Figure 1. Agnolo Bronzino, Eleonora de Toledo, oil on panel, c. 1560. 86.4 x 65.1 cm. Samuel H. Kress Collection. Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art. 1961.9.7.
Perfume and the Medici in Sixteenth-Century Florence
19th October 2023
by Rebekah Compton
Created at:
19th October 2023
Rebekah Compton
[click to copy]
Figure 1. Agnolo Bronzino, Eleonora de Toledo, oil on panel, c. 1560. 86.4 x 65.1 cm. Samuel H. Kress Collection. Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art. 1961.9.7.
In the sixteenth century, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (1519-1574) and the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo (1522-1562) established the art of perfumery in Florence. The couple sought aromatic oils for familial use and scented adornments for diplomatic gifts. In a cloud of perfume, Erato – the muse of love poetry – arrived at the Pageant of the Muses, a theatrical event designed for the pair’s wedding celebration in 1539. Dancing in the circle of the cosmos, each muse personified a planetary sphere and wore a costume ornamented with correlating materials (Rosseau, 1990). Accompanied by heady fragrances, Erato symbolized Venus along with the desired union and fertility of the ducal couple. The muse of love poetry carried a violone, wore a goatskin cape, and sported rabbit skin shoes. Her curly blonde hair was bedecked with myrtle. Swallows and wagtails along with pomegranates and damask roses decorated the sign bearing her name (Giambullari, 1539: 33). Erato’s cloud of perfume, fragrant myrtle, and damask roses symbolized romance and stimulated desire through the sense of smell; however, these fragrances also covered her fertile animal scent. Indeed, in sixteenth-century Florence, scents were to be found in the cultivated gardens of Venus as well as the feral woods of the satyr.
Documents in the Medici Archives reveal that Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and his wife, who is portrayed by Agnolo Bronzino in his Portrait of the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo (Fig. 1), consumed both domestic aromatic oils and imported animal oils. The more common floral and fruit essences – used for bathing and scenting the skin – were purchased at local apothecaries, a subsection of the guild of the Arte dei medici e speziali (Arts of the doctors and apothecaries). A list of substances imported and stocked by the guild included Cyprian and Babylonian powders, two types of soaps, and ‘unguents of every sort’. The guild sold rose water for 8 lire or soldi per pound and rose oil for 4 lire or soldi per pound. They also offered juniper, chamomile, laurel, violet, and lily oils (Pagnini, 1765, vol. 2, bk. 4: 23, 24, 26, 18, 22). These lighter floral notes were good for lip and hand balms, oils to anoint the hair, powders for scenting chests, garments, and bed linens, and even lozenges, like rose candy, for sweetening the breath (Ruscelli, 1615: 42r-59r). In his marriage treatise Li Nuptiali of 1513, the Roman humanist Marcantonio Altieri (1457-1537) explained that ‘a copious amount of floral fragrances could be a stimulant to the act of copulation’ (Altieri, 1873: 72). In a Florentine carnival song, women are encouraged to use the smells of flowers to excite their husband’s love: ‘Women, who burn with love / take for yourselves things / that are full of the fragrances / of violets, lilies, and roses; / and these are good for the spouses / to make their lovers joyful’ (Grazzini, 1559: 66).

Figure 1. Agnolo Bronzino, Eleonora de Toledo, oil on panel, c. 1560. 86.4 x 65.1 cm. Samuel H. Kress Collection. Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art. 1961.9.7.

In Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid (Fig. 2) from the late 1520s, a young bride in the guise of Venus reclines in the grass, wearing a jewel encrusted diadem and white satin bridal veil. Pink rose petals are scattered across her bare legs. In perfumery, roses were a delicate, foundational essence in scents for the skin. In addition to their soft fragrance, roses were also used to treat inflammation, and according to the ancient Greek physician Theophrastus (c. 371-c. 287), roses were suitable for opening passages because of their ‘heat and lightness’ (Theophrastus, 1916, vol. 2: 370-71). In a 1549 letter, the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo orders rose oil, rose honey, and sweet almond oil (1-Bia, Doc ID# 12991). Rose honey was believed to alleviate headaches, as documented in an account of Pope Paul III (1468-1549) (2-Bia, Doc ID# 19418), while rose oil was a common ingredient in treatments for the menses, for pregnancy, and for labor. If a woman was having trouble giving birth, for example, her vagina could be anointed with rose oil (Trotula, 84-85, 96-96, 100-101).

Figure 2. Lorenzo Lotto, Venus and Cupid, oil on canvas, 1520s. 92.4 x 111.4 cm. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1986.138.

