The 17th-century Italian cardinal Federico Borromeo was so impressed with Jan Brueghel the Elder’s work that he once wrote to the artist, declaring he could smell spring itself in the minute petals and leaves that bloomed from the Flemish master’s brush.
Four hundred years later, those with less olfactory imaginations can head to the Prado in Madrid to fill their nostrils with the scents that suffuse Brueghel’s 1617-18 painting The Sense of Smell.
For its latest show, the museum has enlisted the services of curators, researchers – and the Puig perfume house – to recreate the fragrances of 10 of the many items that appear in Brueghel’s oil on board.
The work, part of a set of pieces on the five senses, shows a beautiful garden where plants and flowers abound, peacocks amble and guinea pigs picnic. Brueghel provided the flora and fauna while Peter Paul Rubens contributed the allegorical figures.
Inspired by its heady visuals, Alejandro Vergara, the Prado’s head of Flemish painting, had an idea last summer.
“I was thinking out loud for a while and having different conversations with friends and colleagues about a year ago and we came up with the idea of focusing on the sense of smell and having a perfumer work on the painting, identify what’s in it, and create 10 scents,” said Vergara.
Once researchers had identified the 80 different plant and flower species seen in the picture, Gregorio Sola, Puig’s senior perfumer, set about creating some of their scents.
The fruits of his labor can be sampled from the four diffusers that sit in room 83 of the Prado, delivering their carefully calibrated perfumes at the touch of a screen. As well as jasmine, rose, spikenard, fig tree, orange blossom, daffodil, a bouquet of rose, jasmine and carnation, there is iris – and kid gloves scented with amber.
While Sola opted not to conjure up the smell of the guinea pigs, the peacocks or the hound who has muzzled his way into the picture, he did recreate the scent of the civet who lies coiled in its bottom right-hand corner. Puig’s diffusers dispense a hot stinky hit of civet, which, thankfully, soon fades out.
“Civet is a pretty harsh, dirty smell, but it’s what you find in all the [perfume] recipes from 1500 and 1600,” said the perfumer. “That’s because it was used as a fixative to make sure the perfume lasted on the skin.”
The perfume is synthetic – “so no animals were hurt” – while all the others are based on highest-quality natural essences, including iris, which is twice as expensive as gold because of the long, slow and complicated extraction process.
According to Vergara, the “strange, innovative exhibition” is intended to introduce visitors to the miniature world of Brueghel and to the scents of past centuries.
“Brueghel is phenomenal, but many people don’t focus on him and the reason for that is that he paints very small scale, which makes it very hard when you walk through a museum,” said the curator.
“And the Brueghel name is also a mess, people don’t know which Brueghel they’re looking at because you have Pieter Bruegel the Elder, his son Jan, and there are a bunch of other Brueghels – and that causes confusion.”
But, added Vergara, The Sense of Smell is an incredibly beautiful painting achieved by using single-hair brushes and a magnifying glass. He hopes the unusual mix of sight and smell will pique visitors’ interest in the entire five sensory series.
“I think it’s a really nice visit to a museum – in 45 minutes you look at five beautiful paintings and connect with this idea that you’re not expecting: the smell of the past.”
Sola hopes his scents will help fix Brueghel’s picture in people’s minds as keenly as civet musk fixes a fragrance.
“Our olfactory memory is stronger than our visual or auditory memory: the memory of our mother’s perfume, of our first kiss, of our first car, or of the first day at school with the smell of new pencils and paints,” he said.
“We all have our own olfactory memory and the idea of this exhibition is that Jan Brueghel’s painting will leave its own memorable olfactory print on all of us.”