaineers came down to the valley, others left seeking their fortune. To the south they reached as far as Sicily (to this day the surname Lombardo is common in that region), to the north they went further the Netherlands.

The clients of Feminis, a haberdasher by profession, were not only the peasants who frequented the village markets. Excellent buyers were even the shepherds who got down from the mountains in autumn and who gladly bought (or exchanged in kind) ribbons and handkerchiefs for their women.

A handed down recipe

Accustomed to moving from town to town, as was the habit of all street vendors, he had followed the shepherds and herds of livestock which now found excellent pastures in the Swiss valleys. From there, square upon square, he went further and further north, until, having crossed the Prussian border, he settled in the Rhineland, in the city of Cologne. Feminis had passed away some time before and business, for the man sitting on the stool, had not developed too much.

In those years he had imported from Italy, on wagons that had dangerously crossed the Brenner Pass, a little bit of everything: silk from Lake Como, straw hats from Florence, colored ribbons from Genoa, fabrics from the province of Milan, and wine from the Venetian hills. The drink had not met the taste of his fellow citizens accustomed to large mugs of cold beer, or hot beer as the Swedes had taught them, and the wine was aging placidly unsold in the barrels on the back of the small workshop.

The man thought back on the relative who at death’s door had left him a tiny inheritance by entrusting him with an envelope. Such envelope contained a medicinal recipe, the one on which Feminis fantasized about for all his life, sometimes stumbling over the account and tangling up the story about how he had come into its possession. One day he told of an old nun, who on her deathbed had given him the envelope containing the recipe; then the nun became a soldier returning from the Indies; another day he claimed to be the inventor of this potion himself. “It is a counter-poison,” he said “healing all ills. Really all of them, just take a sip and it's like coming back to a new life.”

The secret of flowers and alcohol
The man behind the counter, Giovanni Maria Farina, remembered his uncle who - standing on his cart in the village fairs, next to the awning where the peasants could see, for a penny, the woman with three breasts, mermaids and embalmed tritons, claws of griffin, prehistoric bones of giants and shreds of robes worn by the twelve apostles - in addition to selling ribbons, fabrics, balls of thread and trimmings, boasted the miraculous virtues of the medicine, ready to clear out and change location as soon as he glimpsed the armigers helmets, or some fluttering cassock. Even in 1728, news had arrived that the Holy Inquisition had got witches and sorcerers burned in Bavaria, accusing them of having enmeshed honest family men with magic filters and cast curses on their homes.

“It's not magic,” Feminis told his nephew. “You take the spirit of wine… but then you need the flowers, the aromatic plants, the ones growing on our hills in Italy. And you need to know which flowers and in what proportions… Then you put them to macerate in a covered vat for the entire path of the moon, remove them, put them back and add bergamot and rosemary, but only when the moon becomes waning. This is the secret.”

Giovanni Maria read and reread the recipe and wondered why the beverage had not been successful. Perhaps the medicine was so nauseating it did not tempt anyone to take it. Perhaps if the recipe had been reworked, with the addition of some other elements… In the countryside around Cologne, he had seen large numbers of flowers and herbs that could make the mix more palatable. He also had plenty of wine. Maybe it was time to try.

The prodigies of Aqua Mirabilis
So it was that the small shop below street level began to manufacture and sell Aqua Mirabilis. The product became very popular. Every morning a small crowd of wives and young mothers lined up to buy the miraculous medicine which - diluted in the broth, in the beer of the husbands or in the milk of the children - healed tummy aches, ulcers, toothache, fevers and depressions. The more months passed, the more the therapeutic virtues of Aqua Mirabilis were discovered, to such a degree that even the University of Cologne - for a fee from the manufacturer who wanted to clear the field of magical fantasies and make the beverage official - took an interest in the medicine. After evidence upon evidence, the sentence arrived:
“It [Aqua Mirabilis] is a counter-poison against mephitic air and plague, heals heartbeats, prevents skin diseases, cures constipation of the liver, spleen and intestines, chases away colic, treats gangrene, toothache, scurvy, gallstones, urinary gravel, podagra, etcetera.”

There is no reliable medical documentation that it was a remedy against the plague, but it was indisputable that it represented an antidote for the mephitic air which hovered in every room of the poor or noble houses of the inhabitants of Cologne. It was enough to place a bowl of Aqua Mirabilis in the center of the room so that, in a period when even personal hygiene was not a priority, the stagnant smells impregnating the home walls and furniture vanished.

For those times, when diseases were cured – in a manner of speaking - by opening veins and bloodletting, Aqua Mirabilis by Giovanni Maria Farina (Jean Marie as he by now wanted to be called, following the fashion of the period when the French language was considered the one of the noble and bourgeois classes) was the cure-all.