In a letter of 1549, the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo requests oil of gherophani (possibly clove or carnation oil) and notes that it can be obtained from the ducal perfumer Ciano, Bastiano di Francesco di Jacopo (3-Bia, Doc ID#13159). In another letter of this year, Eleonora asks that Ciano make some ‘tablets (pasticche) for perfuming her chamber’ (4-Bia, Doc ID#12996). These tablets were composed of resins, such as benzoin, storax balsam, or agarwood (lignum aloes), combined with rosewater and/or ambergris (Ruscelli, 1615: 56r-v). When the balls of scent were burned in incense burners, they released a fragrant smoke into the room. In Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid, a brass incense burner hangs from a myrtle wreath, filling the bower with sweet scents. In his 1563 treatise on the infirmities of women, Giovanni Marinello instructs couples wishing to conceive a male child ‘that the room where they are to be joined must be made odoriferous with materials that are pleasant to the smell and naturally warm: such as musk, aloe wood, civet, amber, Cyprus birds, and the like’. And if they desire ‘valiant sons’, these scents should be accompanied by ‘pleasant, beautiful, and delightful male paintings’ (Marinello, 1563:102). In Lorenzo Lotto’s Venus and Cupid, Marinello advice is visualized with the goddess’s young love child holding the aromatic myrtle wreath and activated perfumed resins.

In the sixteenth century, perfume burners came in a variety of shapes and sizes. Desiderio da Firenze cast several ornate ones in bronze. Created between 1530 and 1540 in his workshop, Perfume Burner Surmounted by a Satyr (Fig. 3) consists of three cast alloy parts that interlock with one another. The base serves as the burner for the resin, while the two upper, highly decorated sections release the perfumed smoke. In the lusty spirit of the satyr, the shapes of the upper two sections resemble the shaft and bulbous glans of a phallus. Vapors escaped from the mouth holes of two masks, whose writhing tresses resemble the snakes of Medusa, while the satyr mounted above lowers his pan pipes, as if to exhale a cloud of smoke from his lips. In addition to scenting the room, the smoky vapors could be directed through the vagina and into the womb, as a suffumigation, to increase conception rates (Cadden, 1995: 242). Desiderio’s bronze is both a perfume burner and a small sculpture, whose imagery is inspired by its function, which is to release a heavily scented, heady smoke, composed of potent substances. In addition to scenting domestic interiors, perfumed tablets and sticks of incense were a much-desired toiletry for travel, particularly for stays in hostels or dormitories, such as at La Verna. In 1564, the Medici associate Bartolomeo Concini requested sticks of perfume (pastelletti) for scenting the dorms at La Verna, which he says emit the bad odor of ‘a charnel house (carnaio)’ (5-Bia, Doc ID# 4873). Here, Concini compares the smell of bodies in dormitories to a slaughterhouse or building where human remains are stored; the perfumed sticks not only provided fragrant smoke but also cleared the air of harmful vapors.

Figure 3. Workshop of Desiderio da Firenze, Perfume Burner Surmounted by a Satyr, binary alloy, ca. 1530-40. 50 cm. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975. 1975.1.1396.

Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo’s efforts to procure expensive and exotic raw materials – particularly civet, musk, and ambergris – are readily apparent in the Medici Archives. In a note of December 30, 1553, Tommaso de’ Medici authorizes the purchase of musk and ambergris for Eleonora from Paolo Baccegli who is traveling to Alexandria (Bia, Doc ID# 3333). A 1559 letter encourages a merchant to purchase both substances, along with two vases of benzoin (a balsamic resin), from a Venetian ship coming from England (7-Bia, Doc ID# 1302). In 1565, Duke Cosimo authorizes payment for fifty musk bladders from Venice, and in 1566, Medici agents are requested to look for ambergris, musk, and civet on a ship coming into Livorno from Alexandria (8-Bia, Doc ID# 7841; Bia, Doc ID# 9834). The Medici court’s desire for these precious animal oils is evident as well in their attempts to import and raise exotic civet cats. A letter of 1546 includes the Duchess Eleonora’s request for a civet cat, ‘un gatto da far muschio’ (9-Bia, Doc ID# 7769). Another letter, dated 1557, explains that a man named Mozenigo has been found for tending Eleonora’s civet cats and that he knows how to extract the ‘musk’. The letter notes that the animals ‘won’t bite his hands’ (10- Bia, Doc ID# 16822).
To transform raw scented substances into odoriferous waters and fragrant accessories, Cosimo and Eleonora hired perfumers, the most famous of which was the ducal perfumer, Bastiano di Francesco di Jacopo (1503-1566), who went by the nickname of Ciano. Ciano matriculated to the guild of the Arte dei medici e speziali in 1528, following in the footsteps of his father Francesco who was granted membership to the guild in 1500 (Nesi, 2015). In the Medici ducal accounts, Ciano is identified as a perfumer and appears alongside other painters and sculptors of the court, including Benvenuto Cellini (13-Bia, Doc ID# 17948). He was particularly close to the bronze sculptor Zanobi Lastricati, who also worked for Duke Cosimo I. Between 1549 and 1551, the pair cast a bronze Mercury for the courtyard of the Palazzo Tornabuoni, which was being restored by Cardinal Ridolfi and his brother, Lorenzo di Piero Ridolfi (Spallanzani, 1978; Nesi, 2015). The two also created a fantastical installation for Ciano’s courtyard, mostly likely for his bottega located on the Via de’ Servi, near Piazza Santissima Annunziata. In a letter dated May 15, 1546, Niccolò Martelli described this sculptural decoration while softly critiquing the perfumer’s acceptance into the Accademia Fiorentina, the city’s official literary academy. In the letter, Martelli tells of a Cupid carved in pietra serena, a sculpture of Bacchus, and a ‘beautiful Venus’, ‘and other marine nymphs, playing lasciviously on the shore’, which gives ‘the eye an infinite pleasure’. Martelli notes that the courtyard also included ‘the Ducal arms of his most Illustrious Cosimo with the laurel and the Arno of our Accademia’ (Martelli, 1916: 71-73). Venus’s presence in Ciano’s decorative program correlates with her planetary governance of perfumers, the art of distillation, and sweet-smelling fragrances. In his Tetrabiblos, for example, Ptolemy (c. 100-170 CE) writes: ‘If Venus rules action, she makes her subjects persons whose activities lie among the perfumes of flowers or of unguents, in wine, colors, dyes, spices, or adornments’ (Ptolemy, 1940, Bk 4: 384-85). Accordingly, Venus might be expected to appear in Ciano’s decorative program with myrtle, roses, or orange blossoms, as Erato did in the Pageant of the Muses, rather than with Neptune and the nereids. Venus as goddess of the sea, however, held sway over ambergris, the highly-sought-after seaborn material central to the art of perfumery in the sixteenth century. In his letter, Martelli mentions this odiferous substance as one of the precious materials handled by the perfumer. He declares that Ciano, despite his physical deformities has a ‘beautiful spirit’ because a ‘beautiful soul nourishes itself on sweet and precious odors’, and Ciano is always ‘handling amber, musk, civet, delicate oils, odiferous powders, water of angels and of archangels’ (Martelli, 1916: 71).
The Medici court consumed civet, musk, and ambergris in different ways. In the art of perfumery, these animal oils provided a stable and long-lasting fixative for volatile floral essences, which dissipated quickly. All three ingredients were key in the perfumed pastes molded and inserted like jewels into belts, buttons, and pendants (Welch, 2011: 13-39). The Medici court’s jewelry inventory of 1566 includes ‘a crown filled with a perfumed mix’, ‘a golden belt filled with a perfumed paste of musk and amber’, ‘a golden pendant filled with a perfumed mix’, ‘a golden pear and thistle flower pendant filled with perfumed paste, along with a necklace made of perfumed paste’ (11-Bia, Doc ID# 25325; Bia, Doc ID# 23526). The sweet and sultry fragrances wafting from these adornments announced the Duke and Duchess’s presence and engraved their aura on their audience, like a perfumed love letter. In addition to scented buttons and jewelry, perfumed gloves were highly fashionable at the Medici court. In 1551, Eleonora sent scented gloves to Pope Julius III (before Carnival), and in 1566, six pairs were ordered from Lisbon for Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici (12- Bia, Doc ID# 13588; Bia, Doc ID#6803). It is likely that the brown leather glove held by the Duchess in Agnolo Bronzino’s portrait of Portrait of the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo (Fig. 1) is scented. In his The Secrets of the Reverend Maister Alexis of Piemont of 1558, Girolamo Ruscelli (1500-1566) discusses the perfuming of leather gloves. His recipe includes anointing the gloves with civet, soaking them in rose water along with the waters of orange, lemon, and citron flowers, sprinkling them with Cyprus powder (particularly on the inside), rubbing them with fresh jasmine oil, warming them over a perfumed smoke, then dousing them with musk, ambergris, and more civet. The recipe produced soft, stretchy, and scented gloves (Ruscelli, 1615: 57). The practice of perfuming gloves reached Europe through Arabic trade and settlement in Spain. In the sixteenth century, the art blossomed, particularly in the French court of Queen Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589) and the English one of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) (Redwood, 2016: 26-30). Perfume’s volatile ties to poison played into the popular tale that Queen Jeanne III de’ Navarre (1528-1572) died in Paris – on the eve of her son’s wedding – from poisoned perfumed gloves sold to her by Catherine de’ Medici’s perfumer Renato, known as Il Fiorentino (Villoresi, 1995: 151, 162). The nineteenth-century French Academic artist Pierre-Charles Comte (1823-1895) painted this legend in his Jeanne II of Navarre buying poisoned gloves (Fig. 4), which was shown at the French Salon of 1852, then signed and dated 1858.

