Spring is in the air in most parts of the Western hemisphere, and the latest release from Masque Milano embodies its essence quite well. Romanza is a new fragrance that departs from the style of many of the Masque fragrances that I’ve tried thus far, focusing almost entirely on florals this time around. Despite being inspired by Oscar Wilde, the Victorians, Dorian Grey, and romantic dandies, it evoked something else entirely for me for most of its lifetime on my skin: a spring day in the countryside. It’s a largely unisex composition that I suspect will become one of the more popular fragrances in Masque’s collection.
Romanza is an eau de parfum that was created by Cristiano Canali. It officially debuted at the Pitti show in October 2015, but its world-wide release seems to have been postponed until April of this year. One reason why might be Masque’s change in packaging; unlike the others in the line and unlike the way that I think Romanza was originally shown at Pitti last year, it will now be released in a clear, glass 35 ml bottle instead of the more usual patterned, gold and black 100 ml one.
The inspiration for Romanza seems to be the myth of Narcissus as seen through the lens of Victorian romanticism and 19th century artists. While number of sites discuss or quote copy that is almost entirely about Oscar Wilde and Dorian Grey, Masque’s own website has a slightly different account, but the general narrative is largely the same: a 19th century romantic and artistic twist on Narcissus. That is undoubtedly why a major part of the fragrance is the actual narcissus flower. In addition, Romanza includes also artemisia (aka wormwood), the basis for Absinthe, a potent, allegedly hallucinogenic liquor that was nicknamed “The Green Fairy” and that was beloved by 19th century bohemians and artists, particularly Oscar Wilde. As the wormwood link explains, the legends surrounding absinthe and its effects were such that the liquor was banned for more than 70 years in many parts of the world, but it was a quintessential part of the 19th century’s artistic culture in Europe.
Like all of Masque’s fragrances, Romanza is described in terms of a play or opera in several acts. A slightly abbreviated version of the tale on Masque‘s website is as follows:
Act III Scene Two
Daylight is breaking in. What time is it? The Green Fairy inspired throughout your nightlong endeavours and now you’re done. Your beautiful subject is still there facing you. …such a beautiful poser… So well dressed, so carefully groomed, so irresistibly debonair, …beautiful and intoxicating… as intoxicating as the indolic smell of the flowers in full bloom, coming from the garden. So weird – only yesterday you were just friends. Bees hopping from one flower to another, perpetuating the amazing circle of life. Butterflies in your stomach. What is going on? What is this vertigo? Overwhelming attraction, stirring you up. Still you are not in love – yet.
According to Masque, Romanza’s notes are:
Absinthe (Artemisia ), Orange Blossom, Angelica, Narcissus Absolute, Violet Leaves, Jasmine, Decadent Woods (Vetiver, Cedarwood, Patchouli), Amber Accord, Myrrh.
A few things are worth mentioning about the notes. First, artemisia (or wormwood) is a big part of Romanza’s opening stage on my skin, but not everyone is aware of what it smells like, so let me explain. It’s an extremely green and bitter note with a profoundly herbaceous odor. Often, it can also manifest olfactory aspects very similar to oud. That doesn’t happen here. Instead, there are hints of the rarer juniper and gin nuances, and, in one test, something truly redolent of the absinthe liquor. It popped up solely in one of my tests, but it was the first time I’ve ever tried a fragrance with artemisia where it actually smelt like the drink — and I thought it was incredibly cool.
The second thing is a mere uncertainty on my part, but I wonder if the fragrance has been tweaked slightly since its early debut last year. Almost all descriptions from that time mention hyacinth and civet. One of the many accounts of Pitti 2015 is a Fragrantica interview with Masque’s co-owner, Alesandro Brun, about Romanza and the quoted note list is undoubtedly the official one. Back then, it included both civet and hyacinth. Today, neither one is mentioned in the list on Masque’s website. The repeated postponements for the launch can’t simply be a matter of bottle changes, can they? I have to wonder. My sample of Romanza was sent to me last month by Luckyscent and is presumably the current version, but there was no clear, discernible hyacinth in any of my tests. (The civet is still there, though.) The reason why I bring all this up is, if you were looking forward to Romanza due to 2015 early reviews, you may want to keep in mind that the fragrance might have been slightly tweaked, particularly if your enthusiasm was driven by a love of hyacinth. (Mine was. Hyacinth is my second favourite flower.) [UPDATE: Masque says the formula was not tweaked and remains the same as it was in Pittti. On the blog’s Facebook page, Mr. Brun told me: “In several interviews I mentioned hyacinth as there is a repro in the formula. Yet we decided to mention just jasmine (which Cristiano used for the hyacinth repro) in the “official” note list.”]
As for the scent itself, despite all the official talk of Victorian romanticism, “irresistibly debonair” dandies, and Oscar Wilde, little in the fragrance evokes such images in my mind. Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Grey, in particular, have been favourites of mine since childhood, but Romanza lacks their hedonistic excess, lustiness, and thickened, dark opulence. In fact, the shimmering opening is the furthest thing from “thickened” in feel, while the extraordinarily long-lasting heart of the scent placed me completely in the country on a crisp Spring day.
