Perhaps there is no sense more important to an ethnographer then the sense of smell. Unfortunately, we often get caught up in what we see. Sight is our default sense. For an ethnographer there can be no greater pitfall, for our eyes often lie to us. We see what we expect. Thus, the work of an ethnographer must be balanced by all the senses working in concert to help build an understanding the subtleties of the culture under study.
There is, perhaps, no better place to explore with one’s nose then Italy – to take in il profumo d’Italia. The streets of Italy team with life. And so it is here that our nose can explore what it means to be Italian, which changes by season and region, city and village. In the north near Bologna tigleo (linden) trees line the streets providing a sweet perfume. Jasmine hedges and ever-prized roses line the streets, while cascading bogenvelia fall from balconies. Thus, the experience of strolling or slipping quickly past on one’s bicycle is an aromatic delight with textures changing by season and location.
In Italy, food is often introduced to the nose before the tongue. A colleague recently returning from Siena came bearing gifts. He tenderly unwrapped a bulbous salame and held it up to my nose for my first experience of its delicacy. The pungent scent of the cured pork laced with garlic wafted upward.
Long before reaching a shop – il negozio – that sells meat and cheese one is greeted by its rich array of scents wafting out the door. Fruits are selected as much by their scent as their sight, but only in the protective hands of the shopkeeper – il ortorlano. And no kitchen or balcony is complete without an array of herbs whose scents fill Italian flats. In many ways the scent of food signifies the bond Italians have with the land.
Walking along the streets the yeasty sweetness of baking bread wafts down the block from many a local bakery – il forno. The complex scent of an Italian street is a comingling of bread and Jasmine, garlic and tigleo, along with the bitter bite of excessive cigarette smoke, which frequently curls into your nostrils. Though smoking is banded in nearly all buildings, the ban does not seem to have squelched Italians’ passion for smoking.
Italy’s crowded urban centers are also marked by other pungent earthy, and far less elegant, scents. In Rome where buses can be so packed that you could literally lift your feet off the floor and remain standing, the heat of the summer brings forth the musky scent of humanity in close proximity to one’s nose. And in the summer, the huge trash bins resting along each block viscerally signify the close proximity that most Italians share. On hot days the scent of jasmine and roses can be tempered by the stench of decaying refuse as one passes a bin. And in Naples, trash collection has become such a problem that one might suggest the scent of refuse has cast a long shadow over the aromatic gardens that line the balconies of its quiet streets.
The sea provides yet other sensory experience, its salty air floating above beaches up and down the coasts – its fragrance defining both heat and light. Yet, beaches are but a small part of the Italian seacoast. In fact cascading mountains, some with looming Cyprus, mark its jagged coast. The herbs and flowering shrubs that also grow on these craggy surfaces suffuse the air with a loamy smell that floats along the coast signifying Italy’s association with the sun and sea.
Interestingly, unlike the toiletry and household cleaning aisles in American supermarkets, Italian supermarkets offer a far smaller selection of scented products. Conversely perfume shops are far more common in Italy than in the U.S. It would seem that Italians are not easily lured into purchasing artificial fragrances, when their world is so rich with natural scent. Finally, the Italian words, which define scent, are as specific and emotive as the fragrances that drift past by – buon odore e profumo meraviglioso per good – cattivo e puzza per bad.
From city to sea, from shop to flat, scent naturally and with great nuance defines Italian life. La vita in Italia è complessa.
All photographs copyright: Jean Grow