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Nicola Perullo: In contemporary Aesthetics, a considerable number of studies on smell concerns the field of perceptual modalities, cognitive contents, and emotions. How influential is this kind of research in your profession as a perfumer?

Diletta Tonatto: As it is well known, over the centuries – since ancient philosophy with its so-called ‘hierarchy of the senses’ – smell has suffered from snobbery; it has never been on the front line of philosophy, rather in its rear guard. In the pursuit of the truth, both as essence and as knowledge of reality, the volatility of odors has undoubtedly played a fundamental role in their philosophical marginalization, since they are difficult to ‘control’. Today, thanks to technology but also to scientific discoveries, we have somehow gained more knowledge on smells, thus developing also cognitive sciences and neuroscience research. Nevertheless, such volatility continues to make testing on odorous molecules, as well as their replication, very difficult. I think there is a need today for scientific approaches because we still have very little information on olfactory processes. That said, theoretical snobbery has led to the biggest problem, that is the lack of communication between different disciplines.

Interestingly enough, both Plato and David Howes, in different ages, insisted on the transitional aspect of smell, which would reveal an ongoing change, a non-static dimension. This, on the one hand, has allowed us to say that smell is not suitable for a certain type of analysis but, on the other hand, has pinpointed the very peculiarity of the olfactory dynamic. David Howes, in particular, uses the term “liminal”, suggesting that the sense of smell is the liminal sense par excellence. This is precisely the point I’m interested in and that I explore in my research, with the aim to bring it into my work. Actually, I notice a very strong similarity between the structures of the experience – here, I am more phenomenological than neuroscientific – and the breathing pattern, on which the act of smelling depends. I here endorse the Dilthenian sense of the experience, ex-per-ire, where ex stands for inhalation; per for suspension; ire for moving forward. In that sense, the very structure of experience hints at the olfactory dynamic, suggesting how to approach experiences and how to transcend them. If both Plato and Howes place the sense of smell in such transitory framework, but without going in details, nowadays anatomy helps us to deepen this aspect.

The transformation occurring at the olfactory level inscribes itself in our very physical material, every time we breathe. It is a very complex system; if we partially ignore it yet, this has also to be ascribed to that overlooking snobbery aforementioned, which has hindered the sharing between different sciences. This is why research on smell has been falling behind. Today, scholars are incessantly working, on the one hand, on mapping spaces, landscapes (the so-called smellscapes), neighborhoods; on the other hand, on mapping olfactory receptors. We still don’t know which molecule activates which receptor. Only rarely, however, do these studies communicate with one another to create an inclusive framework. Somehow, we can say that smell is a victim of the dualistic philosophical thought in itself, which perpetrated the clear dichotomy – in the Western thought, a sharp distinction – between ratio and instinct. For millennia, attempts to demonstrate the human primacy over animals have been made: man would be superior because rational, and less instinctual, than animal creatures. The sense of smell is the protagonist of the current century; once we have understood that a holistic approach is needed, this internal dichotomy does not hold true anymore.

N.P.: Let’s move closer to your work experience as a perfumer. Don’t you think that another Modern dichotomy, the one between art and science, should find a holistic synthesis? Do you conceive your work as a combination, or a mixture, of both art and science? Or does one of the two prevail? Moreover, what kind of relationship exists between smells and the fruition of a work of art from a different domain, be it visual, tactile, or auditory? (I leave the gustatory aside, as smell and taste are always strictly bonded.)

D.T.: A relationship exists, on an aesthetic level, between the fruition of a work of art and the olfactory environment, including the use of perfumes. One has a completely different aesthetic experience in admiring a Venus by Botticelli either in a closed, dark, stale, bad-smelling room or in a light, pleasant-smelling one. In this case, the semantic space that is built through the encounter of smell with an artistic context plays an essential role. Today there is a flurry of activity, and the change lies precisely in the position held by the sense of smell, and specifically by perfume, within the contemporary art world.

