Look and smell: Prado rediscovers the “smell”


Narcissus, rose, fig tree, jasmine or glove: Prado Museum recreates the set of scents present in “El Olfato”, one of his most memorable paintings, painted by Jan Bruegel the Elder, with an olfactory exhibition that allows the viewer to enter the painting through sight and smell. “The Essence of the Painting, the Olfactory Exhibition” can be seen and smelled in the art gallery until July 3rd. Perfumery and art go hand in hand in an exhibition signed by Gregorio Sola, Puig Senior Perfumer and Academician of the Academy of Perfumes, and Alejandro Vergara, Head of Prado Flamenco Painting Conservation.

“Smell” is a painting that is part of a series of five works by Prado. explore feelings and are a prime example of Brueghel’s great techniqueone of the most important painters of his time, although his paintings usually go unnoticed due to their medium format.

Smell and see Brueghel

“There is no more joyful painting than a Brueghel painting, it is immensely joyful,” Vergara explains, although he admits that the details of his work often go unnoticed in the museum, where the paintings “can be seen from afar.” His technique, which he learned from his grandmother, is that of the miniaturist. In the painting, a garden view commissioned by Philip II’s daughter Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Flemish artist included more than eighty varieties of plants and blooming flowers; In this way, you can see, for example, eight varieties of roses, as well as other elements associated with smell, such as a bloodhound or distillers.

The exhibition, occupying only one room, brought together numerous researchers from different disciplines, including members of the CSIC, who helped identify the varieties of flowers in the painting, and a perfume history specialist, who helped with ancient formulas.

Paintings that don’t just smell like paint

In the room next to the painting, there is a series of devices where you can smell the scents – it is designed to be used with a mask. The technology used does not use alcohol, so it does not saturate the sense of smell. Ten scents visitors can smell: jasmine, rose, lily, narcissus, civet, tuberose, orange blossom, fig tree, gloves and allegory. The last three are blends, and they were all chosen by Sola and Vergara because of their “close connection” between modern and historical perfumery, they explained at the launch of the initiative this Monday in Madrid.

The Allegory mixture consists of a bouquet held by Venus, the main figure of the work, all drawn by the artist’s great friend Rubens, and it contains roses, jasmine and carnations. “Rose in perfumery is the queen of flowers, and jasmine is the king; The combination of jasmine and rose always gives incredible richness and strength.“Sola assures. To make a kilogram of rose essence, you need three hundred thousand flowers, hand-picked at dawn,” he explained.

Orange blossom was then used in perfumery and is still used today; lily is one of the most expensive essences in use today (a kilogram doubles the price of gold), and the essence of civet, a carnivorous mammal with a “tough, dirty” smell, was commonly used as a perfume fixative at the time. . Solar recreated the essence of the glove that appears in the scene. In the Middle Ages, gloves were perfumed to mask the unpleasant smell of leather tanning; the selected combination is taken from a 17th century book,”royal perfumer“, and contains resins, balms, wood and flower essences.

The exhibition also aims to highlight the importance of the sense of smell, one of the most neglected senses in modern society, but one that was essential in ancient times. “The sense of smell allowed people to know that a food or place was dangerous,” Vergara said. Smell is also one of the senses that makes it easier to travel to the past, Solar explained. closely related to memory: “What you smell and see, you remember much more.”


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