‘To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle’
(From ‘Miracles’ by Walt Whitman)
In Naples, urs sanguinium, the City of Blood, three times a year, a strange holy ritual occurs. Two sealed vials, one large, one small, of dried blood belonging to the martyred Saint Januarius or San Gennaro as he is known to the Neapolitans are taken out of locked down security and presented to the gathered faithful in Naples Cathedral. Thousands assemble to witness the miracle of the liquefaction, San Gennaro’s desiccated blood slowly returning to life within the sealed crystal reliquaries.
|The blood of San Gennaro|
According to various unsubstantiated hagiographies (Actual detail is very thin on the holy ground…), San Gennaro was probably beheaded under the orders of Emperor Diocletian in the 430s during the Great Persecution for sheltering and protecting Christians. His body and head were separated for centuries and finally unified in 1497 at the instigation of Cardinal Oliviero Carafa, when his remains laid to rest in an ornate High Renaissance style crypt called the Succorpo beneath the cathedral.
The first documented accounts of the Liquefazione ritual start in 1389 and since then thrice yearly, the city of Naples glleefully celebrates this powerful mix of religious and supernatural yearning. The saintly blood has been hermetically sealed in two vials of differing sealed behind two thicknesses of glass inside a silver reliquary since the 17th century. This in turn is zealously guarded under lock and key by city officials in a bank vault. On September 19th, St. Januarius Day, the day of his Martyrdom, December 16th, recognising his patronage of Naples and the Saturday before the first Sunday in May, his blood and osseous relics are brought together at Naples Cathedral and the city waits deliriously to see if the holy cruor will liquefy and bless the people of Napoli.
It is a bizarre and compulsive liturgy, soaked in all the pomp and hysteria of Catholic sanguineous rites but also on a deeper level, a pagan ancient one, associating blood sacrifices to the gods to heal scarification and wounds and bring prosperity and luck to a tumultuous, sacred and profane city. Naples bears the dark wounds of organised crime and urban poverty, political corruption, the fires of history lit and stoked by the infamous Camorra. Yet historically it is rich in continuous fertile history from the bronze age, flourishing in the Roman era right through to modern times; as a centre of heavy industry Naples was dreadfully bombed during the second world, in fact it was the most bombed Italian city, the Allies repeatedly bombarded the port facilities. Between 1940 and 1944 approximately 200 air strikes were carried out on Naples, added to 180 city raids it is estimated between 20-25,000 civilians were killed by Allied attacks.
|Vesuvio from above & side..|
bloodstained by TSF
Ever present too is Vesuvius, Monte Vesuvio, a somma-stratovolcano on the Gulf of Naples, only 9km from the city. It is the only volcano on the European continent to have erupted within the last one hundred years. Everyone knows the story of story of Pompeii and Herculaneum buried under tons of pumice and ash in AD 79, preserving the cities and inhabitants in an eerie suspended frozen horror. In many cases final moments were captured in contorted body forms as the pyroclastic flow overwhelmed them.
Experts estimate the thermal energy released from the eruption was a hundred thousand times the force unleashed by the allied bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Currently about three million people live within dying radius of Vesuvius. The last major eruption was during the war in 1944, killing 26 and displacing 12,000. The volcano is a strange and magnetic presence, rumbling, dormant menace but also a huge tourist attraction, beautiful ancient monster whose ash has nourished centuries of agriculture.
This heady historical brew of religious fervour, repeated rituals, a city obsessed with protection and fear of disaster living in the rumbling shadow of bubbling lava and memories of ash-filled skies has created a culture of superstition, portent, prayer and miracles. I have been a passionate devotee of the perfumed signs and wonders of Menditterosa Odori D’Anima since I was sent samples and fell in love with the poetic patchouli Le Mat and the beguiling sea-dream leather Sogno Reale. I have been wearing the extraits obsessively and have reviewed them over time; they seem to inspire wonderful words and abstracted images from me as an essayist. Stefania Squeglia is the quixotic force of nature behind the line, creating the imaginative drive and concepts for her perfumers, to date using Amélie Bourgeois and Anne Sophie-Behaghel at Flair in Paris. Although this fragrance family will be expanding in 2017.
