In Shanghai Love: Courtesans, Intellectuals, and Entertainment Culture 1850-1910, Professor Catherine Vance Yeh explains the statutes governing colored garments in Imperial China. As set out in the Imperial code, class status, occupation, and personal intent were expressed through prescribed textiles and dyes. Only courtesans, to whom the law did not apply, could subvert this social color code. A seasoned ming ji (renowned beauty) might shock the populace by robing herself in crimson, a conspicuous hue normally reserved for virginal brides. To heighten the imbroglio, she could let slip a glimpse of her undergarments, dyed in the sacred ceremonial color of men: wong-shi, or gardenia yellow.
The forbidden golden pigment our courtesan favored came from the reddish-orange fruit of Gardenia jasminoides (also called G. florida or G. grandiflorum). According to The Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia (1911), this fruit "contains crocin, apparently identical to that from saffron, and dyes silk or wool without a mordant". The same fruit factors into Traditional Chinese Medicine under the appellation zhi zi, said to remove heat, cool the blood, and restore peace-- not exactly qualities traditionally associated with an aphrodisiac.
Leave that property to the flower.
In The New Perfume Handbook, Nigel Groom states that Venezia -- the original 1992 floriental by Laura Biagiotti -- "is built round the scent of the Chinese Wong-Shi flower, used in the Far East, it is claimed, as a love potion and valued as such in mediaeval times by the Venetians" (pg. 343). Venice having been a major textile trade center connected across the miles to the Silk Road by Marco Polo, wong-shi dye (and perhaps even zhi zi medicine) might have been known to the medieval Venetians. But the gardenia flower and its ineffable perfume did not reach Western Europe until the 18th century-- the era of Casanova, one of Venice's most infamous sons. (I can easily picture the great seducer including that sensuous white flower in his amorous arsenal.)
A true and natural gardenia perfume is a rarity, since gardenia concrete is difficult both to produce and to find*. Tahitian monoi -- made by macerating fresh tiare (Gardenia taitensis) blossoms in pure coconut oil -- comes closest to that soliflore ideal, but the discernable "suntan lotion" scent of the oil always manages to overwhelm its floral aspect. Most perfumers use synthetic gardenia accords, adding whichever aromachemical elements will best approximate the dank, fungal note that makes an "authentic" gardenia. (Without the mushroom element, gardenia's just jasmine topped with a pound of hard sauce.) The other option is to pair gardenia with jasmine, ylang-ylang, or (best of all) its trusty partner tuberose, and let the ensuing wave of white-florality sweep away all misgivings.**
I had the opportunity to see for myself when I stumbled across a full vintage mini of Venezia in a local antique store. I paid three whole dollars for it, only to find that it's going for $50 on eBay. Described by the Perfumed Court as "one of the harder-to-find cult fragrances... gorgeous, classy, and very feminine", it's included in their list of hard-to-find, rare, or reformulated scents "every perfumista should smell at least once". Here goes!
Venezia tucks its so-called "wong-shi flower" (and its jasmine, and its ylang-ylang) into a compote of sweet fruits in spiced honey. Frankly speaking, I'd call it more fruitiental than floriental; either way, it's dessert. Even its buttery sandalwood base note smells a bit like pastry. Whenever I wear it, a parade of similar confections (Boucheron Jaipur, Paul Sebastian Design, Mauboussin) marches across my mind. But something about Venezia's comely delicacy keeps me coming back for another opinion.
Earlier this year, Venezia was reorchestrated and reissued-- apparently with a vengeance, according to Krista of SOTD's considered opinion. After I sent her a sample of the original, she emailed me the following assessment: "...it is better than the reformulation, although now I can see what they were trying to do. It has the same vanilla/plum heart, but the older one has a great smoky-amber base that the new formula is missing."
A great pity. It makes you wish that wong-shi had remained a forbidden element, off-limits to the formula-trimmers of this world.
Like a scene painted in tiny brushstrokes on a silk fan, Venezia seems to offer up heretofore-unnoticed details each time I wear it. Not that I would carry a silk fan around with me every day-- I'm just not that kind of girl. But if I wanted to pretend I was... this is what I would wear.
*If you haven't already, read this excellent essay on the subject by Glass Petal Smoke's Michelle Krell Kydd, and this DuftNote by the great Luca Turin. Both concern the work of Trygve Harris to restore the perfumery gardenia to a natural state.
**I know "florality" is not a word. But I flat-out refuse to use the word "floralcy", which makes even less damn sense.
Scent Elements: Bergamot, cassis, plum, peach, mango, osmanthus, wong-shi flower (Gardenia jasminoides), geranium, carnation, jasmine, rose, ylang-ylang, iris, sandalwood, cedar, cinnamon, tonka bean, vanilla, civet, ambergris, musk