A Nose First Approach: Connecting historical depictions with scents of the past at Mediamatic, Amsterdam

This month, a few members of the Dutch Odeuropa team went to Mediamatic’s Aroma Lab in Amsterdam in search of historic scents. Odeuropa Trainee Sofia Ehrich has spent her traineeship working with Caro Verbeek detecting visual representations of scent in historical artworks, also called olfactory iconographies. Some of these olfactory iconographies were integrated into Odeuropa’s “Nose First art historical odour wheel.” You can view the wheel, which is a work in progress, below. Odeuropa Trainee, Jenna The, kicked off her traineeship with this smell session. She is currently researching the smell of animals in nineteenth-century Amsterdam and enjoyed how easy the odour wheel made it to navigate the overwhelming amount of scents found at Mediamatic.

This blogpost documents Sofia and Jenna’s perspectives of their experience at the Aroma Lab and aims to highlight the importance of not only viewing historical depictions and reading historical texts which reference scent, but how smelling those scents can add another level of cognition and understanding of the past.

Sofia:

For my trip to Mediamatic’s Aroma Lab, I wanted to connect the olfactory iconographies I have been researching throughout my traineeship to actual smells. I have become familiar with detecting depictions of smell, however being able to connect this to a physical smell was still lacking. Using the “Odeuropa Art Historical Scent Wheel,” I sniffed many smells but here I will discuss my discovery of the ‘resinous’ and ‘roots’ category.

Resinous: 

Resins come from plants or trees and have been historically used in religious practices for incense burning. By referring to the scent wheel, I explored the making of the Tabernacle, in which resins play a prominent role. The nose-first scent wheel connected this Biblical story with galbanum but with further research, I was also led to Frankincense and onycha, while the verse from the Book of Exodus specifically instructs a recipe for the making of the Jewish Tabernacle: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts.’” One of these listed ingredients, onycha, which comes from the shells of sea snails, was specially brought out by Frank Bloem. To let off its scent, he lit it on fire. All three of these scents were similar in their thick and dense feeling through the nostrils and at the same time, their smokey qualities provide a cleansing feeling to the air which I think perfectly reflects their religious significance.   

Roots

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) originates from a flowering root and is known for its affiliation with the divine. Spikenard plays a prominent role in depictions of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, who are often depicted with an ointment jar filled with the scent. This scent was particularly striking for me as it took me back to walking through the canyons in my home state of California: wet, healthy soil, slightly spicy and fresh.

Jenna:

If I were to describe my experience at the Aroma Lab in one word, I would say it was surprising. The animalistic category on the art historical odour wheel led me to smell musk, civet and castoreum. In addition I smelled undecavertol and para-cresyl acetate, which are part of the smell of horses, and pig smell and baby elephant smell, which Frank had made himself.

My first reaction to the smells was repulsion, which changed my perspective of animal smells. Before the smell session I associated animal smells mostly with farm scents, which I do not perceive as bad. But now that I actually smelled the animal odours up close, I discovered that most of them were actually penetrating and salty. Civet in particular struck me, as I did not like the smell, whereas it used to be appreciated and used in perfumes. Even though this substance was only used in very low concentrations in perfume making, it did make me aware that the perception of smell is culturally determined. While twenty-first century me was repelled by it, nineteenth-century me might have treasured the smell.

Not only does the perception of odours change, but I also learned that smells themselves can change too. Frank let us smell the scent of a baby elephant, which differs from the smell of grown-up elephants. This made me realise that in my research, I do not only have to distinguish the smells of different animals, but also take into account that the same animals can smell differently at different stages in their lives.

Conclusions:

Our experience at Mediamatic’s Aroma Lab was not only fun and educational, but we also learned a few valuable lessons about working with scent, a volatile medium which is often difficult to recall from memory. We both wished we would have better documented our perception of the scent before, during, and after we smelled it. We also feel that since most individuals are not well trained when it comes to historic smells, it is a valuable practice to continue to actively, deliberately and repeatedly smell things to become more familiar with and recognize these scents in the future.

Understanding the Olfactory Lexicon

Linguists have observed in several studies that languages seem to have a smaller vocabulary to describe smells compared to other senses. Odours are often described borrowing terms from other senses, for example “sweet” or “fresh”, or relying on qualities of objects, like “musky” or “metallic”. On the other hand, other domains such as perfumery and oenology make use of extremely precise and structured repositories of terms and qualities used by professionals for describing perfumes and wines from an olfactory perspective. One of the goals of the text processing team of Odeuropa is to understand these phenomena and analyse whether there are differences across languages in the way in which odours are described. Is the smell-related dimension of the olfactory vocabulary something that is more evident in some languages? For example, does Slovenian, which is a Balto-Slavic language, have different characteristics in terms of olfactory vocabulary compared to Romance or Germanic languages like Italian and English? If ‘yes’, are there historical or cultural reasons for this?

