The very same name of “Cologne” was due to an Italian “speziale” or spice expert who emigrated to Cologne (Germany). It was 1695 when Gian Paolo Feminis composed “Acqua Admirabilis”, a refreshing, invigorating bouquet of Mediterranean herbs, flowers and citrus fruits, a completely different concoction from the heavy, musky, animal scents of his times. His perfume was named Cologne Water after the name of the city, and its huge success made it the epitome of the whole Cologne family.
But perfume composition in Italy was a well-estabilished craft already in the Middle Ages; for example, monks of the Officina Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella -as well as of other Monasteries scattered all over Italy- had been offering scented pommades, perfumed waters, powders and oils since the XIII century, processing herbs and flowers growing in their gardens. (Though a more advanced form of distillation which allowed for a more refined alcohol was yet to come). Soon their know-how transcended health improvement and built the basis for a supply chain of perfumery that was distributed throughout each territory (before Italy was united in 1861). Santa Maria Novella's Colognes, faithful to themselves and their origins, are still on offer today in the niche market, and carry an “historic allure” no other brand can compare.
In 1853 Stefano Frecceri created for King Vittorio Emanuele II “Acqua di Genova”, a delicately floral Cologne with an elegant woodsy base. The King adopted it immediately and it became the olfactive signature of Court representatives of all Europe, being then awarded with Medals and much recognition. Its success still lasts today, as Acqua di Genova is still available in the niche market.
At the end of 1800, other firms were developing affordable Colognes for a much wider public, their names being almost forgotten: Linetti, Bertelli, Satinine, Acqua di Felsina... Among those still in production are “Acqua di Biella” and “Acqua di Selva” by Victor (formerly GiViEmme), which post-war dads used to splash on after shaving. The bouquet is characterized by a strong fern note giving it a “barbershop style”; many Italians still enjoy it as it smells “familiar”, it's inexpensive and easy to find in department stores.
The brand Borsari is still alive and kicking too, after more than a century, its most renowned scent being “Violetta di Parma”, a success spanning at least three generations. It's a stylish violet accord containing both leaf and flower; extremely clean and polished, by no means powdery, nor melancholic. It's really worth sniffing, and often makes a charming yet inexpensive gift for little girls with a bend for scents (ehm... me, for example, when I was ten!).
In 1923 Lodovico Paglieri, owner of a small laboratory crafting soaps and creams launched Eau de Cologne “Felce Azzurra” and from then on, generations of Italian children had their baby-bum powdered with Felce Azzurra talcum after the daily bath, its fragrance becoming an icon of the Italian olfactive scenario and inscribing its haunting lavender-based scent in the “comfort zone” of every Italian brain. There's literally none, here, ignoring how Felce Azurra smells like!
Around 1920 a new, exciting player in Italy's perfume market popped out: Acqua di Parma. Its most appreciated launch, “Colonia Acqua di Parma”, was the choice of movie stars such as Cary Grant, David Niven, Ava Gardner, Audrey Hepburn, who spread its sultry, sophisticated glamour all over the world's jet set. Sadly, in the 1950s the brand started to decline and by the 1970s it was all but gone. In the '90s the brand underwent a heavy restyling process and was rescued by a group of investors. New launches joined the line, composed by scent stars like Bertrand Duchaufour, Jean-Claude Ellena, Francoise Caron, Francis Kurkdjian and Alberto Morillas. The new fragrances succeeded in removing the retro patina from the brand's name, replacing it with a contemporary chic, suggesting amazing quality and a truly Italian taste in “savoir vivre”. In recent years Acqua di Parma launched a new, stylish line named Blu Mediterraneo. Scents like “Cipresso di Toscana” and “Mirto di Panarea” feature accords based on fruits and trees naturally growing in Italy's most renowned areas, lending the Cologne an essential, nature-inspired, almost impressionistic direction.
In the '80s, a new brand begun conquering herbalist's shops all over Italy called L'Erbolario (Remember that people in Italy visit herbalists a lot for natural cosmetics and perfumes, the herbalist shop is considered something less fancy than a perfumery, somewhere you go for low budget, but good quality perfumes and make-up). Perfumes in the L'Erbolario line were (and still are) mainly Cologne-type in concentration with nicely composed, unobtrusive bouquets of “easy & natural” appeal. Among their most beloved, “Vaniglia & Zenzero” (Vanilla & Ginger), “Muschio Bianco” (White Musk), “Bergamotto” (Bergamot), “Verde” (Green) offer an affordable, yet good quality alternative to high-end Colognes, widely appreciated by all ages. L'Erbolario's goal was to “democratize” perfume in Italy, taking it into a more playful direction. This allowed teenagers to have fun and discover the fragrant world for themselves, while at the same time allowing their mums to build up a scent wardrobe without bankrupting themselves. The brand immediately gained huge success, and still leads the herbalist sector in Italy. This success favoured the birth of competitors such as Helan and Planter's, furthermore widening the offer of Cologne-style scents and increasing the possibilities to discover, layer and play.
Italian fondness for breezy, invigorating scents is perfectly embodied by “Acqua di Giò” (1996, Giorgio Armani) “Light Blue” (2001, Dolce & Gabbana) and “Infusion d'Iris” (2007, Prada), among the industry's worldwide top sellers, beloved by men and women alike in Italy. With these, the structure of Cologne seems to have morphed from the sparkling, refreshing concoction reminiscent of Sicilian orchards, towards an ozonic freshness, fruity-floral bouquets, or a soft, musky aura. These three directions have been so widely adopted by Italians, that if you go into the average public building, you will probably meet all three styles in the short time it takes to walk from the lift to the front door!
Niche market offerings of Colognes show a tendency towards natural, outdoor landscapes, and scents often portray green gardens, mouth-watering orchards or sea-shores like Profumi di Pantelleria, an Italian niche house established in the mid '90s, or Eau d'Italie, featuring pastel-like scents of challenging beauty (“Eau d'Italie” and “Jardin du Poète” being good examples.) Among niche offerings, the Sicilian Ortigia grants a gorgeous “holiday experience” with “Corallo” is a summery perfume that reminds you of being in Sicily, “Zagara” is the name of the orange blossom in Sicilia, the cologne is like being in a Sicilian orchard in noon, the impression is very strong. Acca Kappa is more traditional and simple. I Profumi del Forte's numbered Colognes are reminiscent of luscious materials from Tuscany, and “Acqua Nobile” by Nobile 1942, the ultimate “pure & simple”, but sophisticated and modern feel.
In a globalised market, where telling what is really classy from what is only expensive is quite a challenge, the niche market in recent years has witnessed the revamping of old-style Cologne brands, perhaps because people want to feel reassured that what they are buy is worth the price and is good quality. Brands like Marinella, and also Boellis (with their much appreciated “Panama Cologne”) and others, are good examples of this revival. Both houses were once the choice of cultured grandpas in their sixties, today they have been re-discovered by younger consumers. Yes, they may seem a little boringly “retro” or barbershop-like, but they have the quality of reassuring the wearer - conjuring the image of a freshly shaved, impeccably dressed man, simply “smelling good” - which, after more than three centuries of perfume-making in Italy, is still what really counts.
About the author
Marika Vecchiattini is based in Italy and writes the popular Italian (bi-lingual) blog Bergamotto e Benzoino.