A very long time passed for perfumery to be recognized as an artistic and creative practice; consistently with the marginalization of smell, it underwent a similar treatment. In the last few years, however, the ‘scent art’ has gradually gained dignity and independence, that is, no longer just ancillary to works of art related to ‘higher’ senses (e.g. the combination of a painting and a perfume). Perfume is thus gaining full legitimacy in the artistic context, not only for its objects (bottles, sprinklers, etc.), but also as a symbolic and non-verbal aesthetic expression and communication tool. This is what fascinates me, because through the study of perfumes it is possible to trace the history of humanity, and to understand the embryos of globalization and the future. Consider archaeology: the exact odors of antiquity are not available, but we know that in ancient Mesopotamia people used to meet ten thousand years ago to exchange gifts. In that context, when also divination was practiced, the presence of woods, resins and perfumes from all over the world was focal. Thus, even before writing, communications among civilizations were based on an olfactory language; this is why perfumes speak of humanity.

When the luxurious Hotel Danieli in Venice commissioned my maison a fragrance, I chose not by chance to use spices and vanilla. Such aromas, on the one hand, tell the story of Venice, its trades, its wealth and its encounters with different civilizations (the ‘globalization’ of that time); on the other hand, they also represent our epoch and customers can recognize and enjoy them. With perfume it is possible to create a dialogue between the past and the present. Through olfactory symbolism, I can both represent the past and make the scent suitable for the function it has today, namely giving pleasure and be appreciated by a market which is mainly American and which prefers very sweet notes. Authenticity consists here in understanding olfactory symbolism and semantics, and creating something that resonates in people sensitivity. Going back to the first question, I combine a part of science with one of free creativity. I try to offer a synthesis that summarizes scientific studies with this submerged non-verbal language. Even in the cases in which smell is ancillary to other forms of art, it can disclose what the visible cannot show, what sight does not manage to perceive.

N.P.: You mentioned the American tendency to prefer sweet odors, and I was reckoning that it also applies to tastes and food flavors. Winemakers, for instance, for a long time in the past have produced sweeter wines (e.g. Champagne) just to sell them to the American market. I wonder, from the point of view of the anthropology of the senses, to what are these preferences ascribable to. Clearly, they are generalizations but with a basis of statistical truth. Besides the influence of history and of symbolism, the importance of marketing cannot be ignored. Do you agree with it?

D.T.: I believe that, even in marketing, the key point is olfactory semantics; in this case, how the association between a particular smell and the intention towards it, is designed. The question is: what drives us to have one intention rather than another? We know that, more than other senses, smell operates associations that are based on an emotional and mnemonic attachment. Brain areas activated when in contact with a smell immediately lead to an emotional match, which persists over time in the form of recollections. On the one hand, this is a very fascinating aspect of the sense of smell; on the other hand, it makes it a problematic object for analytical studies as largely composed of idiosyncrasies and subjectivities. However, there is undoubtedly also a collective level. Let’s make an example: Calabrians and bergamot. Bergamot is a tree mostly grown in Calabria (a region in Southern Eastern Italy) with redolent flowers, which develop into citrus fruits. Their scent is generally appreciated as a source of pride, linked to local uniqueness and richness; nonetheless, there will always be some Calabrians who feel repulsion towards bergamot. Here lies the marvel of smell, but also its resistance to tests and to manipulation since it presents totally subjective outliers. This is also the reason why, for instance, a universal ‘stink bomb’, with the function of a collective weapon (for riot control and dispersion), does not exist. What for a certain ethnic group can be a very unpleasant odor, for others can be an enjoyable or, at least, tolerable one. With respect to sweet smells and sweet tastes, I actually guess it is not only an American preference, but rather a very general and growing trend. Sweetness creates attachment, and sweet odors give a sense of satiety or, on the contrary, of hunger. Thus, they control the food stimuli, and food, as we know, gives pleasure and comfort. It is very rare to wear a perfume in order to be repulsive.

N.P.: Presently, bitter and sour tastes, which are niche experiences for a highly educated audience, are being exploited in fine dining and, in particular, by avant-garde gastronomy. It is an innovative operation, since these sorts of tastes are generally ‘difficult’, requiring a very cultivated approach. I wonder if something similar is happening also in the world of smell.

