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Jasmines in Rome: Part I – Santa Maria Novella Gelsomino

May 4, 2016

I was in Rome for a few days in early April this year. Not having been anywhere without my kids since January 2013, I had to be restrained from running through the streets naked, crying “FREEEEDDDOOOMMM” in my best William Wallace voice.

It was a trip for once not centered on the furtive pursuit of perfume – the sudden sideways lunge into a perfume shop with an urgent, pleading “I’ll just be in here for a minute” being a well-known feature of rare family trips to cities that might conceivably stock a range of perfume that extends beyond Tommy Hilfiger and Beyonce.

I had promised my long-suffering husband that there would be no perfume. That we would be doing nothing for those four days but walking, eating long, uninterrupted lunches, drinking a cup of coffee without having to reheat it, and having real conversations for four days. I was looking forward to it. It was going to be a blast, you know? All that walking. All that conversing.

And yet, and yet…..perfume conspired to find me.

Did you know that the center of Rome smells like horses? And therefore, like jasmine?

Near the Spanish Steps, rows of mangy-looking beasts are lined up, waiting to drag hot and irritated tourists around the city. There they stand, in deep misery, flicking flies off their rumps with their tails and dumping great big piles of shit all over the cobblestones.

Get near them and the air positively throbs with the smell of hot horseflesh, the heavy miasma of sweated-in dander from their mane, and the inky, dark, quasi-indolic smell of their poo. Add to that the smell of worn leather from their harnesses, and you have a swirling, foetid maze of scent that is similar in many ways to the dirtier facets of a good Sambac jasmine.

Apparently, the indoles present in jasmine mimic the molecular structure of the indoles in horse poo and in the scent of their mane and tail (sweat, indoles, dander). Many people find Sarassins by Serge Lutens to share a common note with a horse’s mane, but the more I wear Sarassins, the cleaner and fruiter I find it, especially once the shocking indoles at the start are dispensed with. Its soft, fruity, musky tail is no longer one I’m obsessed with.

Still, I hadn’t expected to find my perfectly horsey jasmine bliss in a bottle in the Farmaceutica Santa Maria Novella.

I had conspired to “wander” casually by the Rome Santa Maria Novella location with my husband (having, of course, plotted my route via Google Maps several months in advance). “Oh look!” I exclaimed, as innocently as I could, “A cute little pharmacy! Let’s see if they have any Compeed.”

The Gelsomino was the one that grabbed me by the throat. I didn’t like it much at first, because it smelled like jasmine essential oils always smell to me – exuberant, fruity, and always (despite the price) slightly coarse or cheap. There were elements of grape jam, melting plastic, fuel fumes, purple bubblegum for kids – a full-throated, smeary Italian jasmine that’s all fur coat and no knickers.

My husband said it smelled like cheap soap, specifically the smell of jasmine soap that someone has used to try and cover up a bad smell in the bathroom.

But I was beginning to be intoxicated by its healthy vulgarity, its I-do-not-give-a-shit insouciance, so I drenched myself even further, giving myself a real whore’s bath right there in front of the slightly shocked Japanese girl whose job it was to carefully remove the bottles I requested to smell from the massive wooden armoire where they were stored.

Let me tell you, this is a perfume that comes into its own when you walk it around a hot city for six or seven hours. It was unseasonably hot in Rome – already 27, 28 degrees Celsius in early April. As the day wore on, I got progressively grimier, and so did Gelsomino. Now it smelled truly dirty, slightly sour, like human skin trapped under the sweaty plastic wristband on a cheap watch, or the scent of the leather strap on your handbag after it’s been rubbing against your bare shoulder bone on a hot summer’s day.

To me, it smelled exactly like those horses near the Spanish Steps did – worn-down, sweaty, sour, truly jasmine-like. A sort of Sarassins in reverse, with all of the fruity, innocent lushness and musky, soapy feel up top, and a sour horsey stink in the tail.

My husband sniffed it towards the end, and shook his head. It smells like hay and horse poo and leather now, doesn’t it, I marveled. No, he said, you are wrong. It smells like stale piss. Please don’t buy that one. Please.

The next day, when I bought it, I consoled my husband by telling him I had bought the smallest bottle possible. “Look,” I said, holding up the teeny tiny bottle for him to see, “Only 8ml.” Oh that’s ok then, said my husband, relieved and kind of proud I had taken his feelings into consideration.

(It was the super-powerful, super-long-lasting Triple Extract).

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  • Kafkaesque May 4, 2016 at 7:14 pm

    I loved this!! Such a marvelous, evocative, and humorous piece. From the olfactory descriptions to the cunning advance use of Google maps, this was a delight to read from beginning to end. And I laughed out loud at the parenthetical dénouement of the tale. Your poor husband, the Triple Strength version…. I’m laughing all over again.

    • Claire May 5, 2016 at 9:50 pm

      Ha ha, thank you, dear Kafka! Funnily enough, he does love the stinkiest and worst “oud” oil that I have, an Ajmal cheapy that smells like the unwashed arse of a sheep crossed with a vat of muscenone. He insisted on wearing it to a formal mother’s day lunch for my mum at a posh hotel recently, so don’t feel too sorry for him 🙂

  • Undina May 6, 2016 at 5:03 am

    What a story! While the description of the scent made me repeat the perfume’s name a couple of times to remember and not try if my carefully planned route will ever take me by this brand’s shop, I enjoyed reading it and laughed at the conclusion.

    Enjoy your 8 ml of Triple Extract 😉

    • Claire May 8, 2016 at 9:57 pm

      You know, it’s weird, because Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest and most traditional apothecaries in the world, and their fragrances are usually quite traditional, clean-cut, even soapy some of them!

  • Lindaloo May 11, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    Very entertaining post. Your various scent descriptions are engrossing. What’s even more entertaining is that Santa Maria Novella describes this as a “sweet, delicate, feminine, single note scent.” 😀

    • Claire May 16, 2016 at 12:56 pm

      Thank you Lindaloo….I dunno….maybe all that horse sweat was actually coming off me and not the perfume? 🙂

  • Lindaloo May 16, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    😀

  • Santa Maria Novella May 19, 2016 at 11:39 pm

    […] But I believe that Gelsomino has a good deal of the real stuff. The cologne version is fresher and greener; the triple extract is darker and jammier – but both dry down to a sourish, animalic base that may surprise you if you’re not expecting it. It’s one of my favorites, as you can see from my review here. […]

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