Teresa Levonian Cole follows her nose around Venice.
In a hidden alleyway of Cannaregio, the northernmost of the six historic sestieri (districts) of the city of Venice, within a former palazzo that was once home and studio to the 16th-century painter Titian for nearly 50 years, lies the workshop of Mario Berta. Today, one Signor Marino Menegazzo sits here, hard at work. In a five-hour process known to few, he first melts, then laminates, and finally beats a 24-carat ingot of gold into gossamer-light submission, with the aid of an eight-kilogram mallet swung rhythmically to the imaginary strains of Das Rheingold. In another room, two ladies sit, hardly daring to breathe as they cut the resulting flighty sheets of leaf into four-inch squares, destined for gilding the finest salons of Europe and the glittering domes of the East, whence the merchants of Venice once made their fortunes.
Next to the Church of San Stae, however, the doors of the School of Gold Beaters (Scoletta dell’arte de Tiraoro e Battioro, in the Venetian dialect) have long been bolted shut. Mario Berta is the last artisanal ‘battiloro’ in Europe, one of a handful of skilled artisans – ranging from the famed glass-makers of Murano to weavers of the finest silk velvets, still hand-woven on clickety-clack, Heath-Robinsonesque, 19th-century, jacquard looms. In this city, affectionately known to many as ‘La Serenissima’, these artisans once flourished. But as the notion takes hold of Venice’s intangible assets sinking into the lagoon as inexorably as her magnificent buildings, one man by the name of Marco Vidal is on a crusade to highlight the historic role of Venice as the fulcrum of East-West trade, whilst celebrating the traditional skills that made the republic, during the Renaissance, the premium producer of perfume and luxury goods in Europe.
And that is how I found myself lying on an island in the lagoon, my face caked in 110 milligrams of Mario Berta’s 24-carat gold leaf, wondering what the city’s greatest sybarite Maria Argyropoulina would have made of all this.
Vidal – whose latest project is a line of luxurious treatments, including this Gold Facial for the spa of the Kempinski San Clemente Palace – is CEO of the luxury fragrance brand, The Merchant of Venice.
“Maria was a noblewoman from the Byzantine Imperial family, who cemented the union with the West through her marriage to Doge Giovanni Orseolo in 1004,” he had earlier explained, over a glass of champagne in the hotel’s gardens. Maria moved from the splendour of the court of Constantinople to the relative backwater of 11th-century Venice, accompanied by the kind of sybaritic Byzantine predilections that were reportedly anathema to her near contemporary, Saint Peter Damian. She disdained to eat with her hands, he complained, and “brought her food to her mouth with a two-pronged gold instrument.” Worse, “her room was so perfumed with every kind of incense and aroma, that it stank.” Righteous was his joy when, as if an ironic punishment for her vanity, Maria died a horrible death from the plague.
Still, “it was Maria who popularized perfume in Venice,” Vidal told me. “And in the 1400s, Venice would come to play a crucial role in the development of perfume as we know it. The discovery was made of dissolving fragrance essence in pure spirits – which also acted as a preservative. It would revolutionise the perfume industry.” Vidal is part of the fourth generation of a family of Venetian perfumiers, set out to recount the pivotal role of Venice in the history of perfume, through a dedicated museum that would be the first of its kind in Italy. “Together with the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, we decided to base it in the Palazzo Mocenigo (in San Stae), where my family’s first workshop was located in 1900,” he tells me.
Nine months and some €800,000 worth of restoration later, the Palazzo Mocenigo reopened in 2013. Terrazzo floors segue through vast, regal rooms sumptuously clad in Rubelli silks, hung with 18th-century paintings and lit by Murano chandeliers. Amid such glorious excess, emulated nowadays albeit somewhat less gloriously – and only in the boudoirs of American Presidents and Russian oligarchs – I feel like a Verdi heroine in some elaborate set. Venice was, after all, the birthplace of opera and the site of several Verdi premieres.
The anachronism entails work that is equally arcane. In one salon, temporarily closed to the public, I come across a man squatting on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of pieces of coloured glass and a bucket.
“What are you doing?” I ask.
“Cleaning,” he replies, mournfully. The glass is crystal from a deconstructed chandelier overhead, of which each component part has to be polished and reassembled like a giant jigsaw puzzle – the work of four days. Small wonder that the restoration of the piano nobile was to the design of the Opera Director, Pier Luigi Pizzi, himself a Venice resident. Pizzi was also responsible for the transformation of six rooms of the piano nobile into what is now the Perfume Museum – a magical journey through both the mystical and commercial history of the perfumier’s art.
“I wonder what Maria Argyropoulina would have made of me with my face caked in 24-carat gold leaf!”
On maps, I trace the ‘mude’ (the maritime trade routes to Venice) that brought spices, silks, textiles, gems, gold and fragrance essences from Greece, Constantinople, Persia, Arabia and beyond. I sniff civet, musk, ambergris and other old animal essences – now banned from perfumes and replaced by synthetic alternatives – from large apothecary jars. I watch videos that explain the background and process of perfume-making, alongside displays of instruments used for enfleurage and distillation, arcane as the alchemist’s art. I explore the perfume families (citrus, floral, oriental, fougère, woody and chypre) as part of the sensory experience. Feeling heady from so much exotic sniffery, I turn my attention to the interactive displays. Alongside such 21st-century adjuncts, I find 4,000 years of perfume bottles from the Storp Collection on temporary display, their development offering a parallel narrative to that of perfume. Nearby, a 1672 reprint of the first recipe book for cosmetics, Secreti Nobilissimi dell’Arte Profumatoria (originally published in 1555), holds all the secrets of the perfumer’s art – from cosmetics and medicine to science and magic. Not for nothing did the plague doctor sniff fragrant pomanders of cloves, cinnamon and spices, thought to ward off the disease, as he prodded victims with his pointed stick, to see if they were still alive. That insalutary period is remembered at the Carnival of Venice, in the long-nosed, bespectacled mask of the doctor, hand-made by Ca’ Macana in Dorsoduro in defiance of cheap Chinese copies – with pressed, painted and decorated papier mâché, as tradition dictates.