We aim to address these questions using text mining techniques by processing large amounts of digitised texts covering four centuries and automatically extracting the terminology pertaining to smell. To this purpose, we are collecting freely available texts issued between 1650 and 1925 and covering different domains, in the seven project languages (English, German, French, Latin, Dutch, Slovene, and Italian). These texts range from travel literature to scientific texts and medical records. This process takes a long time because after preparing a detailed list of available sources, the data need to be downloaded, cleaned, standardised and accompanied with the correct metadata. While the Odeuropa multilingual corpus is being completed, we are testing different approaches to terminology extraction. Our testbed is the GoogleNgram repository, a large collection of n-grams (i.e. word sequences) extracted from Google Books divided by year of publication.

The n-grams cover the period of interest for Odeuropa, allowing us to perform preliminary analyses aimed at comparing terminology in multiple languages over time. In this analysis, we start from a small list of smell-related words provided by Odeuropa domain experts such as “odour”, “smelly”, “reek”. We then extract for different time periods the terms that have the highest association strength with the smell words, meaning that they tend to appear together more frequently than usual. Terms co-occurring with the smell words provide a concise overview of the semantic domains associated with odours over time, and make comparisons across languages possible. For example, we can analyse terms related to “odor” (English) , “odore” (Italian) and “reuk” (Dutch) for the n-grams between 1900 and 1925. These are displayed in the picture below, where the bubble dimension is proportional to the association strength. Some concepts mentioned in relation to smell seem to be present for the three languages, for example flowers, tobacco and sanctity. On the other hand, in English, medical-related terms are more present, while for Italian food and beverages are mentioned (see also “sapore” / “taste”) and for Dutch, fishing seems to play a role in the word association. For now, our results are too preliminary to draw conclusions on olfactory terminology, but we are really looking forward to understanding what texts from the past tell us about odours and their story.

Google ngram visualisation
Terms extracted from Google N-grams that are more frequently used associated with “odor”, “odore” and “reuk”.

Finding references to smell in artworks

Identifying visual references of olfactory phenomena in artworks is an important way to uncover how Europe may have smelled in the past and how smell was represented. The computer-vision team of the Odeuropa project is currently working on methods which would automatically extract these references from various large collections of European artworks by applying, modifying, and extending state-of-the-art object detection methods. In order to collect and extract these olfactory references using computer recognition, it is necessary to first identify how smell is visually represented or depicted in historical artworks.

To provide an example of how this works, we used the print Smell (1581-1656) by Nicolaes de Bruyn, which is currently housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Smell (1581-1656) by Nicolaes de Bruyn

In the sixteenth century, the pairing of a woman with a dog was used as a visual depiction or personification of the sense of smell. Since the object detection method was able to identify the dog and the woman, this would seem like an effective system. However, there are certain challenges which come with this detection. Firstly, not all pairings of people or women with dogs are ‘olfactory’, for example in other centuries a dog on the lap or feet of a woman represents fidelity, as seen in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434).

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
This presents us with the challenge of distinguishing when a dog is or is not ‘olfactory’ in nature. A second challenge is that the olfactory gesture of the woman smelling the flowers was also not detected by computer recognition. This poses further limitations on detecting olfactory elements in paintings.

Many olfactory-related narratives can also be found in the Bible, the Sacrifice of Noah (Genesis 8:20) for example. The print, Sacrifice of Noah after the Flood by Casper Luyken, shows Noah creating a burnt offering of animals, combined with the usual “Covenant of the Rainbow” in the background.

Sacrifice of Noah after the Flood by Casper Luyken

These types of olfactory narratives reveal more limitations of existing object detectors, while the people and animals were easily detected but the rainbow and cloud of smoke were not, hence overlooking the olfactory element of the artwork. This could be because these object detection systems are limited to the data with which they have been trained, leading to two problems. Firstly, since the detectors are trained with photographic data, their effectiveness decreases when applied to images with an artistic style such as historical paintings and prints. Secondly, it could be that certain objects (like smoke and rainbows) were either underrepresented or not at all part of the detector’s training data.

In order to tackle these issues of computer recognition, we will apply and modify domain adaptation techniques in order to improve the detection abilities on artistic image domains. After implementing a working object detection system, we plan to incorporate art historical knowledge which would also enable our system to recognize complex and context-specific olfactory references.

Privy histories / Secrete(n) geschiedenis. Fighting stink in the ‘Golden Age’

On Wednesday 16 September 2020 (8-10pm), Inger Leemans will give a lecture, Privy histories / Secrete(n) geschiedenis. Fighting stink in the ‘Golden Age’ as part of the Odorama ‘Law and Odor’ series at Mediamatic Amsterdam.