Having said that, there was definitely a romantic quality to Romanza’s opening. I must say, I loved the first few minutes immensely. It’s a powerfully evocative, intoxicating interpretation of white flowers, in large part due to a deft, creative handling of the wormwood. And I also thoroughly enjoyed the first 30 minutes of the scent as well. I’m ambivalent about the rest, though, and it’s not solely because the heart stage falls well outside my personal tastes or comfort zone as you will see. Still, I think Romanza will be a hit with a lot of people of both genders.
Romanza‘s absolutely stellar opening minutes are centered around a shimmering, radiant cloud of translucent white flowers that are slashed in half by broad swathes of herbal, bitter, dewy, and profoundly green elements. The latter is a multi-faceted accord that conjures up the image of flower stalks dripping floral water from a vase before being cut to release their bitter, venomous sap. Yet, the greenness is also intensely herbaceous, slightly spicy, and the tiniest bit woody, thanks to the other aspects of the artemisia/wormwood.
The cumulative effect brought me back again and again to sniff my arm with appreciation as a slew of images ran through my head: the ethereal delicacy of a ballerina’s chiffon tutu or gossamer white curtains, both made of the fresh, crispest orange blossoms, billowing against a backdrop of heavy, thick emerald brocade made of dark herbs and the bitterest wormwood. In my second test, the wormwood smelt so much like real absinthe (for the first time ever in my experience) that I was transported back to the edgy, hip bar in Shanghai’s old French quarter where I’d tried modern absinthe cocktails to the quiet sounds of jazz and blues. In my third test, the intensity of the wormwood’s herbaceousness and masculine-skewing bitterness took center stage against such a delicate, almost feminine backdrop of whiteness that I understood Masque’s references to dandies, as I imagined a lithe Dorian Grey wearing a 19th century flouncy, ruffled white shirt surrounded by green-black darkness. In all instances, though, the opening is a juxtaposition of hardness and softness, masculinity and feminity, whose greatest appeal is the bracing bitterness of its wormwood. It’s not a note that I’ve always loved in other fragrances but, in Romanza, those opening minutes have one of the very best, most enticing treatments that I’ve encountered.
Romanza shifts within minutes. Violet leaves sprout up around the herbal-floral bouquet, adding another layer of astringent greenness. Narcissus grows like stalks from the delicate petals, smelling as dry as hay left out to blanch in the sun. There is a subtle sense of earthiness in the base, like wet earth doused with floral vase water. In the background are whispers of vetiver and cedar, ghostly echoes that pop up in the most elusive, ephemeral form before darting away. Together with the thin threads of wet earthiness, they mark the very first signs of Romanza’s eventual transition from ethereal, romantic floralcy to something more redolent of a walk in the countryside in Spring. For now, though, the main focus is herbal floralcy dominated in equal measure by the artemisia/wormwood and extremely translucent, slightly watery white flowers.
The floral bouquet at the center of all this is interesting. In all my tests, it was initially an indeterminate whiteness that only barely hinted at orange blossoms. However, roughly 5 minutes it, the note starts to solidify into neroli. There is a distinct olfactory difference between orange blossom and neroli due to the different extraction methods. To me, neroli is less sweet, less feminine, and more unisex; it’s a greener, cleaner, crisper note that can often bears a slightly tart fruitiness and briskness instead of a syrupy, indolic, blackened, or ripe lushness like orange blossom.
In Romanza, the note is definitely more like neroli on my skin. It’s a completely non-indolic, fresh floralcy that is infused with bright, crisp fruitiness and greenness, as though the orange tree’s flowers had been distilled while they were still tightly closed buds. Actually, Cristiano Canali seems to have gone one step further in creating his floral bouquet. In Romanza’s early minutes, it’s as though the green orange blossom buds had been heavily diluted in order to create that sense of gossamer, ethereal sheerness, almost as if it were an artist’s gouache water-colour interpretation of the flower. Then, Canali dilutes their floral character even further by adding in violet leaves, a large dousing of cool vase water (the hyacinth note that people encountered at Pitti?), and a heaping, increasingly prominent dose of narcissus.
The end result is a kaleidoscopic bouquet that flits from one flower to the next for Romanza’s first hour, moving from abstraction to neroli to narcissus as the lead note, but always demonstrating a variety of other nuances and elements at the same time. To give you a clearer sense of the rather rapid changes, here is a rough time line of what typically occurs when I wear Romanza:
- First 5 minutes: a generally indeterminate white floralcy infused with herbaceous, bitter, green, and watery elements;
- 5 to 25/30 minute period: the neroli dominates the floral bouquet, trailed by the first signs of violet leaf, narcissus, and vase water, floral wetness;
- 25/30 to 60/75 minute period: a constantly shifting mix of neroli, narcissus-hay, and violet leaf that is dominated primarily by the narcissus. The other two jostle and take turns for second place, but the narcissus is always the main focus.
