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The scent of Napoleon at war: Scientists revive the scents of Europe’s past

The painting

“On the Evening of the Battle of Waterloo” by the British painter Ernest Crofts shows Napoleon leaving the battlefield after his army’s defeat in 1815. The Odeuropa project aims to improve the understanding of historical events like this by recreating the scents that defined it.

Universal History Archive / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Many paintings and books have illustrated the Battle of Waterloo, but what exactly did it smell like an anxious Napoleon Bonaparte and his army retreating? An international team of researchers hopes to archive the olfactory experience of the crucial historical moment as part of an ambitious new initiative to discover key scents from ancient Europe, from the perfumed to the rotten, and bring them to today’s nostrils.

Odeurope’s goal is “to show that critical involvement of our sense of smell and fragrance is an important and viable means of connecting and promoting Europe’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage,” according to a description of the project, which just received 2.8 million euros ($ 3.3 million) grants from a research and innovation arm in the European Union.

If it’s hard to imagine the smell of a defeated Napoleon fleeing on the historic day of 1815, think of the scent of rain-soaked earth and grass mixed with the fat smell of rotting corpses and earth burnt 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 wore his favorite perfume on the day that would resemble the current 4711 eau de cologne, which was called ‘aqua mirabilis’,” says Dutch art and fragrance historian Caro Verbeek, an Odeuropa team member. Her dissertation traces the scents of the Battle of Waterloo and will serve as the foundation for Odeurope’s work to reconstruct it.

Napoleon chose his fragrance to mask the vicious stench of the battle, Verbeek says, but also to stay healthy, as Cologne contained compounds believed at the time to help protect people from disease.

The scent historian Caro Verbeek, seen smelling a pomander, is part of an international interdisciplinary team that brings Europe’s historical scents back to life.

Caro Verbeek

“This perfume was used in almost every war since by many soldiers and for the same reasons,” the researcher adds.

Verbeek joins an interdisciplinary team from six countries in areas from sensory, art and cultural history to computer science, digital humanities, language technology, semantics and perfume. As part of Odeuropa, they plan to produce an online encyclopedia with historical European smells from the 16th to the early 20th century.

“Smell shapes our experience of the world, yet we have very little sensory information about the past,” says project leader Inger Leemans.

For the historian, the most exciting outgrowth of the three-year project will likely be the reconstructed scents. The Odeuropa team plans to work with museums, artists and chemists to recreate not only aromas, but as much of the sensory experience that surrounded them as possible. They will then curate olfactory events that take participants on sensory tours back in time.

“You can really learn by smelling,” says Leemans, professor of cultural history at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Cluster.

One goal of Eastern Europe, Leemans says, is to give contemporary Europeans a visceral experience of what their ancestors inhaled during important historical turning points such as the industrialization era. “One can learn about coal, mines, textile industries, and proletarianization by reading or watching clips,” says Leemans, “but imagine what would happen if you confronted the public with the olfactory shift between a rural and an industrial environment.”

A colored lithograph by the French artist Louis-Léopold Boilly of people exercising the five senses.

© Wellcome Collection

The odor scents will search thousands of images and texts, including medical textbooks and magazines found in archives, libraries and museums, using AI trained to spot scent references and iconography.

“Our work on AI will also inform us about how often odors were mentioned in certain historical periods and the emotions associated with them,” said Cecilia Bembibre, a cultural heritage researcher at University College London’s Institute for Sustainable Cultural Heritage, who has previously helped create a system to identify and catalog the smell of old books. These findings help the team decide which scents have enough cultural value to be included in the project.

The Odeuropa researchers will eventually cure and publish the fragrance data in an online archive, available to the public, describing the sensory qualities and stories of different fragrances. The archive will share the history of olfactory practice, examine the relationship between fragrance and identity, and explore how communities tackled challenging or dangerous odors.

The hope is that such a resource can help museums and educators enrich the public’s knowledge of the past. While a select few museums have included odors for a more multisensory experience, they are most dependent on visual communication.

If scents could speak

Anyone who has smelled a fire and was immediately transported to a high school party or sniffed a grandmother’s scarf and been filled with longing knows that smell plays a strong role in memory and emotion. It therefore makes sense that engaging with the smells of the past can allow us to interact with history in a more emotionally charged, less detached way.

University College London geneticist Matija Strlič says that a challenge for Odeuropa researchers will be to ensure that they accurately capture not only the chemical compounds that make up a particular aroma, but its cultural context.

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

For an example of an odor with very different cultural implications then and now, look at simple rosemary. When a plague broke out in the 17th century in London, so many people included the herb in a mixture to purify the infected air that its distinctive aroma filled the streets and became inextricably linked to disease.

Take another everyday smell, tobacco that is smoky, sharp and red with historical and sociological insight.

“It’s related to stories of sociability, trade and colonization and also health,” says William Tullet, an odor historian from England’s Anglia Ruskin University and a member of the Odeuropa team.

The project is launched in the midst of an increased global awareness of the power of smell. Evidence links an odor loss to COVID-19, where patients who have contracted the virus describe in great detail how it feels to suddenly find themselves without a sensation that they once took for granted. The increase in COVID-19 patients reporting a temporary loss of odor 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 Odeurope’s scope is unprecedented, the project does not mark the first attempt to engage noses in the name of protecting heritage. Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, recreates 10th-century scents for visitors and even offers aroma packages so history buffs can bring Viking scents home from stearin to rotting meat. “You can recreate the atmosphere of a Viking forest, street vendor or even a cesspit in the space you want – from a classroom to a home market,” the organization says.

Some would argue that there are odors that the struggle, best left to the annals of history. The Odeuropa team believes in inhaling the entire vanished bouquet, even the rancid parts.

An open book of pages showing text describing 18th-century Amsterdam as one

Amsterdam is described as a “beautiful virgin with a stinking breath” in notary archives from 1777. Using AI trained to spot scent references, the Odeuropa team will search historical texts in seven languages ​​in search of reviews that help to bring to life the scents of the past. .

© Amsterdam archive

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