In her lecture Inger Leemans will discuss the malodours of the ‘Golden Age’. What were the olfactory challenges facing early modern cities such as Antwerp and Amsterdam? How did they try to cope with stench? Diving into the old archives and walking through the Antwerp sewers, cultural historian Inger Leemans digs up old dirt. Scent designer Frank Bloem – The Sniffaroo – will freshen up the presentation with malodours and fragrant cures.

Tickets available via Mediamatic.

Leemans lecture poster

The past stinks: a brief history of smells and social spaces

Revolving Hat

The post below by William Tullett originally appeared in The Conversation.

A sunny afternoon in Paris. An intrepid TV presenter is making his way through the streets asking passersby to smell a bottle he has in his hand. When they smell it they react with disgust. One woman even spits on the floor as a marker of her distaste. What is in the bottle? It holds, we are told, the “pong de paris”, a composition designed to smell like an 18th-century Parisian street.

The interpretation of past scents that we are given on the television, perhaps influenced by Patrick Süskind’s pungent novel Perfume, is frequently dominated by offence.

It’s a view found not just on TV but in museums. In England, York’s Jorvik Viking Centre, Hampton Court Palace, and the Museum of Oxfordshire have all integrated smells into their exhibits.

The one smell that unites these attempts at re-odorising the past: toilets. Viking toilets, a Georgian water closet, and the highly urinous and faecal smell of a Victorian street, all included in the above examples, thread the needle of disgust from the medieval to the modern. The consequence of such depictions is to portray the past as an odorous prelude, with foul-smelling trades and poor sanitation, to the clean and pleasant land of modernity.

Suggesting that people who are not “us” stink has a long history. It is applied to our forebears just as often as is to other countries, peoples, or cultures. It is not accident that, “Filthy Cities” – an English television program, highlighted the stink of 18th-century France – even in the 18th century the English had associated the French, their absolutist Catholic enemies, with the stink of garlic.

The toilet-training narrative is a simple and seductive story about “our” conquest of stench. But the “pong de paris” misses the point. Too busy turning the past into a circus of disgust for modern noses, it fails to ask how it smelt to those who lived there. New historical work reveals a more complex story about past scents.

A careful examination of the records of urban government, sanitation, and medicine reveal that 18th-century English city-dwellers were not particularly bothered by unsanitary scents. This was partly because people adapted to the smells around them quickly, to the extent that they failed to notice their presence.

But, thanks to 18th-century scientific studies of air and gases, many Georgians also recognised that bad smells were not as dangerous as had previously been thought. In his home laboratory, the polymath Joseph Priestley experimented on mice, while others used scientific instruments to measure the purity of the air on streets and in bedrooms. The conclusion was simple: smell was not a reliable indicator of danger.

Scientist and social reformer Edwin Chadwick famously claimed in 1846 that “all smell… is disease”. But smell had a much more complex place in miasma theory – the idea that diseases were caused by poisonous airs – than has often been assumed. In fact, by the time cholera began to work its morbid magic in the 1830s, a larger number of medical writers held that smell was not a carrier of sickness-inducing atmospheres.

Smells tend to end up in the archive, recorded in the sources historians use, for one of two reasons: either they are unusual (normally offensive) or people decide to pay special attention to them. One scent that appeared in the diaries, letters, magazines, and literature of 18th-century England, however, was tobacco smoke. The 18 century saw the rise of new anxieties about personal space. A preoccupation with politeness in public places would prove a problem for pipe smokers.

Tobacco smokers
On the left a fashionable cigar smoker and on the right a rather less fashionable pipe-smoker, c.1805. Own collection

Getting sniffy about tobacco

Tobacco had become popular in England during the 17th century. But, by the mid-18th century, qualms began to be raised. Women were said to abhor the smell of tobacco smoke. A satirical poem told the story of a wife who had banned her husband from smoking, only to allow its resumption – she realised that going cold turkey had made him impotent.

New sociable venues proliferated in towns and cities, with the growth of provincial theatres, assembly rooms, and pleasure gardens. In these sociable spaces, a correspondent to The Monthly Magazine noted in 1798, “smoaking [sic] was a vulgar, beastly, unfashionable, vile thing” and “would not be suffered in any genteel part of the world”. Tobacco smoking was left to alehouses, smoking clubs and private masculine spaces.

Clouds of smoke invaded people’s personal space, subjecting them to atmospheres that were not of their own choosing. Instead, fashionable 18th-century nicotine addicts turned to snuff. Despite the grunting, hawking and spitting it encouraged, snuff could be consumed without enveloping those around you in a cloud of sour smoke.

The 18th century gave birth to modern debates about smoking and public space that are still with us today. The fact that the smell of tobacco smoke stains the archives of the period, metaphorically of course, is a testament to the new ideas of personal space that were developing within it.