· 12 March 2017 ·
When I was a young man, nearly twenty-five and frustrated with my life, I departed England without my wife, to travel on the Continent. It was early in February, 1575.
I went to France. Attended the coronation and wedding of Henri III, who was near my own age and new to the throne. I met with the king and his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, imperious in her black widow’s weeds.
I went to Italy. The north was a patchwork of republics and duchies. The sky was blue, the sun was gold. Venice was home, but I wandered.
In the spring of 1576, after barely a year away, I headed back to England. Had to. Crisis of liquidity. Father-in-law cut off my funds. MY funds.
Ran into pirates in the Channel. Call it involuntary research. But I brought things back with me, inside of me, that no pox’d outlaw could steal. My tour had been a journey of immersion and absorption. It’s not only in Shakespeare* that you find my footsteps, though they’re easy to follow there. It didn’t take long for the court to dub me the Italian Earl. I took it as a compliment.
I also brought a fashion home with me that April. A little thing, like a flower, ephemeral, that blossomed with a sweet smell, then faded. But it lasted longer than most fashions, and I was credited with its creation.
Her Majesty the Queen was a vain, vain woman. It’s hard to blame her for it, with all the years of insecurity and danger she endured, both before and after she came to her crown. Vanity is a boon when you’re chosen by God, and you need to make sure that no one ever forgets it. A modest monarch makes a rotten ruler. (Henry VI. QED.)
High on the list of Bess’s vanities were her own two hands, with their long, thin fingers. She was always holding things – books, fans, necklaces, girdle‑chains, gloves, the occasional orb and sceptre. She fidgeted with these props constantly (except the last two), waving them around in front of courtiers and supplicants. Her gestures were stagecraft, commanding the audience’s attention. Her fingers were wiggling bait, luring whatever fish she was angling to catch.
They were lovely hands, I don’t deny it. But the whole business was so blatant that her maids would make fun of her when she wasn’t around, exaggerating all her flutterings and twiddlings. Annie Vavasour was aping her once, had everyone laughing themselves into stitches, when in walked Bess, back from the close stool. She saw what was going on and slapped Anne so hard across the cheek that the poor girl had to lay on the vermilion with a trowel for a fortnight, to hide the bruise.
My pretty poetess, were you worth the time in the Tower?
Detail, attributed to John de Critz the Elder, ca 1605.
Collection, Armourers and Brasiers of the City of London.
In Anne’s portrait her gloves are mismatched, and one’s on, one’s off. You symbolic-meaning sleuths can make some hay with that.
Gloves were an important part of the aristocratic kit. Some were worn for warmth and protection, but others were fashion items in their own right. The ones you see in paintings and museums are mostly of the latter type.
Left, detail, Ditchley portrait (©NPG London),
by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, ca 1592.
Right, by an unknown painter ‘after Gheeraerts’, 1590s.
Fancy gloves made fancy gifts, and who got more fancy gifts than the Queen? She had piles of them. She kept her own glover and embroiderers busy as well, adding to the piles. She’d give them away occasionally as tokens of her special favour, knowing they’d be cherished as if they were holy relics. “Here are the Queen’s gloves, that she gave to me with her own beautiful hands…” There were plenty more back at the Wardrobe.
Left, George Clifford, 3rd Earl of Cumberland, as
Queen’s Champion, miniature by Nicholas Hilliard, ca 1590.
Right, detail, the Queen’s glove in his hat as a favour.
(©National Maritime Museum Greenwich, London)
One thing I saved from the depradations of the freebooters (who took the shirt off my back) was my gift for Elizabeth: a pair of perfect, elegant Florentine gloves, trimmed with just a few small raised roses done in silkwork. I’d had her glover write down her measurements before I left. The old master who was recommended to me thought I was having him on. “Nessuna donna ha tali dita!” I had to pay him extra.
Coals to Newcastle? Nay, by your leave. What made these gloves unique was not just their elegance, but their scent.
Perfuming gloves was not new. It was done to mask the smell of the leather, usually by infusing them with oily, musky ambergris. The best of these came from Spain, but they were not elegant.
Elizabeth disliked strong, heavy odours. So I had her gloves imbued with Acqua della Regina, Water of the Queen, a distillation made by Dominican monks in the farmaceutica at the monastery of Santa Maria Novella, right there in Florence. The scent was light, fresh, and different. In England it would be completely new, and exclusive to Elizabeth. I was sure she would love it, and the name too. Her very own royal perfume.
