Nowadays aromatherapy – despite its widespread popularity – is often frowned upon, laughed at, and rarely taken as a serious medical intervention. This was very different in the Renaissance and early modern period. Pleasant scents were believed to be agents in the fight against disease, which was thought to be transmitted through air. The presence of bad smells indicated the presence of diseased air, and aromatic substances were used in order to counteract this circumstance. The domestic interior was often infused with pleasant scents with the help of objects such as perfume burners and flowers, creating an olfactory sanctuary. However, one needed to leave the home once in a while, and for these occasions aromatics were carried on the body in objects especially made for this purpose.
One of these types of objects can be seen in the image above. This scent case in the shape of a snail appears to have been popular in seventeenth-century German-speaking lands. The Victoria and Albert Museum owns a number of these snails and comparing them is a fascinating process, especially as their interiors vary and provide clues as to how these objects were used – and this is by no means the same for every snail.
Before taking a closer look at the snails, it is vital to understand that they were not the only type of ‘smelly object’ in existence around this time. Aromatics have been used as curative and preventive substances, aphrodisiacs, in the context of religious devotion, and generally to provide pleasant smell for several centuries. Along with the diversity in use came a diverse group of objects that emitted smell and contained aromatics, spreading them with and without the addition of heat. These are perfume burners and hand warmers, which provide heat and burn aromatics simultaneously; incense ships and censers, which are used to store incense and cense a sacred space; as well as pomanders and Balsambüchsen (ointment boxes), the former being a sphere of aromatic substances emitting smell as they were carried on the body and the latter, a receptacle containing fragrant ointments.
The last two objects seem to be the ancestors of the scent cases that appear increasingly in seventeenth-century German-speaking regions in a variety of shapes. Particular favourites, judging by how many objects have come down to us, however, are the skull and the snail. Especially important is the connection between this particular snail (see Image 2) and the Balsambüchse.
The main evidence that both of these objects were made in a German-speaking region comes from their engravings, and these engravings are at the same time evidence for the objects’ connection to each other. The opened up snail presents us with four compartments in its shell and four engraved words that each corresponds to one compartment. These are: Schlag, Canel, Rosen, and Negel. The latter three are the old German words for cinnamon, roses, and cloves, all substances that were used as remedies and preservatives – so-called medical simples. The first word Schlag refers to a medicinal composite made from ambergris, musk, civet, and a variety of oils from different plants such as lavender. The name itself is the old German word for Schlaganfall, which means stroke, hence this substance refers to the function it has – the prevention of and aid in the case of a stroke.
Judging by the loop that is attached to the top of the snail it would have been worn on a chain, possibly as a necklace, which does make sense as the object is only about three centimetres high. This placement on the body would have meant that the object moved a lot, and this begs the question of how the substances inside this piece would have stayed in their place. What was the substances’ materiality?
This question can be answered by examining the object’s ancestor – the Balsambüchse, literally meaning ‘ointment box’. Until recently the object was known under the umbrella term ‘pomander’, which refers to a variety of different objects belonging to the same family, though having different designs and functions. The Balsambüchse was not regarded as an object in its own right until recently – a consequence of its namelessness. The term Balsambüchse is the name given to the object by apothecaries working in sixteenth-century Wolfenbüttel (now Lower Saxony, Germany). The name refers to the materiality of the substances contained inside the object – ointments – and it is highly likely that ointments of cinnamon, roses, and cloves were contained inside this snail. The composite Schlag was generally an ointment, hence providing more evidence that this was the materiality of all the aromatics included in the four compartments.
Interestingly, the back of this snail is made in openwork, which raises new questions about the ‘things’ contained in it. By looking at another ancestor – the pomander – one might gain information about this design choice. As already mentioned a pomander is usually a sphere made of aromatic components including herbs, spices, and, most importantly, fragrant animal matter. These spheres were often encased in perforated or openwork cases of precious metal that would have allowed for the pomander’s scent to spread uninhibited and be easily accessible to its owner. One might therefore argue that a similar amalgam of substances could have been included in the snail, with one side that provided constant access to pleasant, protective scent whilst the other side housed ointments that were used in particular circumstances of illness and its prevention, such as is the case with Schlag.
Fascinatingly, not all of these snail scent cases house the same interior design and thus might have been used in different ways. The object seen in the images below looks very similar to the scent case discussed above on its outside, and also has one closed and one openwork shell; however, different engravings can be found here. The middle piece of the snail’s shell reveals an engraved skull and two crossed bones on one side, and a butterfly engraving on the other side. There are no engravings that reveal which substances were contained in this object, but the ones that are present might tell us more about the object’s function. Clearly there is some association with death represented by the skull and possibly connecting the object to its function as a protector from (deadly) disease. The butterfly is pitted against this rather pessimistic vanitas motif, potentially as a symbol of transformation and rebirth, thus a new beginning. In addition, actual snails were used as medicinal simples from antiquity, as is noted by Pliny who recommends the using the animals in order to speed up childbirth and as a remedy for burn wounds and abscesses.
The design of these objects in the shape of an animal and with the addition of engravings – both words and images – thus relates directly to its function and medicinal context. Simultaneously it is a small-scale, delicately worked object showing off the skill of the artisan and thus adding to its medicinal function a beauty that justifies the showing of these pieces in the V&A’s Jewellery Galleries.
 Ambergris is formed in the intestines of the male sperm whale as a consequence of its inability to digest the beaks of cuttlefish – its preferred food. The combination of bacteria of the whale’s intestine and cuttlefish beaks produces a stone-like, black object that produces a musty fragrance when dried. It was and still is highly prized, still being worth almost as much as gold.
 Civet is the fragrant product of the civet cat, which lives in Asia and Africa. The secretion comes from its anal gland and can be harvested directly from the animal. Like ambergris it is a highly valuable substance.
 Gabriele Wacker, Arznei und Confect. Medikale Kultur am Wolfenbütteler Hof im 16. und 17. Jahrhundert, (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2013), p. 280.
 Bruno Bonnemain, ‘Helix and Drugs: Snails for Western Health Care From Antiquity to the Present’, Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2, 1 (2005), 25 – 28 (25).
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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 now 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.