I admire the Sun King, I suppose, but I don’t like him especially. I feel we would not have got on. It is now exactly 300 years since Louis XIV, the terror of Europe, died in his golden bed at Versailles after a reign of 72 years. Like a queen bee’s cell in a hive, Louis’s bedroom was located at the very centre of the glorious palace which defined and celebrated his grandeur. The Huguenots and European Protestants whom he had persecuted were not slow to draw a moral from the last days of the old tyrant, lying there tormented by the smell of his own decay. Louis’s leg was eaten with gangrene: no surgeon would risk an amputation without anaesthetic which would have killed him anyway from shock. Instead the royal doctors applied milk poultices and leeches, sprinkled vinegar and burned scented candles and pastilles to sweeten the room. It was late summer and as all the windows were closed against the dangerous fresh air the smell was appalling. Maybe as Louis lay there he thought of his mother Anne of Austria who had been vivisected on her own death bed with astringent oil of limes poured into her open wounds. This was the man famous for his aphorism “J’ai failli attendre”¤. But the Destroying Angel took his time. It was a cruel end for a man who had always been avid for unique and piquant olfactory sensations and, as his enemies were quick to point out, as he sowed so did he reap.
For Louis’s long life had seen vast sums of money spent on the importation and cultivation of exotic flowers such as tulips, jonquils and tuberose all of which novelties reached astonishing heights of popularity with prices to match. Pineapples, dahlias, tomatoes, tobacco, coffee, chocolate and vanilla were all recent novelties from the Americas and Asia. Naturally le grand Monarque had to have the most and the best. Gardenias, wisteria, camellias and laburnum later added to the plethora of new colours, tastes and scents.
This was the era when modern gardening and the scientific classification of plants began. At Versailles, which set the tone for every royal Court around the world, the terraces were stocked with such a profusion of heavily scented flowers – especially the King’s favourite orange blossom, planted out in solid silver tubs – that visitors passed out, overcome by the overpowering scent. Flowers began to be brought indoors as part of the decor, so that the new art of flower arranging became a pastime for ladies of leisure. (Remember Florence Nightingale’s mother and sister a century later, begging one another not to exhaust themselves at the vases?).
The Sun King, like our own King James 1 (and V1)¤¤ and the Emperor Napoleon, was dabbed and rubbed with various herbal rinses in preference to risky bathing: there seems to have been not much in the way of luxury soap. Water, like root vegetables, tended to be associated with the poor. As a young man Louis was said to have the most beautiful pair of legs in France, which he loved to display on horseback and on the dance floor. Like his cousin, King Charles II, he had a profusion of thick long dark curls, a circumstance which helped to set the fashion for universal male wigs for over a century. Every man wanted to look like a king. As he aged, however, Louis’s mouth and teeth wore badly (not to mention other parts of him): primitive dentistry wreaked such havoc that, as he ate, most of his dinner came back down his nose. Can you wonder that his second wife asked the Pope if it would be ethical to cease marital relations? His Holiness said no. Still, the Royal linen smelled good, being laundered in a rinse of aloes, musk, orange water and jasmine oil. Then Paris in the 1680’s was rocked by the Affair of the Poisons. This scandal in high society led to the arrest and execution of dozens of unsavoury characters who not only distilled perfume and beauty preparations but also traded in poison, abortion, murder and (reputedly) black magic. Several prominent aristocrats were ruined by association, most sensationally the notoriously musky Mme de Montespan, Louis XIV’s intoxicating mistress and mother of several of his children. Maybe the enormous success of Farina’s prototype eau de Cologne smelling of sunshine and flowers and launched at the turn of the eighteenth century owed something to its symbolic sweeping away of such horrors. The Montespan’s successor in the royal affections was very much an eau de Cologne woman: Louis’s morganatic wife Mme de Maintenon was neat, pious and interested in the education of children from grand but underprivileged backgrounds.
Farina’s masterpiece aside, the choice of perfumes remained limited. For both men and women musk and ambergris were still the most popular scents, used to scent rooms, furniture and even food. These animal derivatives and residues would be dissolved in wine or mixed into chocolate, cream, soups and scrambled eggs prior to ingestion. Consequently fumes of ambergris streamed from the pores to surround the eater with a richly feral aura, while the newly fashionable hand-made wallpapers might be impregnated with musk. The purpose of perfume was not only aphrodisiac but also medicinal, it being then believed that what smelled good would do you good, inside and out. More immediately, heavy fragrances were essential to disguise the odours of insufficiently washed bodies, bad teeth, hair and wigs stuck with bear grease; and luxurious fabrics which could never be washed, only brushed and sprayed.
The use of perfume in the grand Siecle as a camouflage for bad smells, and scent’s association with immorality and loose living, reinforced an already dubious reputation which did not even begin to dissipate until the twentieth century. Indeed a intriguingly ambiguous aura lingers faintly even today…and thank goodness for that!”
¤ “I nearly had to wait”
¤ ¤ James’s hands were very soft and the colour of black sarcenet. He immersed his feet in the smoking guts of freshly slaughtered deer to ease his gout.