Have you ever chased something that remained just out of reach? It’s common in dreams: the closer you get to something, the more elusive it becomes. This story is about my own childhood daydreams, a chase after a memory and the fleeting fragrance of summer.
I grew up in the hills above Florence where the call of wild pheasants and the occasional wild boar make you feel very far away from the city below. As a child, my favourite pastime was wasting time, wandering around in the garden and making daisy chain necklaces with my sister. I would lay on my back and watch the clouds roll over the cypresses and pines, moving along with the rhythmic insistence of the cicadas. I often think about that feeling of childhood when I am designing – no timekeeping, no agenda - just pure sensation, moment by moment. In fact, I have always encouraged my sons to strive for boredom as a springboard for creativity.
But when I think back, my strongest memories of those days are of a smell…a brief sweetness floating in the warm breeze that would appear and disappear without explanation. An intense apricot scent that felt like magic. I know now that it comes from the inconspicuous flowers of a small shrub called the fragrant olive (osmanthus fragrans). It’s easy to miss, almost hidden in plain sight. What sets it apart is the unmistakable smell. But, even then, the smell finds you only on its own terms and only at a distance – if you reach for it, you are inevitably disappointed. I’ve smelled it countless times over the years in the lanes and small roads that lead from our house up to Fiesole, so when I decided to create a home fragrance it wasn’t hard to find inspiration. I simply went home, knowing I might be signing up for a challenge.
Guido gives me a look that says he had signed up for flowering shrubs, not snakes, and to compensate I tell him I think I have finally caught the smell on the breeze.
In early June I was in Florence with the photographer, Guido Taroni, to shoot some images of our workshops. With an afternoon to spare, I persuaded him to come for a walk to try to capture the fragrance in images, or at least try to capture its spirit. If anyone could photograph a smell, Guido Taroni could. We set off from my family home, Villa Colombo, as the light was changing from overhead and intense to angled and golden. An odd couple with a tripod, sniffing at the breeze. Fiesole looms above us, its villas perched on the slopes with the confidence that beauty brings. The air is thick with the scent of jasmine and warm earth, but no hint of fragrant olive.
We walk on past the regimented rows of cypress trees and the ancient, crumbling walls, punctuated here and there with shrines. These hills haven’t changed much since the stories of Dante and Boccaccio. In fact, when the lockdown was first announced in March 2020, my father and I both reread Boccaccio’s Decameron as a way to stay connected and to have something other than the news to focus on. It tells the story of a group of people sheltering from the Black Death in a villa in Fiesole. Although neither of us had read it since school, all of a sudden 1348 felt very contemporary.
Back on our walk, Guido and I press on past the convent of San Domenico, with its Fra Angelico altarpiece, and for me the memory of many Christmas eves, half asleep and fully freezing. As we twist our way up the hill the view shifts perspective, and the drama now plays out below us as the Duomo shows itself in the distance across the valley. The olive groves sway gently; a lush carpet for the eyes. The villas that had shown themselves so proudly from below are now half-buried in greenery. The warm yellow of Tuscan plaster peeks out here and there at the end of steep lanes that branch off the road. On a corner we are met with a house wrapped in jasmine, like a gift. The scent is wonderful, but still not the right one.
Fiesole looms above us, its villas perched on the slopes with the confidence that beauty brings.
The light is moving quickly now, casting its pine needle shadows all around us as we walk up towards Villa San Michele, once a monastery and now a hotel with a world-class view of Florence. Guido and I cut across a disused path as a snake scuttles out of the grass between us. Guido gives me a look that says he had signed up for flowering shrubs, not snakes, and to compensate I tell him I think I have finally caught the smell on the breeze. I clamber up a wall, grasping at promising-looking vegetation.
Above us, the hotel pianist plays “Blue Moon,” unaware of the marauding jewellery designer scaling the rocks below. Still no fragrant olive. It is time to call it a day, and as we sit with a drink on the hotel terrace, I show Guido an image on my phone of what we had been looking for. Embarrassingly, I note that it does not flower and thus does not smell...not until late Summer. We are months too early. But somehow it feels right that the scent is still out of reach. Beautiful moments should be hard to reproduce. And like our walk, they are always best when they are spontaneous.