The small shop is transformed into a factory
The economic conditions improved, so much so that - having abandoned the small shop and the trade of “gallantry items” - Farina opened a little factory in Jülichs-Platz (Jülich’s Square). The fame of the product reached all the provinces of the Rhineland and further, and imitations started. The counterfeits began when buyers from other regions showed up at the Cologne City Gate and asked where the factory of Aqua Mirabilis was located. At first, the customs officers indicated the right route to Farina’s laboratory, but soon, for a large reward, customers were diverted to other plants created to exploit the idea of the medicine. The business did not collapse, but certainly more would have been achieved if only one manufacturer operated on the marketplace; Jean Marie Farina therefore decided to catch the imitators off guard by highlighting his name on the label, thus giving paternity to Aqua Mirabilis.

The opponents did not give up: if someone named Farina had to legally figure in as a producer, all what remained to do was to comply with the law. They came to Italy and sifted through the provinces of Lombardy and Piedmont in search of people called Farina, a fairly common surname in those regions, even better if combined with the first name Giovanni Maria, to make them become, on paper, producers of Aqua Mirabilis. A parade of relatives, for a more or less meager fee, made a cross on long contracts that exempted them from future earnings, fact on which they would not have bet a grain of corn, and thousands of miles away their names and surnames started to appear on bright plaques in brass. After the first moment of glory, everyone went back to toil in the fields, while the product they theoretically manufactured was encountering a huge success.

Meanwhile, the dramatic event that would help spread the fame of Aqua Mirabilis beyond national borders had begun: the Seven Years' War which, towards the end of the 1750s, saw the French invade the Rhineland.

A success decreed by war
At that time, wars were mainly fought with sticks, punches, sword cuts, dagger and bayonet cutting blows. The armies medieval custom was still widespread to face each other by studying their own strength and those of the adversaries, to hint a small skirmish in order to test the power of the enemy, after which the weaker army abandoned the field and its officers retired to taverns so to study new war plans in front of mugs of beer or wine, depending on the nationality of the army itself.

The wars ended not when the opponent was completely destroyed or annihilated, but when one of the two contenders, having ascertained its own inferiority, cut the rope. Firearms made their impression from afar, with flashes and explosions, but since weapons equipped with rifled barrel did not exist just yet, hitting a target was a “stroke of luck.” It basically meant firing into the crowd with bullets that rolled and swayed in the air, but the difficulty in reloading after the first shots, fired when the enemy was still far away, led the soldiers to use the rifle as a stick with the bayonet at its tip. Cuts, scratches, bruises and more or less light wounds were the most frequent damages reported by the fighters.

In their usual raids on the homes and palaces of the conquered cities, the French had discovered the scented water that soothed and disinfected wounds (the doctors did not realize the sterilizing power of alcohol, but they liked the fragrance which attenuated the smell of putrefied wounds), and started to make extensive use of it - also to rub the weary limbs of officers - calling it Eau de Cologne. Battle after battle, the fame of Cologne water, having lost its peculiarity as a beverage and having acquired that of a tonic for massages, for refreshing rub-downs and of a pure and light perfumed effluvium, reached Russia, England, Italy and soon the entire Europe.

Brand control and management
For Jean Marie Farina the armies had become the best customers, but the orders – much more than in the past - did not reach only him, but also the whole myriad of imitators whose ranks swelled month in and month out. The essential thing for the customers was to buy the “Eau de Cologne by Jean Marie Farina,” and they did not worry a bit about the factual identity of the manufacturer. For the sole “true” Jean Marie who - first - had produced Aqua Mirabilis, this situation turned into a nightmare. It was not fair for others to take advantage of his work and his name, and he began to spend his days in court. Another idea came to him. His factory was the only one with a workshop facing Jülichs-Platz.

To distinguish himself from other companies and guide customers to the right place, he had printed on the labels the address “gegenüber dem” Jülichs-Platz, that is “in front of” Jülich’s Square. For some time it worked. The carts with the orders stopped at the correct location; but after a short time the confusion took up again. In fact, only Jean Marie Farina had the workshop in front of Jülichs-Platz, but others worked “next to,” “behind,” “beside,” “nearby,” “far from” it, and once again there was a proliferation of labels with the name of a square that soon became known throughout Europe.

When Jean Marie Farina, rich and famous, passed away in 1766, only in his hometown, Cologne, 39 competing firms named Jean Marie Farina manufactured Acqua di Colonia, perhaps the only perfumery product which is about to enter the fourth century of production, without experiencing crises of sort, handed down from generation to generation by billions of consumers. And isn’t it one of the first examples of Italian creativity, excellence and resourcefulness? Made in Italy, precisely…


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