Jan Brueghel I & Peter Paul Rubens, "The Sense of Smell" (1617-18) (via Wikimedia Commons)

While immersive exhibitions are a recent scourge of the museum world, a new exhibition opening at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain seeks to engage extra senses with a little more subtlety. The show is centered around “The Sense of Smell,” created collaboratively by Jan Brueghel (the Elder) and Peter Paul Rubens between 1617 and 1618. The painting is part of a series of paintings dedicated to the five senses. The allegorical images feature the Roman goddess Venus and her sidekick Cupid exploring aspects of taste in a grand feast; hearing in a music chamber; sight in a gallery of paintings and astronomy equipment; and touch as they witness blacksmiths at work.

For “The Sense of Smell,” Venus and Cupid are surrounded by a botanical array, featuring some 80 plant species, as well as equipment common to perfume making of the time. Using these as inspiration, the Prado engaged Puig, a third-generation fragrance company in Barcelona, to create ten scents to enhance the viewing experience.

“I was thinking out loud for a while and having different conversations with friends and colleagues about a year ago,” Alejandro Vergara, the Prado’s head of Flemish painting, told the Guardian. “We came up with the idea of focusing on the sense of smell and having a perfumer work on the painting, identify what’s in it, and create 10 scents.”

Detail of “The Sense of Smell” showing Venus and Cupid surrounded by a dog, peacocks, a guinea pigs, and a civet

With this as his mission, Gregorio Sola, Puig’s senior perfumer, produced essences of jasmine, rose, spikenard, fig tree, orange blossom, daffodil, and a bouquet that blends four flower scents in addition to kid gloves scented with amber. These scents are loaded into four diffusers around the room, and can be deployed using touch-screen activation and proprietary AirParfum technology.

In addition to our heroine, the scene is also visited by animal friends, including peacocks, guinea pigs, and a civet. The latter is a small, mostly nocturnal mammal native to tropical forests of Asia and Africa, and a relative of the mongoose. The animal’s main claim to fame in 16th and 17th centuries human society was its dank musk, widely used to anchor the smell of perfume to the skin. For this reason, Sola created a civet scent that, while generally unpleasant, really hits you in the face with history.

The exhibition promises to be memorable, not just for the beauty of the painting or the novelty of the perfumed accompaniment, but because science has shown that olfactory input is an incredibly strong aspect of memory formation, and less prone to corruption than visual or auditory memory. As one study indicates, people may experience psychological benefits from a visit to the Prado.

“A review of the literature leads to the conclusion that odors that evoke positive autobiographical memories have the potential to increase positive emotions, decrease negative mood states, disrupt cravings, and reduce physiological indices of stress, including systemic markers of inflammation,” the 2016 study says. Not bad for a day at the museum.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...