|Nettuno by Talismans|
Nettuno, signed off by Amélie Bourgeois appeared last year and astounded me; a strange galactic frozen rose spinning in its own dusted gasping beauty. Metallic blue, travelling with its own sweet aqueous supply it seemed to drift enigmatically in a unique and intriguing environment. The iris note feels like bruised cinema and the blending of musks, resins, carrot seed and singular addition of blue ginger feel like interplanetary weather. There is something immensely compelling about the Menditterosa line, there are intrinsically linked to Stefania and her lavish artisan soul. She is very generous; collaborating with other artists, painters, sculptors, models for the bottles, campaigns and boxes, She used dancers at Esxence last year and is very loyal to her family of colleagues for helping pull the beauty of Menditterosa together.
Naples is the motherlode for Stefania, the source of her inspiration, an atmospheric city of angels and demons saints, treasures and shadows. She is Neapolitan-born and after moving to France for a short while, moved back to live in Naples just over a year ago. She took the decision at the end of 2016 to split the Menditterosa line, a resolution I think is an excellent one. I love bready, moreish South and bleak, volcanic Id from the line but I always felt the more avant-garde jewels of the line Le Mat, Sogno Reale and Nettuno should either be contained within their own descriptive category in the line or have their own dazzling life outside Menditterosa.
There is a certain risk in splitting an already established line, however Stefania has thought this through quite carefully, allowing Menditterosa to continue to grow organically by adding two very exciting launches this spring, Rituale by house favourite Amélie Bourgeois and Architepo signed off by Italian wunderkind Luca Maffei. This contrasting and revelatory duo (I’m not doing big reveals here…more on them to come perhaps in a separate piece) will join Alfa, Omega, North, South and Id. This collection is Stefania’s celebration of spirit and artistic freedom, scents that focus on matters of heart and soul, belonging, identity, love, yearning and completion of self.
Le Mat, Sogno Reale and Nettuno will move into a new and enigmatically assembled house of mystery and olfactive rapture, where the perfumes are divined as precious charms, juju and protective prayers. Talismans to wear and ward off Malocchio, the evil eye, dispel malaise and guard against uncertainty and misfortune. Talismans Collezione Preziosa will be a more arcane stylised line embroidered with symbols and ambiguity, each of the fragrances echoing Stefania’s preoccupations with spirituality, tarot, cosmology, rituals, art, craft and her beloved intractable Naples.
There is a separate more pared down identity for Talismans, it feels stark and more esoteric, in keeping with the powerful forces Stefania would like to suggest are at play in the manifestation of these complex and alluring scents. They will also have their own voices. If you take a look at the Facebook page for Talismans there is no mention of Stefania, this I feel is intentional, a desire to stand in the shadows, quietly orchestrating the aromatic magic and cryptic beauty of her new line.
We all need talismans, whether we realise it or not. The fundamental definition is of an object imbued with special powers or magical properties that will protect the wearer from harm, albeit spells, mischance or old-fashioned bad luck. The etymological origin of the word can be traced to the Arabic word tilsam, apparently from an alteration of the Greek telesma, itself referring to the Ancient Greek verb telein, which means to initiate into the mysteries, complete, perform a rite, from telos meaning result, end.
Talisman, juju, fetish, amulet, charm, totem and periapt. Things imbued with power and promise of safety. This new brand concept will present the extrait strength perfumes as powerful olfactive invocations, Prayer as perfume, Perfume as prayer as it says on a teaser image on the Talismans Facebook page. I have to disclose here that I am proud and honoured to have been asked to help create copy for the launch of the Talismans line and OSANG, but this in no way influenced my opinions when it came to write reviews. If I hadn’t liked OSANG, I would have politely declined from reviewing it. Thankfully that wasn’t the case. Stefania kindly sent me a preview sample in a black dropper bottle with the word OSANG painted on the side in white marker. Somehow it seemed intrinsically appropriate, artistic even. Black glass, obscuring and protecting the precious juice. A hand-written note accompanied the vial with blood-red sealing wax embossed with a bespoke OSANG stamp. A beautiful hint of things to come.
