The Renaissance and Enlightenment: A Time of Prolific Advancement

Posted by Emily van Oosterom on

The Renaissance, a period characterised by a profound revival of the arts and sciences, brought about a newfound appreciation for sensory pleasures, particularly the olfactory delight of fragrances. Italy, with its thriving trade and artistic influence, emerged as a pivotal force in the evolution of perfumery. The city of Venice, in particular, became a thriving hub for the trade of perfume ingredients and completed fragrances, benefiting from its strategic position along the major maritime trade routes (Groom, 1999).

As the distinction between alchemists and artisans blurred, the creation of perfumes became a recognised craft. These perfume artisans engaged in meticulously crafting aromatic concoctions, selecting each ingredient for its unique scent profile, and blending them to achieve harmonious compositions. This period also saw the rise of solid perfumes, created using a blend of scented oils and beeswax, allowing for easy transport and application (Classen, Howes, & Synnott, 1994).

The Renaissance's focus on the experience of the individual extended to the use of personal fragrances. Custom-made perfumes, crafted to suit the wearer's preference, gained popularity outside the confines of the nobility. These bespoke fragrances were often a seen as a reflection of the wearer's identity, mirroring their status, personality, and even mood (Ashenburg, 2007).

As the Enlightenment period dawned, the world of perfumery experienced another significant transformation, thanks to advancements in chemistry and botanical knowledge. The development of new extraction techniques like enfleurage and steam distillation of essential oils allowed perfumers to capture more delicate scents, particularly from fragile flowers such as jasmine and tuberose, which were previously difficult to extract. The technique of enfleurage involved layering fresh flower petals onto a layer of fat, which then absorbed their fragrance. This process, albeit time-consuming and labor-intensive, was effective in capturing the full, complex fragrance of delicate flowers (Brun, 2015).

The Enlightenment era also saw a shift in perfume use and societal perceptions around it. The discourse around personal hygiene began to change, with clean, natural body odour becoming favoured over heavy perfumes. Consequently, lighter, more natural fragrances gained popularity, and the use of perfume as a means to mask unpleasant odours started to fade. (Corbin, 1986).




Groom, N. (1999). The Perfume Handbook. Springer.

Classen, C., Howes, D., & Synnott, A. (1994). Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. Routledge.

Ashenburg, K. (2007). Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing. Profile Books.

Brun, G. (2015). The Great Book of Essential Oils. Editions Amyris.

Corbin, A. (1986). The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Harvard University Press.

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