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The Smell of Napoleon at War: Scientists Resurrect the Fragrances of Europe’s Past



The picture

“The Evening of the Battle of Waterloo,” by British artist Ernest Crofts, Napoleon left the battlefield after the defeat of his army in 1815. The Oderopa project aims to improve understanding of historical events such as this by recreating the odors that define it.

Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Many paintings and books illustrate the Battle of Waterloo, but what exactly did it smell like when the anxious Napoleon Bonaparte and his army withdrew? An international team of researchers hopes to archive the olfactory experience of this key historical moment as part of a new ambitious initiative to discover key scents of old Europe, from perfumed to rotten, and bring them to modern nostrils.

Odeuropa aims to “show that the critical engagement of our sense of smell and heritage is an important and viable means of connecting and promoting Europe’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage,” said the project, which has just received 2.8 million $ 3.3 million (grant) from a European Union research and innovation organization.

If it’s hard to imagine the smell of defeated Napoleon fleeing on that historic day in 1815, consider the smell of rain-soaked soil and grass mixed with the stinking smell of rotting corpses and earth burned by explosions, as described in the soldiers’ diaries. Mix leather and horses, gunpowder and even the smell of the French emperor himself.

“We know that Napoleon was wearing his favorite perfume that day, which would look like today’s cologne 4711 and which was called ‘aqua mirabilis,'” said Dutch art and fragrance historian Caro Verbeek, a member of the Oderopa team. Her dissertation traces the aromas of the Battle of Waterloo and will serve as the basis for Oderopa’s work to restore it.

Napoleon chose its fragrance to hide the evil stench of battle, Verbeck says, but also to stay healthy because cologne contains compounds believed to help protect people from disease.

Scent historian Caro Verbeck, seen smelling like a pomander, is part of an international multidisciplinary team that brings to life the historical scents of Europe.

Caro Werbeck

“This perfume has been used in almost every war because of many soldiers and for the same reasons,” the researcher added.

Verbeek joins a multidisciplinary team from six countries in areas ranging from sensory, art history and heritage to computer science, digital humanities, language technology, semantics and perfumery. As part of Oderopa, they plan to create an online encyclopedia of historical European scents from the 16th to the early 20th century.

“Smells shape our global experience, but we still have very little sensory information about the past,” says project manager Inger Leimans.

For those obsessed with history, the most exciting growth of the three-year project will probably be the reconstructed scents. The Odeuropa team plans to work with museums, artists and chemists to recreate not only scents, but also as much of the sensory experience that surrounds them. They will then organize olfactory events that take participants on sensory journeys back in time.

“You can really learn by smell,” says Lehmans, a professor of cultural history at VU University in Amsterdam and the Humanities Cluster at the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences.

One of Oderopa’s goals, Lehmanns says, is to give modern Europeans a visceral experience of what their ancestors inhaled during key historical turning points, such as the era of industrialization. “One can learn about coal, mines, the textile industry and proletarianism by reading or watching videos,” says Lehmans, “but imagine what would happen if you were confronted with the public about the olfactory shift between rural and industrial environments.”

Color lithograph by French artist Louis-Leopold Boiley for people exercising the five senses.

© Wellcome Collection

Smells will wash thousands of images and texts, including medical textbooks and magazines found in archives, libraries and museums, using artificial intelligence trained to detect odors and iconography.

“Our work with AI will also inform us about the frequency with which odors have been mentioned in certain historical periods and the feelings associated with them,” said Cecilia Bembibre, a heritage scholar at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage at University College London, who previously helped create a system for identifying and cataloging the smells of old books. These findings will help the team decide which scents have enough cultural value to be included in the project.

Ultimately, Odeuropa researchers will curate and publish fragrance data in an online repository accessible to the public that describes the sensory qualities and histories of different fragrances. The archive will share the history of olfactory practices, explore the relationship between aroma and identity, and explore how societies deal with provocative or dangerous odors.

The hope is that such a resource could help museums and educators enrich society’s knowledge of the past. While a few selected museums include a scent for a more multisensory experience, most rely primarily on visual communication.

If the scents could talk

Anyone who has smelled a fire and was immediately transported to a high school beach or smelled a grandmother’s scarf and was filled with longing knows that smell plays a powerful role in memory and emotions. Then, of course, communicating with the smells of the past can allow us to interact with history in a more emotional, less detached way.

Heritage scholar at University College London Matthias Strlich says one challenge facing Oderopa researchers will be to ensure that they accurately capture not only the chemical compounds that make up a particular fragrance, but also its cultural context.

“We have some understanding of what scents were popular in the past,” he says, “but it’s hard to imagine differences in their perception, even if it’s generally pleasant, today and a hundred years ago, given that our society has come to associate purity with the absence of odor. ”

For an example of an odor with significantly different cultural implications then and now, refer to simple rosemary. When an outbreak of plague ravaged 17th-century London, so many people incorporated the herb into a mixture to purify polluted air, so that its distinctive aroma filled the streets, becoming inextricably linked to disease.

Take another everyday smell, tobacco, which is smoky, sharp and regular with historical and sociological insights.

“It has to do with the history of sociability, trade and colonization, as well as health,” said William Toulette, an odor historian at England’s Ruskin University and a member of the Oderopa team.

The project started against the background of increased global awareness of the power of smell. Evidence has linked odor loss to COVID-19, with patients receiving the virus describing in great detail what it feels like to suddenly find themselves without a sense they once took for granted. The increase in patients with COVID-19 reporting temporary odor loss is so significant that in some countries, such as France, people who experience sudden olfactory loss are diagnosed as COVID-19 without even being tested.

But while Odeuropa’s reach is unprecedented, the project does not mark the first attempt to engage Capes in the name of heritage protection. The Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, recreates 10th-century scents for visitors and even offers scented packaging so that history buffs can bring home the scents of Vikings from candle wax to rotting meat. “You can recreate the atmosphere of a Viking forest, a street vendor or even a septic tank in any space you want – from a classroom to a home toilet,” the organization said.

Some would argue that there are odors, such as those of battle, best left in the annals of history. The Oderopa team believes in inhaling the entire past bouquet, even the rancid parts.

An open book with pages showing text describing Amsterdam in the 18th century as

Amsterdam is described as a “beautiful virgin with a stinky breath” in the notarial archives of 1777. Using artificial intelligence trained to detect odors, the Oderopa team will search historical texts in seven languages ​​for references that help bring back scents to life. .

© Amsterdam Archives


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