I reviewed Nettuno last year in July, Sogno Reale in December 2015 and reviewed Le Mat for Cafleurebon EiC Michelyn Camen in July last year. This is a collection of fragrances I admire deeply; having an opportunity to add my words to their dynamic world was a wonderful thing.
The OSANG flacon is quite a departure from previous Menditterosa bottles, not so much the glass container itself but the dramatic white Capodimonte porcelain hooded cap in the silhouetted shape of an abstracted bust of San Gennaro. These have been created specifically for Stefania by a Neapolitan based artisan porcelain company called Nada for Nada run by sisters Dafne and Ivana. Each purchased edition of OSANG will come with its own certificate of authenticity. Earlier I mentioned crimson red wax, well the bottles have this dripped on the front to represent the blood of the liquefaction miracle but also I think to echo the blood spilt on Neapolitan streets across the centuries and the human heart, fragile yet vibrantly alive.
image ©Ramy Leon Lorenco
The boxes are new too. No more mini art transportation crates, which while inventive and unique to Stefania’s fragrances were beginning to look a little too crafted I think and I know a few small retailers found the bulk of them tricky to display and promote. I’m very fond of them though; taking the beautifully made bottles out of their snug little crates gives me great pleasure. However the new packaging is undeniably luxurious and perfectly in keeping for the Talismans perfumes as the line moves ambitiously forward and marks out a separate identity for itself.
|Talismans Le Mat|
Before I tell you about the exciting new Talismans perfume I want to place the existing trio in talismanic context, showing you how they stand in this new superstitious and spiritual universe of protection and supplication. Le Mat is a moody patchouli scent with echoes of vintage Caron for those that have that association; in my Cafleurebon review, I said:
‘Le Mat is a thrilling creature, deceptively balsamic, warm and sensual. It begins aloof, suspended even. The you can sense the immortelle powering up, igniting like bushfire beneath a lush rose and roasted patchouli.’
It is inspired by the Le Mat, the French name for The Fool, Il Matto in Italian decks, the Journeyman, one of the classic cards of the tarot arcana, deriving its talismanic strength from the turning of these unpredictable and cabalistic cards. Neapolitans are very superstitious and love the idea of living by fate and fortune, numerology, the lotto, cosmology, signs and symbology. Le Mat is a rich and heady brew of spices, roses and implied sweet earthen metaphor; traveling into the unknown, taking chances, embracing the uncharted.
|Talisman's Sogno Reale|
Sogno Reale astounded me the first time I smelled it, I have never forgotten that moment; inhaling that super-strange recipe of lemon, submerged briny leather, sacrificial smoke and hyraceum. Utter madness, a scent dreamed up in the floating dream void, sea urchins wearing crowns of tuberose and volcanic fumes. Its talismanic gift is drawn from the swirling subconscious and veiled world of waking reverie where everything is imbued with trembling portent. Each time I wear it feels as special as the first time.
Nettuno was the scent I think that set Stefania thinking about Talismans and splitting the line, as soon as it started being teased; the indigo stardust campaign with gorgeously flinted and facetted Trésor Prijs, the connection with Marco Pesatori’s poem The Flight of Neptune, everything seemed weightier, more layered and elaborate. The talismanic theme for Nettuno is Stefania’s beloved cosmology, using birthdates and planetary alignments etc to create personality maps and hints at futures. The planets have held sway over millennia for many cultures and faiths, symbolising diverse traits, moods and bodies, ruling over institutions, destinies and a yearning distant sense of barely settled fate.
|Stefania Squeglia |
Image manipulated by TSF
In my Nettuno review last year I wrote:
‘…Stefania …is a deliberate woman, searching for reason in an increasingly sterile, controlled world. As our lives become more and more impersonal, we need more than ever things around us of difference and vitality, essences of desire and interference. For her these three Talismans are just that, scented charms, odiferous juju, weapons and runes to ward off miasma and malevolence. The complexity of the trio is undeniable in comparison to the rest of the line that while intriguing and elementally essential, they are in many ways, observers and acolytes at the talismanic court. The binding and cascades in the trio are unavoidably erotic too; this becomes beautifully apparent as soon as juice meets skin, then brain and senses’.
