THE VIOLA ODORATA L. DUCHESSE DE PARME
a unique historic flower
 

Common violet

The spontaneous species

Parma's violet

The cultivar species

The Parma violet is not to be confused with the common violet. If the latter is a wild resistant species formed as a single flower largely distributed on all the continents, the Parma violet, a double-flowered variety, it has never been found in a freely spontaneous state and it needs the constant human intervention for its growth. It pertains to an ancient cultivar variety from uncertain origins. It is assumed that in ancient times there was a casual hybridization between the common violet and exotic flowers, possibly from Turkey or Persia, which produced a double flower of exceptional beauty. The earliest documents that testify the existence of the double violet cultivated in gardens are dated in the XVI century but of this specific variety cited therein, all traces have been lost. The double violet reappears after a couple of centuries later, being cultivated especially in Parma, not before having followed a long term due to geopolitical issues of the time, involving mainly the House of Bourbon. The original flower of this variety was imported to Europe from the Middle East by the Moors, especially in Spain reigned by Philip V at the time. The gateway to the italic territory was the reign of Naples, where the government of the son Charles VII is thought to have promoted trade of secondary goods between the two courts. This variety makes its entry in the Italian peninsula firstly with the generic name, known as the Viola Odorata Italica Pallida Plena, which expresses its paleness of chromatic tones and its exceptional number of petals. In the long run, the gradual distribution of its presence in specific territories, modifies its denominations, mostly the vernaculars, creating a certain difficulty in terms of its classification in modern times. It is named Neapolitan violet initially, as a way of accrediting its entry in the southern part of the peninsula (but also as the Portuguese violet, if one honours a diverse tradition). Later, when, always between Bourbons with duke Philip, it arrives in parmesan territory, its name becomes known as Parma violet (Violetta di Parma). This denomination, being of French influence, builds an overall picture of the continuous expansion of this flower also in the rest of European gardens. And even though the latter developed their own selections which identify their geographic location (Toulouse violet, Bruneau violet…), the Parma violet retains this name becoming the common denominator that gathers all the double violets. In the end, if history has definitely chosen and coined it to represent the entire group, this is thanks to the impulse of a certain person, Maria Luigia, the Duchess “of Parma”, who made an icon of this flower at that time. It seems to be dedicated to this woman the double violet nominated with the name Viola Odorata L. Duchesse de Parme, in the second half of the 19th century. Even in modern times, one needs to clarify whether it is a question of a mere redefinition or whether one is confronted with the birth of a new selection, envisaged by the Duchess.

Maria Luigia and the cult of the violet

To narrate the history of the Violet of Parma, Maria Luigia of Austria needs to be commemorated. The “good Duchess” assumed the regency of the small Duchy of Parma in 1816. This period is remembered as being one of the most prosperous of our city, in which the Duchess dedicated with unforgotten dedication. Under her cultural interest, a strong predisposition to floriculture and a strong personal predilection, our botanical benefited from a great fortune, to the point of becoming the floral symbol of the city of Parma today. The first ascertained facts of this variety are dated 1755, when its cultivation was located in Grasse, in Provence, for the perfume industry. After the analysis conducted on the herbaria conserved in the Historical Library of the Botanical Gardens of Parma (Biblioteca Storica dell’Orto Botanico di Parma), it is assumed that it was already present in the parmesan territory towards the end of the century. In relation to the successive century, this hypothesis is easily confirmed by the numerous invoices issued by the official florist, Madame Bernard, which testify the abundant supplies of the Violet of Parma, addressed to the Duchess. An enthusiastic letter written to her friend, Louise de Guéhéneuc, a year before arriving in Parma, indicates that Maria Luigia could probably take care of the cultivation of the species also in the greenhouses and in the gardens of the ducal residences.

“I would kindly ask you to supply […] some Parma violets with the written instructions regarding the planting method and how to make them bloom; maybe Mr. Lelieur (supervisor of the imperial gardens and parks) could undertake this request; I hope that the plants grow vigorously, because I am becoming a trainee in botany and I would be pleased to continue cultivating this graceful little flower […].”

There was a strong bond between the Duchess and this flower to the point that this inspired a research by some friars at the Convent of Santissima Annunziata, which led to the production of the soliflore “Violetta di Parma” perfume. This cosmetic masterpiece was envisaged to be an exclusive gift for the Duchess, and only the initiative undertaken by Ludovico Borsari of Parma, who obtained the secret formula in 1870, promotes it to become a top product of the Italian perfumery industry. From this extraordinary story, another one is conceived…

The contribution of Enfleurage®

In 2021 the founder joins as a volunteer the Botanical Gardens of Parma, which conducted genomic analysis to bring to light the genetic structure of the species, via the university division. Here he withdraws various specimens of the Viola Odorata L. Duchesse de Parma, and having had the idea of conferring to this flower the title of botanical of honor into a parmesan gin, authorises the supervision to Il Gelso, a certified agricultural biological farm, well known on the territory for its twenty-year experience in the preservation and cultivation of antique species, which guarantees a healthy and abundant yield during the blooming season. After an enlightening trip to Grasse, the World Capital of Perfume, and after a year of study conducted through the historical archives, dealing with antique and nostalgic stories of perfumes, it is this history which indicates to him the extraction method to be used for the creation of the gin. In this way, he ventures into the world of enfleurage. In fact, the legend reveals that this was the technique used to create the ducal perfume. A year of laboratory experimentation is needed in order to obtain the desired aromatic result. And again the history shows the path towards the definition of a product from a narrative profile which time after time is focused. In fact, it follows a meeting with a priest of the Santissima Annunziata Church of Parma, which, according to tradition, hosted the alchemical project of the friars, accomplishing that essence of fine workmanship. There was an immediate intuition by Enfleurage® to collect the notes of this captivating fragrance and to transcript them into the keys of gin, proposing them according to the concept of “edible perfume”. In consideration of the extreme delicacy of the selected floral bouquet, we chose to combine the inflowering with the vacuum distillation technique, which, by means of the rotating evaporator, guarantees the maximum preservation and a superior concentration. The antique and the modern, as the universe of the perfume and the distillation, dialogue in synergy to reveal an outstanding product for you. From Parma, Italian Capital of Culture for the years 2020 and 2021, we are pleased to present you a fine, elegant gin, which, by the use of an in-depth narration, gathered the historical, artistic and cultural inheritage of our city and it overwhelms you through complex sensory evocations.
The first productions of Violetta di Parma mainly concern the extracts. In the image, the first packaging proposals that Borsari & C. presents to the general public market.
Subsequently the fragrance is enriched with more olfactory notes, assuming the architecture of a complex perfume. Detail on the evolution of the design of Violetta di Parma bottles.

The botanical 

The Duchesse is the most scented of all the double violets. Its delicate beauty lasts from November to April but the peak of its blooming is in spring. Its double flowers, dense and similar to miniature roses, are purple mauve in colour with a white heart. It is not present in nature and it survives, today as in the past, only via the specific cultural techniques. The numerosity of the petals in fact brought about the atrophy of the stamens and pistils and therefore, to the sterility of the plant. The propagation of the species therefore takes place via stolons or by dividing the tuft.