Culture: 224 posts

Art, travel, books, history

“I’m Dying of Love for You” : The Letters of Isabella von Parma

I returned from my recent trip to Vienna bring back not only an obsession with Johann Georg Pinsel, but also with Isabella von Parma (1741-1763), who lived at the same time as the mysterious 18th century sculptor. Isabella was one of the most remarkable personalities of the 18th century, admired for her achievements in art, music, and philosophy. The reason I became fascinated with her, however, was an excerpt from a letter she wrote to her sister-in-law, Marie Christine of Austria. “I am told that the day begins with God. I, however, begin the day by thinking of the object of my love, for I think of her incessantly.”

I am once again struck by the narrow lenses through which we see women in history. In many books Isabella is repeatedly described as “mad,” “tragic,” or “odd.” People search for the roots of her melancholy moods in the family tree and discuss at length the mental problems of her father and her mother’s cold attitude. What about the fact that princesses in the 18th century were little more than breeding mares, and Isabella had half a dozen miscarriages during her short marriage to Joseph II of Austria? The couple was under enormous pressure to produce a male offspring to the Hapsburgs.

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Martenitsa for Beautiful Spring

It’s been years since anyone has given me a martenitsa, but when a Bulgarian neighbor handed me two tassels made out of red and white wool, I recognized what they were instantly. Martenitsa is an ancient Bulgarian tradition observed on the 1st of March as a way to welcome spring and good fortune. It is a kind of amulet that you wear on your clothes or tied to your wrist until you see a blossoming fruit tree or a stork for the first time in the spring. Then you tie it to a flowering tree, a custom I find charming.

You shouldn’t get a martenitsa for yourself–they’re meant to be given and received as gifts, with a wish of “Chestita Baba Marta!” (Happy Grandma Marta!) Baba Marta is a folk character with a mood as volatile as that of early spring, and the red and white colors are supposed to placate her. So here is my martenitsa to you. I wish you happiness, health and a beautiful spring.

I’m making March 1st, our wintery weather notwithstanding, with Balmain Vent Vert. It’s truly the essence of spring. What is your perfume today? 

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

In The Rose Capital of Iran

“The ancient Iranian city of Kashan is sometimes eclipsed by its more famous neighbour, Isfahan, but as I wander around Bagh-e Fin – a vast garden turned into an architectural jewel by the 16th-century Shah Abbas I – I fall under a spell that only Kashan could conjure, with its sandy beige Agha Bozorg mosque, winding streets and remarkable rose plantations. Indeed, roses are the main reason for my trip.” The rose capital of Iran, Kashan, inspired the latest article for my FT column, Radiant Rose Perfumes.

I visited Kashan during the off season for flowers, but nevertheless I had a chance to meet rose distillers and sample perfumes and fragrant waters. The aroma is sweeter, fruitier and warmer than that of Bulgarian or Turkish essences with which I usually work. I’m not the only one who found Iranian rose essence extraordinary, and I discovered that Émilie Coppermann and Francis Kurkdjian were among the perfumers who were fascinated by this material.

In my article, I describe the roses of Kashan and fragrances that remind me of my visit. To read the full piece, please click here.

If you were to do a scent trip anywhere in the world, which places would you have liked to visit? (Let’s dream and pretend that neither time, money nor visas are an issue in our trip planning.)

Photography via FT, a rose distillery in Kashan

Indian Vignettes : Henna

Hands painted with henna smell of leather, wilted jasmine and dried lemon peel. A strange but evocative scent. The moment I catch a whiff of it, I think of Indian weddings, including my own. I know only two perfumes with a henna note, The People of the Labyrinths A.Maze and Parfum d’Empire Azemour les Orangers, in which henna plays up their soft leather accords.

Have you ever had your hands painted with henna? If you know of other perfumes with henna notes, please let me know.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

The Passion of Johann Georg Pinsel

It’s not often that a sculptor causes me to crisscross Europe in search of his traces. But Johann Georg Pinsel did just that. I took rickety marshrutka buses to distant Ukrainian villages to see his work at local churches. I visited many a palace where fragments of his sculptures were displayed–a wing of an angel, a headless saint, a saint motioning one to come closer and listen to the revelation. Finally, I made it to Lviv, a western Ukrainian city, and later to Vienna, the center that once exerted considerable political power over Lviv. These journeys spanned almost a year, intertwined as they were around other trips and exploration, but somehow, Pinsel, a mysterious 18th century master, was the leitmotif.

Very little is known about Pinsel. His name was only established with certainty in the 1990s. Where was he born? With whom he did study? The area where he chose to work was the Lviv region, at the time a part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and after the first Partition of Poland in 1772, a part of the Habsburg Empire. After Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, these territories once again exchanged hands and ended up in the Soviet Union. This bloody and brutal history had consequences for the master who has been dead for almost two centuries–he was forgotten.

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