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The 17th-century Italian cardinal Federico Borromeo was so impressed with the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder that he once wrote to the artist, stating that he could smell spring itself in the tiny petals and leaves which bloomed from the brush of the Flemish master.

Four hundred years later, those with less of an olfactory imagination can head to the Prado in Madrid to fill their nostrils with the scents that permeate Brueghel’s 1617-18 painting The Sense of Smell.

For its latest exhibition, the museum enlisted the services of curators, researchers – and the perfume house Puig – to recreate the scents of 10 of the many objects that feature in the oil aboard Brueghel.

The work, which is part of a set of pieces on the five senses, shows a beautiful garden where plants and flowers abound, peacocks stroll and guinea pigs picnic. Brueghel provided the flora and fauna while Peter Paul Rubens provided the allegorical figures.

Inspired by its heady visuals, Alejandro Vergara, the head of Flemish painting at the Prado, had an idea last summer.

“I was thinking out loud for a while and had different conversations with friends and colleagues about a year ago and we came up with the idea of ​​focusing on smell and having a perfumer work on the paint, identify what’s in it, and create 10 scents,” Vergara said.

Once the researchers identified the 80 different species of plants and flowers seen in the photo, Gregorio Sola, Puig’s lead perfumer, set about creating some of their scents.

The fruits of his labor can be tasted from the four diffusers installed in room 83 of the Prado, delivering their carefully calibrated fragrances to the touch of a screen. Besides jasmine, rose, nard, fig, orange blossom, daffodil, a bouquet of rose, jasmine and carnation, there is iris and amber-scented gloves.

While Sola chose not to conjure up the smell of guinea pigs, peacocks, or the dog that snuck its way into the image, he recreated the smell of the civet that sits coiled up in his lower right corner. . Puig’s diffusers dispense a warm, stinky whiff of civet, which thankfully fades quickly.

“The civet has a rather harsh and dirty smell, but that’s what you find in all [perfume] recipes of 1500 and 1600,” said the perfumer. “That’s because it was used as a fixative to make sure the scent lasts on the skin.”

Prado creates a palette of smells to make scents of Brueghel’s painting |  Spain
The “pretty harsh and dirty smell” of a civet is among the smells that visitors may experience. Photography: Otero Herranz, Alberto/Museo Nacional del Prado

The fragrance is synthetic – “so no animals were harmed” – while all others are based on the highest quality natural essences, including iris, which is twice as expensive as gold due to the long, slow and complicated extraction process.

According to Vergara, the “strange and innovative exhibition” is intended to introduce visitors to the miniature world of Brueghel and the perfumes of centuries past.

“Brueghel is phenomenal, but a lot of people don’t focus on him and the reason for that is that he paints on a very small scale, which makes it very difficult to walk through a museum,” the curator said.

Prado creates a palette of smells to make scents of Brueghel’s painting |  Spain
Detail of a fig tree. It is hoped that the mixture of sight and smell will fix the painting in people’s minds. Photography: Otero Herranz, Alberto/Museo Nacional del Prado

“And the name Brueghel is also a mess, people don’t know which Brueghel they’re looking at because you have Pieter Brueghel the Elder, his son Jan, and there’s a bunch of other Brueghels – and it’s confusing. “

But, added Vergara, The Sense of Smell is an incredibly beautiful painting done using single-hair brushes and a magnifying glass. He hopes the unusual blend of sight and smell will pique visitors’ interest in all five sensory series.

“I think it’s a very nice visit to a museum – in 45 minutes you look at five beautiful paintings and connect with that idea you never expected: the smell of the past.”

Sola hopes her perfumes will help fix Brueghel’s image in people’s minds as vividly as civet musk fixes a perfume.

“Our olfactory memory is stronger than our visual or auditory memory: the memory of our mother’s perfume, our first kiss, our first car, or the first day of school with the smell of pencils and new paints” , did he declare.

“We all have our own olfactory memory and the idea of ​​this exhibition is that Jan Brueghel’s painting will leave its own memorable olfactory imprint on all of us.”

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