8 December 2017

Johann Maria Farina - perfumier

Emigrant to Germany who invented Eau de Cologne

Johann Maria Farina gave his new  fragrance the name Eau di Cologne
Johann Maria Farina gave his new
fragrance the name Eau de Cologne
Johann Maria Farina, the Italian perfumier said to have created the world’s first Eau de Cologne, was born on this day in 1685 in the small town of Santa Maria Maggiore in Piedmont.

Farina’s family were masters in the art of distilling alcohol to carry fragrances, which involves different techniques to those used to distil alcohol to drink.

The method was developed in northern Africa, exported to Sicily and then on to the Italian mainland.  Farina’s antecedents brought it with them to Piedmont, where his grandmother established the family workshop in Santa Maria Maggiore, which is located about 130km (81 miles) northeast of Turin, not far from the border with Switzerland.

In his early 20s, Farina emigrated to Germany. Taking the name Johann Maria Farina - his given Italian name was Giovanni - he initially worked for an uncle who had moved to Cologne (Köln) some years earlier.

Feeling homesick, Farina began to dabble in experiments using the distilling techniques he had inherited. 

One day in 1708 he excitedly wrote a letter to his brother, Giovanni Battista Farina, exclaiming that he had produced a scent so pleasing to his nostrils that it was almost dreamlike in its qualities.

He wrote: “I have made a perfume reminiscent of an Italian spring morning, accompanied by a gentle freshness, where the scents of wild narcissus combine with sweet orange blossoms. The fragrance is refreshing and stimulative for my senses and imagination.”

Giovanni Paolo Feminis asked Farina to market his Aqua Mirabilis
Giovanni Paolo Feminis asked Farina to
market his Aqua Mirabilis
There have been suggestions that the recipe was not actually his but belonged to another product, Aqua Mirabilis, a medicinal mix that was the creation of Giovanni Paolo Feminis, a friend of the Farina family from Santa Maria Maggiore, which Farina had offered to market in Cologne.

Whatever the true story – and it is possible Farina used his distilling skills to give the formula his own twist - Farina was taken with the fragrance and gave it the name “Eau de Cologne” in honour of his adopted city.

In the summer of 1709, Giovanni Battista Farina arrived in Cologne, registered as a new resident at Cologne town hall, under the name of Johann Baptist Farina, and in August 1 of the same year signed a 12-year contract to rent a building opposite the Julichplatz in the street now known as Unter Goldschmeid.

With his brother-in-law, Franz Balthasar Borgnis, he founded Farina & Compagnie, which evolved into Gebrüder Farina & Compagnie - Farina Brothers and Co – after Johann Maria and another brother, Carlo Girolamo, joined the board.

The company is still operating more than 300 years later, from the same premises at the corner of Obenmarspforten, with the red tulip logo that was adopted at the very start.  It is the world’s oldest perfume factory. The current owners are the eighth generation of Giovanni’s family.

The perfume was originally sold in long, slender bottles called rosali
The perfume was originally sold in long,
slender bottles called rosali
The business initially sold a wide range of luxury items, such as lace, handkerchiefs, silk stockings, wigs, feathers, tobacco boxes, sealing wax and face powder.  After some wobbles at the start, resulting in the departures of Carlo Girolamo and Giovanni Battista’s brother-in-law and a renaming of the company to Fratelli Farina (Farina Brothers), business began to grow.

It was after the death of Giovanni Battista in 1924 that Johann Maria’s perfume became its focus.

In those days, when personal hygiene standards were a long way removed from those of today, it was normal for women and men to douse themselves liberally in scent and, once word of it spread, Farina’s fragrance became a sensation.

The exact recipe was a closely-guarded secret, naturally, and remains so. It contained a blend of the oils of many citrus fruits and flower essences, but most noticeable was the scent of Bergamot, the exotic citrus the size and shape of an orange with the colour of lime, grown in particular areas of southern Italy, Turkey and southern France.

The company was renamed again, this time simply as Johann Maria Farina, which has remained unchanged since.

From a small start – the first delivery of Eau de Cologne was for just 12 bottles in 1716 – Farina’s list of customers expanded rapidly. Between 1730 and 1739, around 3,700 of its distinctive long, slender bottles – named rosali - were delivered.

The company's Eau di Cologne - Acqua di Colonia - as packaged today
The company's Eau di Cologne - Acqua di
Colonia - as packaged today
Vitally, the fragrance soon became a royal and imperial favourite.  Frederick William I of Prussia, Clemens August of Bavaria, Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI, Maria Theresa of Austria and Louis XV of France were all taken with the unique scent and by 1740 it was being sold in cities all over Europe.

It was the favoured perfume of royal families through the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Diana, Princess of Wales, enjoyed its delicate notes and deliveries were regularly made to her home in London. 

Other fans over the centuries included the composers Mozart and Beethoven, British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, the writers Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde, the Indian prime minister Indira Gandi and the actresses Marlene Dietrich and Romy Schneider.

Other manufacturers attempted to copy Farina’s formula, some with greater success than others.  The most famous imitation is undoubtedly 4711, named after its location at Glockengasse No. 4711.

The French fragrance manufacturer Roger & Gallet produces a fragrance called Johann Maria Farina, having bought the rights to Eau de Cologne extra vieille when Jean Marie Joseph Farina, a grand grand nephew of Johann, sold the company’s Paris store in 1806.

Johann Maria Farina died in Cologne in 1766.

A wall plaque identifies Farina's birthplace in Santa Maria Maggiore
A wall plaque identifies Farina's
birthplace in Santa Maria Maggiore 
Travel tip:

Visitors to Santa Maria Maggiore, a small town of around 1,200 residents 25km (16 miles) north of Verbania, can look round the Casa del Profumo in Piazza Risorgimento, a new museum set up to celebrate the lives of both Giovanni Paolo Feminis and Johann Maria Farina. The museum has developed a relationship with the perfume museum at the original Farina headquarters in Cologne.

Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore
Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore
Travel tip:

Verbania is the largest town on Lake Maggiore, with a population of a little more than 30,000.  It was formed in 1939 by the merger of three smaller towns – Intra, Pallanza and Suna.  Pallanza, the middle of the three, has a pretty harbour. Attractions include the Villa Taranto, which has a magnificent botanical garden, and the Isolino di San Giovanni, a small islet separated from the mainland by a stretch of water no more than 15 metres wide, which was for many years the home of the great conductor and musical director, Arturo Toscanini.

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