The nineteenth century French novelist Stendhal, upon visiting Florence for the first time, was apparently so overcome with the beauty of the city – of the duomo, the Uffizi, and in particular the ceiling frescoes by Giotto in the Basilica Santa Croce, that it made him ill: faint, dizzy, heart palpitating, this writer of delicate disposition was physically and psychically overwhelmed to the point of neurasthenia.
He was apparently also not alone, as this ‘aesthetic paralysis,’ or sense of the organism being unable to cope with extreme beauty, gave rise to a recognized medical condition: The Stendhal Syndrome, or hyperkulturemia.
I had never heard of this strange phenomenon until I saw a 1997 film with the same title by Italian horror master Dario Argento : a brutally beautiful film whose main protagonist (played by Argento’s own daughter, Asia) is an art student succumbing to the same fate as she ambles through the Uffizi galleries; whose vision becomes blurred and tunnelled in the presence of the Fra Lippo Lippis and the Botticellis before she collapses, hits her head, and is followed home by a cruel and clever German sadist who capitalizes on her amnesia.
I won’t go into the rest of the film – it certainly makes uncomfortable viewing, even if the cinematography and mise en scène are exquisitely beautiful, as is usually the case with Argento: I also won’t begin to make ridiculous claims that a perfume has given me similar reactions: I have never collapsed, wept, or vomited because of the sheer beauty of a scent (what a dreadful scenario that would create if perfumistas were given to such hysteria – imagine Milano Esxence, or Sniffapalooza, the fainted and unconscious being fanned by sobbing perfume lovers undone by the beauty of a rose or a lilac, ambulances on standby; paramedics ready with vials of Paris Hilton as antidotes..)
I will, however, say quite truthfully that I did have a quite extreme reaction to a perfume, Tubéreuse Capricieuse by Histoires De Parfums to be precise, that most definitely, when I smelled it in London last year and was compelled to buy it, did have echoes of this most poetic of afflictions and left me reeling.
A singularly strange and affecting composition, this is a perfume that has not been much written about, and even my own bottle has been hidden in its box behind a mirror for almost a year; a scent I treasure but am almost afraid of: I hardly wear it, because it mesmerizes me too much.
It was last August, and I was in South London to visit yet another friend, after an insanely busy social whirl of seeing this person and that, and I had scheduled things ( a boiling hot, atypical summer’s day ) so that I could spend some time, finally, alone at Rouiller White, a perfume emporium that stocked the Vaniglia del Madagascar by SS Annunziata I was so eager to try. I had just been paid, the ATM actually worked with my Japanese bank card, and I had that bubbling magma feeling of excitement you get when you know you are about to discover some interesting new perfumes and are in the financial position to possibly buy them as well.
When I actually found Rouillier White I didn’t go in immediately, but went past a couple of times for some reason, steeling myself, but then suddenly there I was, exposed to scores of perfumes I had never had the chance to smell, and was basically in heaven. There were several things I was quite interested in, but I had to get the vanilla, and also bought Duncan a bottle of Czech & Speake Cuba, as well as a whole load of the shops’s delightful essential oils, in 50 ml charmingly designed bottles that I knew in terms of Japan prices were a real bargain.
I had spent enough, though, going way over budget, and while the wonderful shop assistants were packaging up my things and putting together a huge load of samples for me, I decided to go and have a beer at a nearby pub, to gather myself and daydream over a pint, and then come back to excitedly grab my loot.
I have never been a coffee-bean type sniffer. I am inexhaustible and can do it pretty much all day as long there is sufficient nasal space there for me to do so, and therefore just before leaving for the pub I decided to smell just a few more, see what the Histoires De Parfums range was like (in a nutshell – extremely high quality I would say), rich, powdery, odd and emotive scents that smell contemporary yet have depth.
But what is this?
Suddenly, all background noise fades, the clamour of all the hundreds of perfumes dissipates, and I find myself zooming down some kind of time tunnel to a library; the poignant smell of caressed paper; of something so pure and emotional it brings tears to my eyes. Literally. I well up from the sheer sentiment and aesthetic pleasure, alone in my space, a Stendhalian reaction of sorts, and take a look at the bottle.
What was this one again?
‘Tuberose’? It doesn’t smell anything like tuberose, at least not to me. And ‘Capricieuse’? It is anything but capricious. I find it grave, austere, and utterly compelling. Like travelling alone back in time through history, to some moment I cannot place, a powerful, and almost hurtful, sense of déjà vu.
I tell the woman in the shop that even though I absolutely can’t afford it, there is no way I can leave the shop without this perfume, as it is both familiar (conjuring up amorphous memories of childhood and university as well; the blissful isolation of solitary book immersion), and really quite unique, in essence a full-bodied Florentine iris/suede, with saffron and tuberose tints that makes it both sensual and rarified; removed, but passionate. Close, and loveable, but also torturously piercing to my emotions for reasons I cannot place.
I go to the pub, and as the alcohol sears through my body, the power this perfume has over me only increases. I sit there in a dream-like state, the sun shining on the pavement outside as passersby go about the day, and I am sat there, my face glued to my arm, inhaling ravenously, unable to stop smelling it.
Yes, I realize quickly, it is all about that iris, a note I always find melancholic in any case, from Après L’Ondée to Hermès Iris to Iris Silver Mist; that dusty, root-laden religiosity; the smell of fresh air over desolate fields, the most royal and noble of essences. And the top note of this perfume, bright and innocently clear, is HEAVENLY to me, a white cloud of carroty iris powder over suede, vague intimations of ylang ylang and tuberose, perhaps (but not the tuberose we are familiar with, not mentholated or pink and naughty, but white-petalled, introverted, dignified….)
Soon, the suede, beautifully done, takes prominence, along with saffron (another note that always sends me slightly doolally),with a light dust of cacao and spice, and that is pretty much what you get, the perfume gradually tapering off on the skin without a great deal of progression or change ( I must admit I was slightly disappointed by the dry down for this reason.)
And yet. The perfume is so strange and hypnotic to me that I don’t mind. I have only worn it out once, but I have to say that it immediately had the same discombobulating effect that it had in the shop and was somewhat disturbing for that reason. I found myself exhilarated to an almost alarming degree, overly fascinated by my smell in a way that bordered on narcissism.
I could never wear this on a day where any concentration was required, where I had to think about anything else at all. Of all the perfumes in my collection, I think it is Tubéreuse Capricieuse that has the power to make me temporarily lose my mind, that holds me in a emotional vortex; a trance.