D.T.: Sometimes I’ve been asked to create stinks. In our gallery in Rome, we had on display a sample of the smell in which Jean Baptiste Grenouille would have been born, the protagonist of the famous novel by Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985). It is a fragrance that reproduces the smell of the Parisian fish market in the 18th century, a very strong stench we keep stoppered. A few years ago, the managers of a luxury car brand visited one of my stores and, very intrigued by this idea, were tempted to have a try with their cars. At this point, they were warned that it might be a very risky operation. Such a fragrance deliberately recalls disgust; it retraces the history of humanity and evokes a particular context: Paris during the 18th century, with the particular hygienic habits of people, places, squares, etc. That perfume was designed in order to convey an historical smellscape, not the atmosphere of a luxury car, which takes passengers for a ride in the historic center of Rome. Customers would have been deeply influenced, presumably in negative terms, by that completely decontextualized smell. However, the creation of stinks is inscribed in a purely artistic domain without commercial purposes. In a discourse of olfactory marketing or even of manipulation, smells triggering attraction and pleasure are usually used. However, disgust can also arise from olfactory pollution; we are actually overdoing the intensity and quantity of fragrances, and this can cause perceptual annoyance. To sum up, except for the artistic context in which the idea of finding pleasure in the repulsion is suggested, and except for these particular customers, I have never been asked to create a stench for a commercial product such as an eau de parfum..

N.P.: ‘Sell with smell’ is the scent marketing motto, which gains leverage through smell associative and emotional power. In that sense, is there, or would it be necessary to develop, an olfactory ethics?

D.T.: I think there is a great need for an olfactory culture. The term ‘ethics’ is appropriate, but not in terms of right/wrong for users. However, on the side of the perfumers, not only an ethics is needed, but also a series of strict rules at safe cosmetics level. Let us not forget that perfumes are highly toxic products. Perfumers must be very careful about what they do, what they use and how much. Consider, for instance, the competition and fight between the ‘natural’ and the ‘synthetic’. Actually, there can be a synthetic of the highest quality as well as a natural of a very low quality. As perfumers, we already have rules to follow about perfumery ingredients; the point here is the integration of an ecological morality, and in particular in the supply chain, of responsibility towards the environment. We must ask ourselves what the price of luxury is, and, paradoxically, what the price of such high prices is, too. Where is sustainability, and how should it be interpreted?

Let us make an example. Today, there is a lot of talk about the rose de Taif, a flower that grows on hills in the middle of the desert. It has a very low yield, it certainly gives sustenance to the families that take care of its production, but the environmental consequences are actually ignored. The same applies to agarwood, also known as oud, which has an incredible history. Agarwood is a redolent resinous wood from Southeast Asian plants that is collected when the trees are affected by a certain bacterium that gives it a peculiar odor. It is a very small and expensive production. People thus started to inject this bacterium into healthy plants, then processed in Arab countries, where it became the iconic smell. In the last decade, the essence of agarwood has also dominated the European and American markets. This is the question we must ask ourselves: what is the price of all this? We are physically contaminating trees to tear them down and burn them, in order to create censers, bakhoors, and all the scents of European and American perfumery based on oud.

That said, oud can also be synthetically created, and with many olfactory variants. What should we perfumers do? What is our responsibility? Is it to offer an elitist product, so unique and so precious from nature, or to create a sustainable, even if artificial, equivalent? This, in turn, creates further ethical issues which involve manipulation and education. What is the consequence of a perception that is based on a copy rather than on the original? Is a direct experience, albeit unsustainable, justifiable for educational purposes but not for hedonistic ones?

N.P.: Here, maybe the limits concern pleasure as pure hedoné, that is, a pleasure for its own sake, the pleasure of a perfume that has very mysterious roots. Indeed, why an Italian, a European, should enjoy the scent of rose de Taif or of oud? What is the root of this pleasure? If it is not cultural, it can be neurobiological or it concerns fashion, and hence the sociological issue of status and conspicuous consumption.

