The air we breathe: a sixteenth-century Venetian perfume burner

Luisa Coscarelli


In the Renaissance and early modern period air was believed to have a tangible materiality that expressed itself through its temperament.[1] Air was characterised as hot, cold, dry, or moist, and this interpretation appeared in countless sixteenth- and seventeenth-century regimens of health and plague regimens.[2] The regimen of health was a genre of text giving advice on how to live a healthy lifestyle. This was laid out structurally by a discussion of the so-called six non-naturals: air, motion and rest, sleep and waking, diet, evacuation and retention, and passions and emotions.[3] The plague regimen was a particular form of the regimen of health focussing on how to behave in times of plague.  The focus of all discussions in these regimens is on the nature of things, their quality, their temperateness.

Each specific quality had a specific effect on the body, hence the best air was temperate – meaning it contained none of the qualities in excess and in addition was “light, thin, bright, clear, sweet-smelling, and moved gently”.[4] Good air could be found in the countryside, as well as in high regions, which is why one common piece of advice to the reader of a regimen of health was to build houses with multiple storeys or on top of mountains and hills.[5] Dwellings located in a valley, close to a cemetery or near a swamp, however, were to be avoided due to their bad, corrupted air, which hosted the potential of bringing about disease.

The materiality of air – its temperament and quality – meant that one was always in danger of being in contact with corrupted air, and therefore in danger of being in proximity to disease. If this air acted upon the body it could upset the humoural balance, thus leading to illness. This occurrence could be prevented through means of pleasant fragrances, and objects that contained them. With the help of special objects air was engineered to become fragrant, and thus temperate and good for the body. One such object was the perfume burner.


Perfume burner, unknown maker, ca. 1450-1500, Venice, pierced brass with silver damascening and black lacquer infill, Museum no. M.58-1952,
Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The perfume burner originated in China and was used to burn incense. Trade between Venice and the East saw the object migrate into Europe, and this particular example was probably made in the Italian city. The sphere is made of brass, which is pierced and decorated with silver damascening. Damascening is a technique invented in the Middle East and Egypt in the Bronze Age, though not commonly used there until the Middle Ages.[6] It is a way of finely inlaying one material into another – usually a cheaper metal is used as the base into which a more valuable one is laid. In this perfume burner brass was used as the base metal and ornaments were engraved into it. Then strips of silver were laid into the engraving and hammered to lie flush with the rest of the metal and appear as an original part of it. In addition, parts of the object were filled in with black lacquer. The materiality of this object, therefore, although made in Europe, refers back to the Middle Eastern origin of its ancestors.

Image 2: Perfume burner opened

Perfume burner opened. Museum no. M.58-1952. Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

In an opened state one can see that one of the halves holds a complex system of gimbals supporting a bronze cast half-sphere in its middle. This part would have been filled with fiery charcoal to which perfume or aromatic substances such as herbs and spices would have been added. The gimbal system would have allowed for the hot charcoal to stay safe inside its cup even when the object was carried, or moved around in a room. The perforation of the spheres would have allowed the spread of the fragrance in a room and thus changed the quality of the air if necessary. In addition, spherical perfume burners appear to have been hung inside the house in order to spread their fragrance. This can be seen in the portrait of the merchant Georg Gisze by Hans Holbein the Younger from 1532.

Image 3: The Merchant Georg Gisze, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532, London, oil on oak, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Image © Wikimedia Commons.üngere_-_Der_Kaufmann_Georg_Gisze_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg

The Merchant Georg Gisze, Hans Holbein the Younger, 1532, London, oil on oak, Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, Image © Wikimedia Commons. 

Image 4: The Mountain of Hell, after a model by Agostino Zoppo (1515 - 1572), 1550 - 1560, Padua, bronze, Museum no. A.63-1953, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Mountain of Hell, after a model by Agostino Zoppo (1515 – 1572), 1550 – 1560, Padua, bronze, Museum no. A.63-1953, Image © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Another – more dramatic – piece of a perfume burner is the one seen in the image above. This piece is thought to have been the lid of a perfume burner depicting the rescue of Alcestis from the underworld by the hero Hercules, as told in the story by Euripides. There are holes in the mountain as well as in the mouths of the figures from which smoke would have emerged, probably in a dramatic fashion. Paradoxically, hell was associated with stench, whereas this object would have surely emanated pleasant fragrance. One can imagine it placed on the table in a banquet setting, where the pleasant smell would have established the perception of a healthy aerial environment, and the object itself would have provided a conversation-worthy spectacle.

Apart from perfume burners of these kinds, fireplaces would also have aided in rendering the domestic environment ‘safe’ in terms of its air quality, meaning well-tempered. However, if one had to leave the security of such fragrant spaces, objects carried on the body such as perfumed gloves, shoes, fans and clothes, pomanders and other aromatic jewellery ensured that the immediate personal environment of an individual was rectified by pleasant aromatics. Thus one could stay safe outside the home, too, enveloped in a cocoon of well-tempered air.



[1] Cavallo, S., Tessa Storey, T., eds., Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 71.

[2] For a discussion of the importance of air in medical texts see  ‘Chapter 3: Worrying About the Air’ in Healthy Living in Late Renaissance Italy, edited by Cavallo and Storey, pp. 70 – 112.

[3] L. Hill Cuth, ‘Lessons from the past: preventive medicine in early modern England’, J Med Ethics: Medical Humanities, 29, (2003), pp. 16-21 (16ff).

[4] Cavallo, Storey, Healthy Living, 2013, p. 71. Cavallo and Storey note that this description is given in accord with criteria for good air given by Avicenna in his Canon.

[5] Cavallo, Storey, Healthy Living, 2013, p. 84.

[6] [accessed 06/04/14]

Further Reading – 

Welch, Evelyn, ’Scented Buttons and Perfumed Gloves: Smelling Things in Renaissance Italy’, in Ornamentalism: The Art of Renaissance Accessories, ed. by Bella Mirabella, (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2011), pp. 13 – 39.


Have you seen any objects that intrigued you lately? Perhaps you have encountered something that piqued your curiosity in a museum or gallery (or in a shop or in the street?), or as part of your art or design practice, as part of your research, or as part of your daily life. Please don’t be shy! We welcome submissions on objects of all sorts, between 500 and 1,500 words, and we do ask that you own the rights to your images or use those belonging to the V&A.  If you aren’t sure if your idea is right for our column, it certainly never hurts to ask, so please get in touch with us:


Luisa Coscarelli – 

Luisa did her BA in History of Art and German Literature at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Although completing it with a focus on contemporary art, she has now joined the Renaissance strand and is  interested in the relationship between smell and design. For her dissertation, Luisa is asking questions about ‘smelly objects’, and how olfactory environments were designed in the Renaissance period.


© Luisa Coscarelli 2014. All Rights Reserved.

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