I just neglected to inform her that the Regina of the Acqua was not herself, but King Henri’s lady mother, Catherine de’ Medici. What Bess didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her. (Vanity has its uses.) Catherine, a Florentine herself, had the monks create the scent for her to take to France in 1533, when at fourteen she became the wife of Henri of Valois, Duc d’Orléans, the future Henri II. You could say that Acqua della Regina was the first celebrity fragrance. There is nothing new under the sun.
Of course Bess adored her gift, and the fad took off. Scented ‘Oxford gloves’ were soon on every smart hand, and ‘the Earl of Oxford’s perfume’ was in great demand. I never revealed its origin (until now), but I sent my thanks to Catherine, sub rosa, through de Castelnau. Back in Paris she had given me a letter to the monks, enabling my purchase and abetting my subterfuge. (She smelled so good when we met, I had to ask.) She sent word back that she enjoyed having one up on la reine anglaise des vanités. In Catherine’s very Catholic eyes, my queen was the bastard of a woman who was a whore, a usurper, and a heretic. But my secret was safe, and Bess was never the wiser. The vials sold in England were all bad knockoffs anyway.
Acqua della Regina is an exquisite fragrance, bright with orange blossom and bergamot and whatever else Catherine and the monks tossed into the alembic. I smelled it again recently, for the first time in over four hundred years. Had to sit down and drink a glass of Rhenish – everything came back. Overwhelming. That’s why I wrote this.
If you want to smell the Earl of Oxford’s Perfume (with apologies to Catherine), you can buy it from the same farmaceutica that I did. Oxford speakes nought but troth. Acqua della Regina is now called Acqua di Santa Maria Novella. The formula is unchanged, though Dominicans are no longer involved. The pharmacy opened its doors to the public in 1612. Those old doors still open. There are new doors too, on the web and Twitter and Facebook.
The flowers of the past still bloom today
’Tis only our attention’s gone astray
Questions to be answered in Part 2:
• Do books say anything about this glovely tale?
• How did the queen’s gloves escape their fate as pirate swag?
• How long were Elizabeth’s fingers, anyway?
• Got any pics?
• What’s up with that banner?
Sources/Additional Reading for Part 1:
This tale isn’t intended to be a travelogue of all the places I visited on my tour. I’ve skipped a lot. If you want scenic details, read my plays. Or try the following book, which doesn’t mention my name, but doesn’t need to if you have a functioning intellect. The title could use some work.
• The Shakepeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels [Google Books]
· by Richard Paul Roe
· HarperCollins, 2011
• Mark Anderson’s biography, “Shakespeare” By Another Name, contains his research into the itinerary of my tour. I’ve already posted information about this book, at the link.
Anderson makes the connection between my time in Florence, the perfumed gloves, and Santa Maria Novella (although not Catherine de’ Medici, which is understandable). Smart fellow.
• The Road to Polisy: An Overview [sixdegreesofshakespeare.wordpress.com]
· by K. A. Pope
· July 2016 – (ongoing)
The Road to Polisy is an intriguing exploration into speculative (or unprovable) territory. It discusses Shakespeare’s knowledge of French and Italian noble-family and artistic connections during the 16th century, my own journey back through France on my way home in early 1576, and what I might have been doing along the way. And a certain painting by Hans Holbein the Younger, and the skull of poor Yorick. There’s more. The link is to the overview; three parts are up (to date), with two more to follow. Fair warning: there are charts.
• Anne Vavasour’s Echo ca 1581 [wikisource.org]
• Early Modern Women Poets (1520-1700): An Anthology [Google Books]
· Jane Stevenson, Peter Davidson, editors
· Oxford University Press, 2001
· pgs 78-80, entry for Anne Field née Vavasour
• Attending to Early Modern Women [Google Books]
· Susan Dwyer Amussen, Adele F. Seeff, editors
· Associated University Presses, 1998
· pgs 40-45, on Anne Vavasour and the Echo poem
Unless there’s a reason to, I’m not going to include UK/US book-vendor links any more, as I’ve done in the past. You surely know where to search for books in whatever part of the globe you inhabit. I’ll give you enough information to find them for yourself. Google Books will probably be my default.
• Santa Maria Novella, Florence’s Most Famous Pharmacy Blooms into its 5th Century [italymagazine.com]
· by Julie Burns, 11 February 2013
• Italy’s Santa Maria Novella: The ancient perfume store you’ve never heard of [cnn.com]
· by Prachi Joshi, 27 March 2015
I wanted to link to this in the second paragraph, but it seemed rather ungallant. Catherine may have been reputed a poisoner, and she certainly had a lot of Huguenot blood on her hands, but she did me a generous favour. The page doesn’t have anything to do with her, the link just struck me as funny.
• The European Black Widow Spider [lost-in-france.com]