D.T.: The case study for this are the animal notes. Today, those that are derived from animals are illegal, thus the only animal notes allowed are artificial: white musk for example. It is interesting to interpret olfactory changes as a mirror of a particular age and its needs. Animal protection has still a stronger impact than the attention towards the environment; the large use of the rose de Taif and of oud previously mentioned are clear evidences. In recent decades, to extract an odorous molecule from an animal – even if, for a long time, it has been considered a symbolic act of human sublimation of nature, acting as a gift to the Gods, Kings and Queens, or as a bond with them – has become unacceptable. At the same time, however, we are witnessing a great return to ‘animalier’ in fashion, which can be explained in terms of the mechanism of mimesis. Why do we obstinately aspire to detach ourselves from the sphere of instinct, from the animal, if we end up imitating it or covering up with it? Along with a mechanism of mimesis, also a sort of triangulation arises. We imitate the animal probably because we envy it for something. This mechanism is at the basis of advertising, especially of perfumes. Often, a beautiful woman or a very virile man stands next to a bottle of fragrance. A play of associations and even assimilation is here at stake: if scented with such a perfume, I will be more like her/him. The semantic space is very important in influencing the experience of olfactory pleasure; however, what we know now is that the olfactory aesthetic and the experience of pleasure are very subjective too. It’s like a cultural layer with singular triggers that are unique to each of us; indeed, olfactory reminiscence is a very private domain. It’s a relationship between ourselves and the outside world: with every breath we inhale and exhale, we involve and detach, providing a time and a rhythm for a harmonious interaction.

N.P.: Dewey used a similar terminology too, describing the experience as a rhythmic pattern of intakes and outgivings, injection and emission, inhalation and exhalation. Not to mention the importance of this exchange in the Buddhist thought and, more in general, in the Chinese-Japanese culture. In that sense, it is worth also considering the therapeutic purpose of odors. What does an olfactory therapy – commonly called ‘aromatheraphy’ – mean, and what kind of effects does it have?

D.T.: We have to be careful with this expression, ‘olfactory therapy’, because we must remember that the mapping of olfactory receptors is not complete. It’s like being in front of a piano without knowing which note comes from a key, so talking about ‘therapy’ in a strict sense can be misleading. That said, there might be a complementary function. Many are the projects, also in the healthcare system, in which the sense of smell has been incorporated in processes of ‘humanization’. In Turin, for example, we worked on a scent for the Sant’Anna Hospital and its Foundation “Medicina a Misura di Donna”, in a project also involving the national police. Smell is humanity, and we can implement the continuous process of humanization through the sense of smell, using its emotional force. This is evident in the current pandemic period: in isolation, the sense of smell – the ‘liminal sense’ par excellence, reclaiming Plato and Howes’s thesis – triggers memories and emotions which allow us to transcend, to go beyond our circumstances, to travel in a different way. Therefore, even without complete scientific knowledge, it is possible to bring an emotional welcoming and a more human environment with the presence of scent. In that sense, scent can collaborate; on a psychological level, odors become symbols and means of attention and care. The importance of what we have defined ‘semantics of smell’ arises again, together with the way in which odors are presented, which can change the way they are perceived. If, in a very stressful context, an olfactory stimulation is introduced in the right way (e.g. by explaining that it is made for the well-being of the person), then there is a high probability that it will be well received.

1N.P.: Doesn’t this operation risk ending up promoting an overturning in olfactory values? If, for instance, the stressful atmosphere of the hospital, which is condensed in the typical ‘hospital smell’, associated with trauma and tension, is altered with scents linked to positive moments, wouldn’t the latter become the new ‘hospital smell’, thus turning into negative?

