by Antonella Fontana
Aromatherapy specialist and passionate about perfumery history
It is coming. Beautiful, sociable, cheerful, but moody and unpredictable.
Spring, a season of colours, wind and scents: rose, lily of the valley, freesia, magnolia and… violet.
Yes, the very fragrant violet, an image that immediately makes you think of Parma, the renewed Italian capital of culture 2021, and its mythical violet.
A flower with a long history and a strong symbolism, already used in ancient Greece and in the Middle Ages. In the France of Henry IV, violet was grown in royal gardens: powders were obtained from crushed flowers and leaves which, scattered on the body, helped reduce bad odours.
Napoleon was such a great fan, that the flower became the emblem of the Bonaparte family. And it is with him that we return to Parma and to the image of its violet, a variety showing intermediate characters between Viola odorata and Viola suavis, inextricably linked to the name of Marie Louise of Hapsburg, the second wife of Napoleon, who became Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla between 1816 and 1847.
Marie Louise of Hapsburg
A long-standing love between the Grand Duchess and the flower, which can be read in the words she wrote from Schönbrunn Castle to one of her dames of honour, before arriving in Italy:
“Please let me keep some plants of Parma’s violets with written instructions on how to plant them and make them flourish: I hope that they will grow well, as I am going to become a botany scholar, and I will be happy to cultivate this graceful little flower again”.
And so, as soon as she arrived in Parma, Marie Louise began to personally take care of the cultivation, both in the city, inside the specially created botanical garden, and in the garden of her summer residence in Colorno.
That the Grand Duchess loved the flower also as a symbol is attested by some letters on which a painted violet replaces her signature. And she loved the violet colour so much, that she chose it for her cloaks, for the uniforms of her valets and for the clothes of her courtiers.
The “Violetta di Parma”
It was she who created the first perfume based on violets grown in Parma. She strongly encouraged the friars of the Monastery of the Annunciata, supporting them in their research in the herbal field. The distillation from the violet flower and from the leaves of the plant of the essential oils contained therein allowed the herbalist friar to obtain, with a procedure still largely indebted to ancient alchemical practices, a perfume absolutely similar to that of fresh violets, which took the name of “Violetta di Parma”.
The first bottles produced by the friars were intended exclusively for the personal use of the Duchess and the secret of the formula was jealously guarded at the Annunciata for decades, until the day when, in 1870, a city entrepreneur, Lodovico Borsari, managed to have it revealed during a visit to the monastery.
So Borsari began to rework the original formula, obtaining an essence which, in turn, he called “Violetta di Parma” and which met with extraordinary success among the ladies of the city.
Exceptionally attentive to aspects such as design, in particular that of product packaging, Borsari was assisted by internationally renowned artists for the study of the lines of the glass bottles and advertising communication, thus creating a highly refined and unique coordinated image.
The “Borsari & Co.” was destined to become in a short time an absolute reference point of the Italian perfumery art. The products based on violet, the symbolic flower of society and the city, would have long been given an important position in commercial proposals.
Violet in the language of flowers
It is associated with concepts such as shyness, modesty and depth of feelings. In the past, giving a bouquet of violets as a gift meant openly declaring oneself to a person. In the nineteenth century, younger men used to wear a violet in the buttonhole of their jacket to indicate that they were looking for a wife. Over the years another meaning has emerged: those who receive violets as a gift, are asked by the donor to keep them in his thoughts.