Xerjoff Magazine

Odeuropa: in search of lost smells


Odeuropa is an interesting project that through the collaboration of a team of experts aims at retracing the smells lost over five centuries of European history, giving life to an encyclopedia of perfumes.

We have often highlighted how perfume is the way to access distant worlds in space and time. As a meaningful example of this sensory process in which the temporal levels intersect and mix we could mention Marcel Proust, who in his masterpiece “In search of lost time” describes how the perfume (and taste) of a Madelaine is able to trigger a complex process of remembrance made of memories and dormant sensations.

An interesting project titled Odeuropa was developed based on these considerations with the purpose of retracing lost smells (tobacco, fabrics, road smells) in five centuries of European history giving life to an encyclopedia of perfumes. Odeuropa is formed by a multidisciplinary group of scholars from six European countries, specialising in history, art, computer vision, museology and chemistry. Using artificial intelligence, the team will set up computers to sift through countless documents (school books, novels, photos and magazines) to find references to smells or perfumes, both in the text and in the pictures. “Looking at the books printed out and published in Europe since 1500 – highlights William Tullett, member of the team and professor at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge – you come across a lot of references to smell, from religious perfumes like incense to others like tobacco, a good introduced in Europe in 16th century that, at least at the beginning, was characterised by a very exotic smell, but that was quickly made local becoming part of the olfactory landscape of many European cities.”

The data collected will be categorised in an online encyclopedia of the olfactory heritage, basically an archive for the European olfactory heritage, that will allow future generations to access to and get to know the smells of the past. “Smells – said Inger Leemans from VU University and Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts & Sciences Humanities Cluster – give shape to our experience of the world, yet we have very little sensory information about the past”. This is what makes the project Odeuropa, that will develop over a period of three years, particularly important and meaningful.

Official website of the project: https://odeuropa.eu