2D.T.: I understand such observation. It expresses fear, and a risk of manipulation, but the emphasis should be placed on the idea of humanization. The aim is to make the hospital a place of care, instead of a hostile and fearful place. Generalization is never correct, but traumatic experiences are often suffered by people, be pregnant women or oncologic patients. Fear is not an ally to recovery. With ‘re-humanization’, I mean a process of the human individual, which, in this case, concerns the values and structure of the healthcare system itself, of its necessary transformation in this historical context. Here perfume becomes our ally, but not to manipulate, deceive, or pretend that everything is fine. So, there is the risk of promoting an overturning in olfactory values, but the hedonic attachment tends to be stronger, and this is why I believe one can think of re-creating space and its emotional atmosphere through smell. Smell tells us about change, as mentioned before: if a place is humanized, then it will smell differently; in that sense, now products can be eventually developed once olfactory pleasantness has been recognized as a value in a specific system. At the same time, who benefits from the unpleasant ‘hospital smell’? What if a pleasant smell – connected to the awareness that someone wants to make you feel cared for – could end up generating a sensation of acceptance as opposed to repulsion, which might lead, for instance, to a better collaboration or to a just faint sensation of wellbeing in a very stressful moment?

There are many projects of this type; I attended one in support of new mothers, for which I created a perfume in order to give them strength, to prevent them from succumbing to violence or crisis. Probably, women who at that time were in post-partum depression keep on experiencing that smell difficult to bear or maybe as an anchor. With the sense of smell, luckily manipulation is somehow ineffective: it is the individual that has to participate and feel; it’s a personal journey. There are also cases where a difficulty turns into a process of empowerment. It is the story of a lady I call, with an invented name, Anna. In 2013, Anna was part of a group of women victims of abuse with whom I worked for six months financed by ESF. One day we smelled incense, Anna fainted, but she didn’t tell me why. I later discovered that her reaction was linked to her past abuses. Originally from Eastern Europe, where incense is very much used during funerals, Anna associated that smell with the memory of her father’s funeral. A very strong emotional contrast was condensed in the odor of incense: on the one hand, the relief and happiness that her father, who used to abuse her, was dead; on the other, the sense of guilt. Yet, at the end of our course, when each woman had to create her own perfume, Anna placed two drops of incense in hers. This is an example of how, through the sense of smell, a different route can be taken to become aware, to accept and even to grow. Here is what I mean when I speak of the need for an ‘olfactory culture’ rather than an ethics. If a smell gives you repulsion, you should try to understand the association to it, just like we teach children to recognize their emotions. But once it is verbalized, this will allow you to recognize the association and the consequent reaction; it will not just be, among many possible cases, the emotional response of fear, but it will be connected with the subject to which that emotion is associated. Anna did not faint sniffing her perfume; on the contrary, she wore it proudly.

The fact that today we do not have scientific certainty does not exclude its empirical validity, and its applications, where possible. This gives rise to scientific research, more empirical works and, not less important, the communication between the two.

N.P.: The current period offers interesting insights for interpreting reality through smell. Beyond the symptoms (anosmia and parosmia), has the pandemic, transmitted through the air and therefore through breathing, had consequences, also in terms of redefining purchasing choices?

3D.T.: Throughout history, a peculiar fear of asphyxiation cyclically affected society. Earlier we recalled the idea of transition when dealing with the sense of smell; actually, when we inhale and exhale, a change always occurs: the external world enters inside us to be then exhaled outside, modified by us while at the same time modifying us. Being afraid of this existential act, the fear of contagion and asphyxiation, has tremendous psychological effects. Moreover, if perpetuated over time (think of the daily use of masks as protective barriers from the air), it has a very deep and strong impact in the society. Interestingly enough, today we heavily rely on sanitizers and perfumes. Having associated a high alcohol content with protection against viruses, on the one hand we wear masks, on the other we go wild with alcohol, perfumes, gels. Perfumes have been anything but banned, which is quite exceptional given that alcohol is usually considered as a toxic, potentially a harmful if not lethal substance.