Yes, artisanal connections with perfume can be found everywhere. And The Merchant of Venice, which launched in 2014, was as Vidal modestly terms it, a ‘by-product’ of the Perfume Museum. Ask him what sets the brand apart from the competition, and his answer is unhesitating. “Culture!” he says. “It’s about promoting ancient arts and traditions. There’s the museum, we published books…”
Not to mention the flagship store, in San Fantin. Walking into the 1650s pharmacy, I imagine myself in a ‘muschiere’ perfume workshop, of which some thirty flourished around San Marco and Rialto by the 18th century. Wood-panelled, with four giant terracotta angels representing Botany, Medicine, Surgery and Physics, and surrounded by allegorical figures, this beautiful locale was redesigned in neo-gothic style in 1846 by Giambattista Meduna – the man responsible, ten years earlier, for the neighbouring La Fenice opera house. The historical link continues. Take the Murano Collection: each of the seven perfumes in this range is based on a different mude – such as Byzantium Saffron, from Constantinople. The very names – from the masculine Sultan Leather or Ottoman Amber; to the feminine Rosa Moceniga and Asian Inspirations – evoke the source of their exotic ingredients. All are displayed in exquisite bottles reminiscent of the glasswork of Murano, creating a link with another grand tradition of Venice, first mentioned in 982.
“We can’t put perfume into genuine, handmade Murano glass, because bottles have to be standardised. And the natural pigments used to colour the glass can have an adverse reaction with the perfume,” explains Vidal. The ultra-exclusive collection of Murano vases designed by Nason Moretti, however, has found a way around the problem – for a price – with the insertion of a clear glass ‘flame’ isolating 30ml of concentrated Eau de Parfum within these vividly pigmented creations. I come away with a bottle of my favourite – Liberty – from the Murano Exclusive Collection. It’s a darkly sensuous blend of amber, patchouli, saffron and more; the magical concoction of a latter day alchemist.
Meanwhile, back in the perfumed gardens of San Clemente – a former monastery-turned-lunatic-asylum to which, by the way, Mussolini committed his first wife – Vidal is waxing lyrical about his next fragrance, soon to launch: Blue Tea. Made with the Asian Blue Pea flower (otherwise intriguingly known as clitoria ternatea) it is, he says, “one of the most exclusive ingredients, never before used in the world of perfumery.”
For that, I shall have to wait. In the meantime, I’m going for gold at the spa of the Kempinski for the wrinkle-plumping, bag-reducing, spot-zapping, skin-brightening benefits of my Gold Mask – benefits well-known to the beauties of antiquity. After all, it worked for Cleopatra. Perhaps it will work for me…
The inside track
Marco Vidsal is from a prominent family of Venetian perfumiers and a descendant of the Barozzi – one of the original “twelve apostolic families” who ruled Venice. He was the driving force behind the Perfume Museum of which he is curator and he launched the luxury brand, The Merchant of Venice (a division of Mavive) in 2014. www.themerchantofvenice.com
Taverna La Fenice prepares quality, traditional meat dishes. Gennaro also has fantastic drinks; order the black and gold cocktail, based on our Venezia Essenza fragrance.
You could easily spend a day browsing the antiques in San Samuele and then grazing on the fresh food on offer at Mercato di Rialto in the city centre.
Go to the Lido to cool down on a summer’s day. Even if you’re not a keen swimmer, the beach of the Excelsior is the most elegant and great for people watching.
- Visit the San Fantin branch of The Merchant of Venice for a lesson on structuring perfume, using up to three base notes, and several facets; then leave with a do-it-yourself kit and manual – a fun and unique gift.
- Have lunch at the Michelin-starred Venissa restaurant, overlooking the eponymous vineyard in Mazzorbo. They are the only commercial producers of Dorona wine, from a historic grape variety, which was once the tipple of Doges. The bottles are adorned with 24-carat gold labels, from Mario Berta Battiloro. www.venissa.it
- Establish the price before getting into any private water vehicle (taxi, gondola) – sadly, this is an unpleasant side-effect of Venice’s over-tourism.
- Refrain from going anywhere near San Marco or Rialto when there is a cruise ship in town. It is not a pleasurable experience for anybody.
- Don’t be fooled by Chinese copies masquerading as Murano glass. Look for a punt mark on the base, a signature, or variations in colour as marks of authenticity. Each piece should be unique, with slight irregularities.
Find out more about the rooms of the Palazzo Mocenigo dedicated to perfume at www.mocenigo.visitmuve.it
The 24-carat gold mask anti-ageing and brightening face treatment was courtesy of The Merchant of Venice Spa, San Clemente Palace Kempinski Venice. www.kempinski.com
Teresa’s journey to and from Venice was made easy by www.venicequalitytransfers.com