“Perfumes, designer clothes and sex pills were found on Tuesday in an apartment which investigators believe was the last hideout of Sicilian mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro” said the world headlines last week, after the arrest of a notorious ex capo who had been on the run for thirty years and was responsible for some of the most heinous crimes in the history of modern Italy: a boss who once vindictively dissolved a police informant’s twelve year old son in vats of acid so that he would never be able to bury his body, and who once boasted that his victims – allegedly at least 150 – could fill up the local cemetery. After thirty years of evading the authorities (how many of them must have been complicit?) Denaro was finally caught by the carabinieri in broad daylight : in the birthplace, ironically, of cosa nostra itself: Palermo, while visiting a cancer clinic for treatment, under an alias.
He had been right under their noses the entire time.
Other than the sensationalism of the crimes and the ludicrous fact that it took them so long to nail this obviously nasty piece of work who was suspected to still be in town, what struck me most about this story was the fact that his collection of perfumes was what made the headlines (“suspected of perfume”) as though there had been a cache of ak-47s , mountains of heroin and cocaine, or a stockpile of grenades. It is certainly not the most traditionally macho of accolades for a crook (“Police discover secret boudoirs full of vintage Nº5, Houbigant Chantilly, for mafia boss’s personal use”) (“Head honcho caught sniffing Bal A Versailles cologne under the boardwalk, redhanded!”). Perfume very rarely comes up in the news – the most notable exception being of course the deadly Nina Ricci Premier Jour that was smuggled into the UK from Moscow in 2018 which contained the highly toxic and radioactive Russian nerve gas novichok for a politically motivated assassination, tragically killing an unsuspecting woman in Salisbury who was given the perfume by her partner after finding it discarded, wrapped in plastic in a local dustbin; she sprayed the ‘Nina Ricci’ twice on her wrists, rubbed them together, and died a bizarre, slow agonizing death.
The ‘luxury perfumes’ in Denaro’s possession (quite the ironic surname : denaro – ‘money’ in Italian, the very thing he had a lot of and presumably sold his soul for) were mentioned in the news stories not as lethal poison dupes as per the Russian spy case, but as proof of his wealth and extravagance (“He had ……… .. perfumes!“) . Exorbitant watches, fur coats; suits; Ferraris, Lamborghinis, yes – but perfumes? This we don’t usually hear about in any criminal context, nor as inherent valuables in a scandal connected to murder, theft, and grand larceny (demonstrating very clearly just how expensive niche perfumes and special editions really are these days) . By ‘Perfumes were found‘ – presumably we are not just talking about a couple of half-used bottles of Cerruti 1881 and Armani Aqua di Giò left malingering next to a pair of Ray Bans, a whiskey glass – and some mouldering, half-smoked cigar.
Instead, I imagine this man, wracked with disease and perhaps even plagued by conscience, crouching in the candlelit dark beside his rows of niche rare collectibles of the most exclusive kind; full ranges of the most inaccessibly priced concoctions, in their stone and crystal artisanal flacon editions; gorgeous artifice, wondering to himself what he will wear for that day …………mmmm.………….not for a moment predicting (but secretly, deep in his heart, always actually suspecting his inevitable eventual betrayal) : the soon to be stark, perfumeless and incarcerated future. The Catechin monks of Rome and their walled skulled cells in the catacombs hidden underneath the ancient city, the ceilings rife with the carefully placed bones and skeletons of their forefathers – a constant reminder of death; the memento mori as decoration, but here unholy; a witch gnarled and breathing; hovering over its hoary potions of woods; spices; extracts; musk; all in silence, behind closed blinds. I see luxurious art presentation sets of Filippo Sorcinellil; Unum for Il Papa – the illusory olfactory confession of Catholic sanctity with its captured, smokeless purified frankincense and cherubim aldehydes; rows of the finest Xerjoffs, the Meo Fusciumis, Borellis, Orto Parisis: the horological Byzantine overdecoration of all the gilded Tiziana Terenzis. Which one to pick today? Which ornate, Venetian mask of scent to try and coat the inner putrefaction? A spray or two to the wrist; inhale; eyes closed, in sensual grimace……try and counteract the inextinguishable stench of all those sad, corrupt and wasted years of violence and meaningless bloodletting.