Smells like Bologna’s spirit: Smell Festival and the secret language of scents

Smell – Festival dell’Olfatto is one of those things difficult to explain – even more to illustrate – and yet worth mentioning. First because its communication and topics are willingly niche and not crowd-pleasing, which is quite an achievement in a world of the-easier-the-better. Second, and most important, because it investigates the fascinating world of scents, fragrances, smells, odors… whatever you call these things that float in the air, penetrate your skin and nostrils and sometimes jump straight to your memories and emotions before you even have time to have make your brain articulate a name for them.


Created by self-proclaimed “former outsider” Francesca Faruolo, now a local expert on the world of theoretical perfumery, this little festival is a celebration of artistic and niche perfumes (which I am quite a fan of: remember Sacro Cuore?). But not just that. It is also an ensemble of intriguing journeys over the history and meaning of smell, an often neglected sense.

Photo fromRoberto Greco’s exhibition “Distilling life: l’immagine dell’odore” 

Speaking of history, this year’s edition (the eighth) sees the debut of Autentica di Felsina, a perfume derived from the old recipe of an ancient, very local fragrance, called Acqua di Felsina. Legends wants this typically “colonial” perfume, created in 1827 and made from bergamot, benzoin and some secret spices, to be not just iconic of our lovely Bologna but also of the traditional Bolognese ritual of having the “Madonna di San Luca” coming down from San Luca to the city center in a sacred procession. During said procession, Acqua di Felsina apparently used to be sprayed over tissue handkerchiefs.


Strada Maggiore’s Museo della Musica is the headquarter of Smell, which makes for a nice synesthesia and with its elegant, earnest setting of dark brown wood, quiet atmosphere and polished glasses hiding historical instruments, provides an appropriate setting for a handful of workshops and  presentations.


One, held by “storyteller” (even though I’m not exactly sure what it does mean) Delphine de Swardt in collaboration with French  magazine Nez (“nose”), is about the history of perfume: from the old hydrolites of Renaissance queens up to Chanel n.5, myths and legends of the ephemeral art of scents are explored. Another, with perfumes creator Nicola Bianchi, focuses on which essences are most  suitable for creating a perfume: from Sicilian citrus trees to African resins  passing through the most fragrant flowers of France, India and Morocco.


Then there are high end perfumery brands like Coquillete Paris and Profvmvm di Roma (ever felt that fresh, incredibly enticing scent of seaside plants and marine breeze? It’s probably Profvmvm di Roma’s Acqua di sale, or a similar ozone-ish perfume). And there’s the young perfume creators’ contest OSA! – Outsiders Scent Awards: according to Faruolo, artistic perfumery is a very close milieu, one that outsiders can have trouble entering. Which would be why she created the contest, that this year has the young candidates (from Russia, United States, France and several other countries) come up with a new perfume inspired by this year’s theme of Smell, which is “roots”, “radici”. Waiting to find out who will best interpret  the idea of roots, I invite you to savour, study and decompose with Faruolo and guests the secret language of perfumes.

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