4Thus, there is a great demand for scented gels, and companies are offering many scented variants. A project that has points in common with this pandemic is a research I did with Altec, which deals with space stations. The aim was that of helping astronauts who would have been in space for months, even half a year, without having the possibility of smelling any familiar smell in an unfamiliar environment. On an emotional level, a kit of familiar smells was considered beneficial. On closer inspection, something similar happened when we landed in lockdown, without the chance to access our olfactory desires and to smell the external world. In conjunction with the pandemic, people have started buying many perfumes, or scenting their homes a lot again. Albeit the negative economic impact, gels, body oils and home fragrances have seen a growth in sales. The trend is to buy more products but cheaper ones. This speaks volumes. If, before the pandemic, people used to be loyal just to a specific fragrance, during the pandemic they have sought olfactory variety. The 2019 fashion that we perfumers thought would have been consolidated in 2020 stemmed from the idea of ‘rebirth’ which, in the olfactory semantics, translates into flowery scents. But the pandemic has put an end to this trend. People have stopped buying flowery and light perfumes, while preferring intense ones, that is fragrances dominated by gourmand notes (e.g. vanilla) and by (synthetic) animal notes. I explain such shift attributing it to the current circumstances: we have been physically distant for so long that, in semi- or post-pandemic, we want to feel each other; namely, we want to regain a space in the social world lengthily denied, occupying it with strong emanations. Once again, the mimetic process is here at stake: humans, as natural hunters, once in captivity look for their congenial role in the world.

N.P.: What do you think of the relationship, which is increasingly powerful today, between smells and technology? What potentialities and what risks does this combination present, in your opinion?

D.T.: I have always understood technology, like McLuhan, as an extension of the human being. However, my sociological studies got me to move away from such idea of technological innocence, which is also a challenge to my profession. Here, in fact, my academic research brings something to my work as a perfumer: choosing to remain artisanal, I renounce an excess of technology, and a perfect replicability of my creations. Sometimes I have to modify batches in the laboratory before packing them since the finished products are always different as, for instance, the weighing made by a human is not as precise as that made by a machine. On a symbolic and also technological level, changing nature to sublimate it once transformed into a perfume is a problematic process. Therefore, technology, as we have seen, can help ecology, environmental protection and sustainability. At the same time, I think that, as artistic, creative and aesthetic expressions, perfumes should not be replicable/replicated in series. This is actually an ambiguous point in perfumery: although some fragrances are on the market in millions of copies, they can still be considered as works of art.

My main concern about the technological invasion in olfactory world pertains the cancelation and the replacement of a direct – I would even say ‘authentic’ – experience of nature. This is also a particularly urgent reflection today, when, closeted off in our homes, the technological aspect takes over as a compensation of the lack of experience of the world. All this should promote a process of re-humanization as a recollected authenticity, towards an aesthetics that makes us resonate. I don’t know exactly what the excess of technology will lead to, I guess to new semantics and to new olfactory realities.

N.P.: During this conversation, the issue about education often peeped. Smell education is paramount and it is not limited to edible substances, as we have pointed out. On what basis should an olfactory education be grounded in order to promote the re-appropriation of the capacity for olfactory discernment?

D.T.: Let us resume the example of bergamot. It is not uncommon for young people to identify bergamot essence as ‘dishwasher’. Now, it is not the fault of the teenagers who do not know bergamot; perhaps they have never heard of it. However, the fact that bergamot is associated with a particular product rather than a generic citrus fruit is a telltale. Here emerges an educational responsibility (often unfulfilled) which primarily involves parents. We have to teach our children – and ourselves too – to smell not only in supermarkets and shops, but also while walking and experiencing the environment we inhabit. It must be clear that it is the dishwasher that smells like bergamot, not the other way round. This actually has a lot to do with taste and food. The sense of smell is rooted to recognize the non-visual, invisible risks. Through education, we can learn and teach such semantic association. I think an olfactory education is more about the method: it is about the integration of the impulse with the ratio, it’s about breathing and feeling. Smells are a way through which we can engage in this. Then, there is the other aspect which is more ecological, namely knowing and respecting plants and their essences. Perfumes, as we have seen, tell the history of humanity.

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Nicola Perullo e Diletta Tonatto, «Re-humanizing Smell: A Conversation»Rivista di estetica, 78 | 2021, 63-73.

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Nicola Perullo e Diletta Tonatto, «Re-humanizing Smell: A Conversation»Rivista di estetica [Online], 78 | 2021, online dal 01 février 2024, consultato il 15 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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