The story goes that Renato was a foundling and raised by Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella, where the brothers taught him how to distill herbs, presumably for medicinal purposes. The work was interesting enough, but he other requirement of the order probably less so, and when the master died (rumors of murder were whispered), Renato was looking for something a little less restrictive, a little more glamorous, than being a mere apothecary.
He got his first big break concocting a bespoke scent for Catherine de’Medici (1519-1589). She was all of fourteen.
She was also decidedly on the way up. Niece of a pope, daughter of phenomenal wealth, in 1533, she left Florence to wed Henri, second son of King Francis I of France (and eventually king himself), and since France at the time was a backward place nowhere near as civilized as Italy, young Catherine was obliged to bring some civilization with her.
She introduced forks to the dinner table, and blunted the tips of dinner knives (safety precaution – dinner parties could get a bit out of hand back in the day). She also brought along chefs to teach the French the rudiments of fine cooking. And not least of all, she brought her perfumier Renato, soon to be known as Renee le Florentin, who had created a bespoke perfume for her that in due course would be called Eau de la Reine. A Celebrity perfume, if you like, and still available, if you like.
Nothing like a royal warrant to boost the carriage trade, and of course all of high society had to have this stuff, or something just as good. It helped that had charm along with that exoticism. Business boomed flourished. It was a smelly age, and hygiene was not all that a twenty first century person might expect. So while a bit of personal stench might be tolerable, but being out of fashion was simply not on. If Catherine said that perfume was the ticket to respectability, perfume would be had, and Renee was the go-to guy.
Then too, besides his reputation as a scent meister, there were other stories, dramatic stories like the one about the secret passageway between his laboratory and Catherine’s private rooms. Then there was that old rumor of homicide.
Was it true? He was Italian, after all. Italy, Land of the Borgias. Anything could be expected of them. Story going around was that Rene, on the instructions of Catherine, had poisoned the gloves that killed Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre and protestant sympathizer.*
Talk like this might have hurt any other man, but Renee managed to turn them into an asset. That frisson of excitement on entering his exotic shop, all jars and alembics and smells and decanters filled with God knew what, and never quite being sure of what to believe on that score, well….
The fact of the matter was, a man with a background like that, with a possibly flexible sense of moral absolutes, perhaps one could come to an understanding….
They were called inheritance powders and would in the next century bring a certain amount of trouble. The method was positively classical in its inspiration. Recall the story of Herakles, Deianeira (Mrs. Herakles) and the wicked centaur Nessus. Nessus had tried to kidnap the unwilling Deianeira and gotten a Herculean arrow in his back as a result. With his dying breath told Deianira that he repented and that by the way, should she ever need it, a bit of his blood in her husband’s shirt would keep her husband’s affections focused solely on her. Just in case these affections should ever wain. Eventually they did, and Deianeira – sweet girl, but a bit dim – was foolish enough or desperate enough to pull out the phial of blood and douse a shirt for her husband. It burned. Worse, he couldn’t get it off. The quick solution was to build a funeral pyre for himself and set it off. He eventually transformed into a constellation, and he and Deianeira can be seen there to this day.
Well. The same basic idea was put into play in Renaissance Europe, the medium being gloves, then wildly popular by custom usually enfused with perfume (the French perfume guild covered gloves as well, maîtres gantiers parfumeurs. They were the stuff of a luxury gifts and when poisoned, the action slower and far less dramatic, but the results no less lethal. It gave Renato a mixed reputation and a lot of customers. Rich, or soon to be rich, well-paying customers.
It would be nice to report that he got what was coming to him, but nothing appears to suggest that he died other than of natural causes. For those interested in his output, he left behind the do it yourself classic, Les cosmétiques: teintures capillaires, poudres et fards, dentifrices, lotions, laits, crêmes et gelées, bandolines, pommades, dépilatoires.
I can tell you now that there’s not an inheritance powder in the mix, so if that’s your interest, don’t even bother.
*The accepted wisdom today is that this is untrue, that it was natural causes.
(By the way, anyone knows of better picture, I would be grateful to hear of it. Or even where the above is today.)