Over the years, I have built a scent library in my head, where I keep extensive files on all the different smells I have smelled. So when I smell a new perfume, I can usually dip into the shelves of this library and pull out a reference or two that helps me put it into context. Smelling Libertine Neroli by Francesca Bianchi makes me realize that there is a huge gap in the shelves where the classics of masculine perfumery should be. I am able to tell you what Libertine Neroli smells like to me – fresh, dark, bitter musky-woody – but will be rather useless when it comes to placing it in the broader context of masculine classics. Sorry.
I only hope I can do it the justice it deserves, because Libertine Neroli is fantastic. My husband, who wore the sample three or four times (I wore it twice), said it reminded him very much of the old school, masculine grooming products men used in the Balkans back when he was growing up. These were mostly Italian brands of colognes, shaving creams, or talc like Felce Azzura and Pino Silvestre. Old Spice even (yes, yes, not Italian – don’t be pedantic).
But while there is certainly some retro-styling going on here (I knew I was on the right track when, after testing and writing the bones of this review, I finally checked the promo materials and saw photos of 1950s Italy, all Anita Eckberg prancing around in the Trevi Fountain and Marcello Mastroianni living his best, most suave life), Libertine Neroli is determinedly modern.
For every 1950s move this scent makes, therefore, there is a sly, sexy Francesca Bianchi ‘made-in-2022’ move to counterbalance it. The topnotes are classic neroli cologne – fresh, balmy, redolent of the waxy emerald leaves of the orange tree. But immediately under this there is an animalic, leathery thickness that is pure Bianchi. It smells bright and clean, but also murky and therefore a bit sinister. Water clouded with dirt.
And while Libertine is as musky and as soapy as you’d expect a neroli fragrance to be, the bitterness of the ‘fern’ (oakmoss) note has been bulked up in the basenotes by what smells to me like a bit of Ambroxan or some other woody musk. This creates the same drift-in-drift-out effect noticeable in other fragrances with a slightly Ambroxinated drydown, like Jubilation XV (Amouage). What this means is that sometimes you can smell Libertine Neroli on yourself, and sometimes you suspect it is ghosting you. But rest assured that others around you can still smell it. It seems to become part of your pores, so you smell great but not necessarily like you are wearing fragrance.
The oakmoss note in Libertine Neroli is stunning. Inky, woody, and astringent as hell, it has the effect of sucking you into the grey-green shade of an oak tree. Now, don’t hear oakmoss and think of the damp, lush green moss clambering over trees in Northern European forests. This is the scent of desiccation – the melancholic, sun-bleached dryness of Balkan forests by the Adriatic, dotted sparsely with reedy umbrella pines and Holm oaks, bent over sideways and battered by the Sirocco or Bora gales. This makes sense, as much of the world’s oakmoss comes from lichen scraped off Balkan oaks.
The only modern oakmoss fragrance I think Libertine Neroli’s oakmoss reminds me of is New York (Parfums de Nicolai), but that one is far more formal, more French. If this were a Mills and Boon novel, New York would be the stern, slightly stuffy (but absolutely hot) CEO-slash-Daddy, while Libertine Neroli is the sexily louche younger brother who runs off to the Italian Riviera with your heart and half your fortune.
But this is not a Mills and Boon novel. This is Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr. Ripley, the epitome of the type of male beauty that is both charming and arrogant in its unassailability. It is dapper from top to toe and yet is by no means a simple retread of the old school masculine trope. This is 1950s masculine perfumery as seen through a female gaze in 2022, and that is what makes it feel so right for right now.
Interested in oakmoss? Read my essay on oakmoss and a round-up of excellent oakmoss fragrances here.
Source of sample: Sent to me gratis by the brand for review.
Cover Image: Still from the movie The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Jude Law as Dickie Greenleaf (courtesy of The Rakish Gent)