I was very aware then of the burgeoning relevance this triptych of Le Mat, Sogno Reale and Nettuno had for Stefania and la famiglia Menditterosa. I wondered how she might further explore the artistic potential and powerful talismanic symbolism of her olfactory creatures. Talismans Collezione Preziosa made perfect sense as soon as Stefania told me her plans for the two lines and I understood her desire to take a much more ghosted role. It is very evidently a collection driven by the fertile imagination of Stefania Squeglia, but she believes intensely and truthfully in the voltage and psyche of her olfactive work. This may sound a little like perfume mumbo-jumbo but she is a rarity in the fragrance world in that she is a genuine reflection of her line. Despite not actually creating them, her involvement in the process, the artistic conversation between her and the perfumer is vibrantly dynamic and productive.
If you have been following the mysterious teaser shots on the newly formed Talismans Facebook page and hints dropped in Instagram; papal-influenced flacons, sealing wax like dried blood, images of religious processions, banners, fervour and ecstasy, it was deliciously obvious something extraordinary was coming. OSANG will be the fourth Talisman, officially launching at Esxence in March alongside Rituale and Architepo, the two new members of the Menditterosa Odori d’Anima clan.
OSANG is some ways marks Stefania’s homecoming to Naples after a brief sojourn in France but it feels like something seismic and disturbing. This is a homecoming of cinder and darkness, revelation and wonder. OSANG is inspired by that delirious ritual of sanguineous liquefaction I discussed earlier, the remarkable spectacle of San Gennaro’s holy blood transforming magically from inertia to bubbling miracle of love. It is eclipse, shadow and mystery, a perfume inculcated with volcanic dreams and tears of blood. It feels augural and deftly thrilling as it fumes and unfurls on skin. I was expecting drama and a sense of Catholic violence but not the hooded concealment amid the rituals and church-bound wordage.
Everything about OSANG is about the talismanic power of metamorphosis, the shock of ritual witness and dizzying crowd psychology. More than ever before Stefania is underlining a commitment to her central tenet of perfume as prayer, prayer as perfume. This mantra elucidates her unique approach to scent, focussing on mind, body and soul. It may sound esoteric but she moulds it into her working processes and relationships. Through carefully wrought artistic collaborations she passes this passion onto to the faithful buying into the world of Talismans and also Menditterosa.
OSANG will shock a lot of people and utterly delight many more. For others it will be a perfume of obsession and morbid desire. I already feel an almost unhealthy attachment to its garnet glint and claustrophobic urgency. Stefania is keeping the creator secret, only listing the nose as Napoli and Its Huge Hope, which speaks volumes I think about the swell of emotion and commitment she has to her native city. There are large themes at turbulent play in OSANG, pagan totem worship, surging religiosity, protection, miracles, supplication, spirit and a sense of uncertainly made odiferous and wonderful.
A miracle of love
The design is potent and complex, a mosaic of viscid, pyrotechnic notes mixed with pungent seasoning and a surreal landscape of solar-blazed meadow blooms and raw honey. Key to the composition is a massive IFF fenugreek absolute that smells like ash cloud and lustrous hunger. It has that spiked ravening thing, an odour that despite its initial flinching assault still makes the senses run with want and a gourmet sense of salivation. The alchemy of OSANG is colliding elements like this high impact fenugreek with dry roasted Sichuan pepper and creamy nutmeg against the sweet molten honey, vanillic sinuous styrax and drift of iris.
|the faithful await the miracle..|
It is hard to ignore the powerful ecclesiastical imagery and emotional romance associated with San Gennaro and craven thrice-annual resurrection. It is a remarkable mix of sacred and profane, voices called to him for love, blessing and guidance, praying the blood will move and come to life, the gathered crowds chanting his name, the myriad private prayers, the faithful walking to the rail to be blessed by the holy relic watched over by the skull of the saint himself, encased in decorative silver like a divine bauble. The blood itself rarely stays inert and all is well with the world; the transformation can take anywhere from an hour to forty eight hours with experts, naysayers, fanatics etc all chipping in to claim that ambient temperatures, seasonal weather variations, laser usage, warm priestly hands, hypnosis, good old-fashioned prestidigitation and sleight of hand can explain the magic behind what is undeniably a powerful and important ritual in the Neapolitan religious calendar. It is more than that though, it symbolises the tremulous hopes and fears of a tempestuous, theatrical city rising and falling, living and dying, bleeding as if stabbed through a troubled yet loving heart. Transformation and transubstantiation have the talismanic gift of salvage.
