Want to Smell Leonardo’s ‘Lady With an Ermine’? These Scientists Are Offering a Sniff

"A very nice, historical museum smell."

The scented pen holding the smell of Leonardo's Lady With an Ermine. Photo courtesy of the National Museum in Kraków.

What might Leonardo da Vinci’s beloved Lady With an Ermine (ca. 1489–91) smell like? Old paint and varnish? A musty museum storage room? According to a team of Polish and Slovenian scientists, it’s somewhere in between. 

The researchers are part of a project dubbed Odotheka, which is hoping to build a library of scents based on museum objects. To do so, it’s working in partnership with universities and institutions including the National Museum in Kraków and the National Museum of Slovenia to recreate the smells of 10 culturally significant items. Leonardo’s 15th-century masterpiece is our first sniff. 

Renaissance portrait of a wealthy, young woman holding a white ermine in her arms.

Leonardo da Vinci, Lady with an Ermine (1489–91). Collection of the Czartoryski Museum, Kraków, Poland.

The painting is held in the National Museum in Kraków, where Odotheka’s lead researcher Tomasz Sawoszczuk first encountered it. In 2021, the institution called him in to assess the quality of air inside the glass case that holds the work. While doing so, he was immediately struck by its smell. 

“I just thought, okay, I’m one of the few people in the world that can approach the object without any glass, that it will be nice to collect the smell of this painting and bring it out,” he told Euronews.

Sawoszczuk’s team has since collected whiffs of the painting from its surface and separated the compounds that make up the scent with advanced measurement equipment. Each of these elements was then identified and named. Using these chemical analyses in tandem with odor detectors (i.e. their noses), scientists have faithfully replicated the scent of Lady With an Ermine, now contained in a scented pen. 

A scent measurement device in a lab

Inside the Odotheka Lab. Photo courtesy of the National Museum in Kraków.

So, what does it smell like? 

“We can feel the element of walnut wood, because the walnut board was used as the base of the painting, and the smell of oil paintings,” said Sawoszczuk. “It’s a very nice, historical museum smell.” 

It’s not meant for regular use like a perfume—the goal is accuracy, not allure. Visitors who want to recapture the experience of viewing the painting need only sniff the pen once, at most two times, according to Sawoszczuk. “It’s enough to recognize the smell,” he added. 

After its work on the Leonardo, Odotheka will be analyzing a host of other paintings and objects of Polish and Slovenian importance. Artworks on the list include Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1905 work-on-paper, Motherhood; Olga Boznańska’s 1894 painting, Girl with Chrysanthemums; and works from Alina Szapocznikow’s “Herbarium” series from 1972. Other items range from a snuffbox that once belonged to Slovenian poet Franc Prešeren to the 1525 Treaty of Kraków. 

Two rows of boxes with covers printed with Leonardo da Vinci's painting "Lady With an Ermine."

Boxes of the scented pens holding the smell of Leonardo’s Lady With an Ermine. Photo courtesy of the National Museum in Kraków.

Odotheka is of course not alone in leveraging scents as part of a multisensory art experience. The Costume Institute’s ongoing 2024 exhibition, “Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion,” features a scent component created by artist Sissel Tolaas. In recent years, various initiatives have sought to capture and bottle everything from Cleopatra’s perfume to the Met Museum’s galleries to Monet’s French garden.

In its next phase, the Odotheka initiative intends to examine how the smell of a painting “affects the perception of the work and the entire exhibition” on the part of its visitors, said Sawoszczuk in a statement.  

“Institutions often perceive odors emitted from facilities as unnecessary information, and perhaps even as undesirable pollution,” said Elżbieta Zygier, a conservator at the National Museum in Kraków, in a statement. “However, from now on, visitors will be able to explore the smell of historic objects in a completely new and little-explored way. This project is truly groundbreaking.” 

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