Museum Creates Scents for Brueghel's Sense of Smell

Madrid gallery’s new exhibition is taking the visitor experience to a new level by enabling visitors to inhale fragrances of 10 items depicted in The Sense of Smell.


Painting called Sense of Smell featuring numerous flowers
Photograph: Jose Baztan Lacasa | Museo Nacional del Prado

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 seeking to have their olfactory imaginations boosted can head to the Prado in Madrid to fill their nostrils with the scents that seem to suffuse Brueghel’s 1617-18 painting The Sense of Smell.


Inspired by the painting's intentions, Alejandro Vergara, the Prado’s head of Flemish painting, had an idea last summer. So, he enlisted the services of curators, researchers – and the Puig perfume house – to see if they could recreate the fragrances of the many items that appear in Brueghel’s oil on board.


“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 labour 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.

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