|the blood.. the skull..|
OSANG transforms dramatically on skin after that initial confrontational and fascinating fenugreek overture. The quality of this note is exceptional and allows everything else to blend seamlessly into position. The central motif for me in this weird offering is a one of pyres and fumes scattered skyward, scorched oozing resins, balms, cistus and glowering funereal myrrh. Occasionally, drops of raw meadow blossom honey are poured from on high to spatter and caramelise, pieces of waxen comb and bee wing caught in blue and orange flame.
As the San Gennaro spectacle is about miracle and light from darkness, as OSANG is about the unfurling of soft illumination amid the penumbra turmoil of bloodfire weather. Each wearing provides alternatives readings, much like walking the same route in different seasons, hues, sun, moon, temperatures and rotations of the earth eliciting different responses. OSANG on the skin is a queer, private thing; it feels like something Stefania has made for each one of us alone, a hex and incantation to keep us safe and remind us we are alive. The evaporation curve is scattered with a deeply resinous pull of balms and resins all smoked in nutty, sooty pyrazines. It would have been easy to let these overshadow the formula like a pyroclastic flow, but that isn’t the case here; the pollen-tinted drip of honey and broom-like whiff of meadow flowers add pinpoints of helical flare to this celebration of sanguineous restoration.
I find an unsettling animal thing in it as well, just on the right side of zoological pungency; I am becoming increasingly intolerant of animal excess in scent. Show off levels of hide bound simulacrum and faecal dare are becoming tedious and commonplace. Barnyard funk and sweating horsebelly are rarely sexy. Fact. This intriguing OSANG animal tang however is us, the throng, and our tremulous and acidic odour, mineralised as the blood beats close to the surface of expectant skin. There are moments of instability in OSANG; the assembly is not quite 100% perfect, in places the landscape is too scorched and the weather too volatile. The materials occasionally scritch-scratch for space and light, particularly that potent fenugreek absolute as it meets the honey and cistus. The sometimes volatile caramalised curry and sweat effect that often haunts fenugreek has a tendency to run aromatic riot, depending on perfumer calibration, ingredient interaction, skin temp and mood. But I don’t think this really matters in the overall olfactive intention of the thing; OSANG by nature of its fervour and clamorous inspiration has need of asperous edges, they speak of anger, corruption, rock and fault line. Perfection or harmony if you prefer in scent is fine when required but Stefania has created a perfume with sensual fissures and din.
OSANG is quite different in tone from Le Mat, Sogno Reale and Nettuno; the sensual yearning and gauziness has been replaced by a more brutal and pagan oblation. The skin is now an altar, the notes a bed of slow burn offering for hope and protection. Many of the ingredients: honey, fenugreek, myrrh, cistus, styrax, incense, oud, sandalwood and benzoin have been burned in shrines for millennia, echoing the roots of perfume, from the Latin per fumum, through smoke, sending supplication and prayers to gods and skies above.
|Talismans box text..image ©Ramy Leon Lorenco|
In Napoli, a city of turbulent desires, saints, superstitions, chance and Malocchio, the evil eye, living in the long shadow of the Vesuvio, the slumbering hearth of Hercules, Stefania Squeglia has returned to create a perfume of ominously radiant oddity. I think OSANG is great work, suffused with contradictory strangeness and compelling perfumed hagiography. The gilt-framed origin story of San Gennaro’s fevered blood liquefaction sacrament is one loaded with symbolism for Stefania, Napoli, skin and the perfumed mind. It will divide as all ritual and worship does, but those that are blessed will be transported.
For more information onTalismans & Menditterosa Odori d'Anima please click on the link below:
©TheSilverFox March 2017
Disclosure: Sample kindly sent by Talismans and all opinions very much my own