Figure 4. Pierre-Charles Comte, Jeanne III of Navarre Buying Poisoned Gloves from Catherine de’ Medici’s Perfumer, René, oil on canvas, 1852-1858. 92 x 120 cm. Private collection.
Feelings and Noses
Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo’s passion for perfume was passed down to their children and systematized through the founding of ducal laboratories. Their son Francesco I de’ Medici (1541-1587) sought to acquire numerous fragrant materials for his experimental alchemical and distillation work. In one letter, he thanks Bernardo Baroncelli for his gift of a musk gland, even though it turned out to be a forgery (14-Bia, Doc ID#18117). In 1568, he requests that an expert glassmaker be hired and orders twenty pounds of aromatic herbs and storax (15-Bia, Doc ID#25968). In addition to obtaining raw materials, both Cosimo I and Francesco I cultivated plants in their botanical gardens, established within and outside of Florence. They also set up laboratories dedicated to chemistry, distillation, and alchemy. One of these was the Fonderia Reale or Royal Foundry, which was located originally in the Palazzo Vecchio, then relocated into rooms within the Uffizi (Fornaciai, 2007: 53-54). This foundry is depicted in The Alchemist’s Laboratory (Fig. 5) by Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605), which was painted for one of the cabinets within the studiolo of Grand Duke Francesco I de’ Medici, located inside the Palazzo Vecchio. The painting brings to life the bubbling, dripping sounds of distillation in the laboratory as well as its smells of firewood, spirits, herbs, and spices.

Figure 5. Johannes Stradanus, An Alchemist’s Laboratory, oil on slate, 1570. Florence, Palazzo Vecchio.

After Francesco I’s death, the Royal Foundry was continued under the direction of his brother Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici (1549-1609), who sent perfumed products to political entities in various parts of Europe (Fornaciai, 2007: 53-59). The workshop was described in 1600 by Filippo Pigafetta (1533-1604): ‘Here, near [the square], is the room known as the Foundry where expert masters continuously distill scented waters from flowers, and herbs and oils from spices and seasonings, extracting their quintessence, and unction, and making electuaries and restorative sweets, and liquors’. The description continues, noting that Duke Ferdinando I sends these elixirs to ‘Prelates, Ambassadors, and Lords’ (Bencivenni Pelli 1779, vol. 1: 198). By supporting alchemical experimentation and investing in raw materials, Grand Duke Francesco I and Grand Duke Ferdinando I continued the passion for perfume initiated by their parents, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici and the Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, and established the foundations for making scent a signature product of Florence, Italy.
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Medici Archive Documents:
1- Bia, Doc ID# 12991 (ASF, MdP 1175, fol. 151r)
2- Bia, Doc ID# 19418 (ASF, MdP 3261, fol. 18)
3- Bia, Doc ID#13159 (ASF, MdP 1175, 372r)
4- Bia, Doc ID# 12996 (ASF, MdP 1175, fol. 165r)
5- Bia, Doc ID# 4873 (ASF, MdP, 1177, fol. 35r
6- Bia, Doc ID# 3333 (ASF, MdP, 5922b, fol. 17)
7- Bia, Doc ID# 1302 (ASF, MdP 211, fol. 4)
8- Bia, Doc ID# 7841 (ASF, MdP 225, fol. 17; Doc ID# 9834 (ASF, MdP 521a, fol. 773
9- Bia, Doc ID# 7769 (ASF, MdP 1172, fol. 646)
10- Bia, Doc ID# 16822 (ASF, MdP 465, fol. 203)
11- Bia, Doc ID# 25325 (ASF, MdP 643, fol. 21); Doc ID# 23526 (ASF, MdP 643, fol. 22)
12- Bia, Doc ID# 13588 (ASF, MdP 221, fol. 13); Doc ID#6803 (ASF, MdP 410, fol. 235)
13- Bia, Doc ID# 17948 (ASF, MdP 613, ins. 1, fol. 28)
14- Bia, Doc ID#19117 (ASF, MdP 229, fol. 188)
15- Bia, Doc ID#25968 (ASF, MdP 643, fol. 124)