In fact, all of Romanza changes quite dramatically at the 30-minute mark, not just the character of its flowers. As the narcissus blooms and take over, the vetiver leaps up from the base, and joins the main notes on center stage. A soft, aromatic cedar takes its place in the foundation. More importantly, though, the wormwood’s bracing, deliciously bitter herbaceousness weakens with every passing minute, edged out by the violet leaf and vetiver. The cumulative effect is two-fold. First, a significantly less herbal, though still bitter, greenness surrounding the flowers, one that slowly, very slowly, takes on woody undertones as well. Second, it marks the transition from the romantic, dancing herbal flowers of the opening to Romanza’s core essence and heart stage on my skin: the countryside in Spring.
The narcissus is key to all of it. In fact, a number of people describe Romanza as a “narcissus fragrance.” I don’t completely share that view because it almost implies Romanza is a soliflore and, as you will see later, greenness (both violet leaf and vetiver) is an even greater part of the scent on my skin. But, yes, I agree, there is a walloping, monumental amount of narcissus at Romanza’s core. (It was, after all, inspired by the Greek myth.) The bottom-line for you is that you better love narcissus immensely and passionately in order to enjoy the fragrance. If you hated its smell in Parfum d’Empire‘s Tabac Tabou (which really was a narcissus bomb, in my opinion), then you won’t enjoy it here.
So, what exactly does it smell like? Well, actually, narcissus is related to the daffodil, but their olfactory focus and character are quite different, in my opinion. Narcissus is dry or drier, less overtly floral, and lacking either a sweet or narcotically heady floralcy. Instead, it often has a very strong aroma of dried hay, along with astringent greenness that can either resemble bitter green sap, the dried stalks of the plant, or both. Often, its hay-like aroma bears a subtle earthiness. On occasion, it can manifest a distinct nuance of gasoline or diesel. Less common is a musky, rotting vegetation undertone that is similar to hawthorn. In Romanza, all of those nuances appear on my skin except for the rotting vegetation but, above all else, the narcissus smells like dry, somewhat bitter hay.
Romanza shifts again at the end of the first hour and start of the second. The narcissus-hay balloons in size, taking up perhaps as much as 70% of the scent. In the base, the cedar grows stronger, and is now joined by something sharp and slightly animalic. I think it comes from the narcissus rather than from civet at this point because it bears a distinct whiff of gasoline. There is really no other way to describe it; it’s a sort of animalic darkness that is simultaneously musky, vegetal, and like diesel fuel. The gasoline is not a major part of Romanza on my skin by any means, but it consistently showed up in the base in all of my tests at some point. Rest assured, though, it doesn’t last for long and is eventually replaced by the civet during the third hour. Plus, even at this stage, it’s only an undertone and is overshadowed by a growing green accord of violet leaf, vetiver, and even a touch of grass, all of them sprouting voluminously around the narcissus.
The end result for much of the second hour and part of the third is a spring fragrance that feels like the narcissus cousin to Ostara, Bertrand Duchaufour‘s daffodil fragrance for Penhaligon. Both fragrances are very much in the same style, reflecting attributes of nature in spring, and both have varying degrees of earthiness, greenness, and bitterness. But Ostara’s daffodils are distinctly and primarily floral on me; Romanza’s narcissus smells like dry hay infused with astringent greenness. Plus, Romanza isn’t really a single-flower soliflore. While Ostara included some narcissus aspects in the daffodil bouquet, Romanza goes much further and has a heaping dose of violet leaf and vetiver as well. It’s a significantly drier and greener scent, less overtly floral. It’s also not beset by a torrent of clean white musk like Ostara is later on its development. Instead, there is animalic, occasionally urinous, civet and some woodiness, followed at the very final hours by a rather ambered glow flecked with tiny strands of jasmine.
The best way for me to describe not only Romanza’s development from this point but also the difference with Ostara is to pretend both perfumers are film makers or camera men. While Duchaufour focused his gaze narrowly on the daffodil, seeking to represent its every facet from start to finish, Canali has taken a wide-lens focus that pans out to take in all parts of the countryside surrounding his flowers of choice.
He starts with the neroli buds on an orange tree that is fused with wormwood/artemisia before moving beyond the orchard at the start of the second hour to a more bucolic, complex landscape. The camera focuses on a field filled with narcissus, bales of hay, violet leaves, and vetiver. The only glimpses of the neroli/orange blossom are whiffs borne in on the wind. Small patches of dark earth are exposed, dusted by a few dying strands of herbaceous that are blow away not long after. At the edges of the field is a small grove of cedar, almost blurred out of focus. Canali moves his camera back and forth, but always comes back to zoom in on the narcissus-hay. In fact, if it weren’t for the power of the surrounding violet leaf on my skin, this part of Romanza might actually be closer to Tabac Tabou‘s middle stages (once its elusive, fleeting, wholly indeterminate whiff of tobacco has passed) than it would be to Ostara.
Yet, ultimately, Romanza is unlike either fragrance at its core because, starting at the top of the third hour, Canali turns his camera’s lens to zoom in on greenness. And this is where it becomes complicated for me to explain the fragrance’s development because I had two very different experiences during this long middle stage.
In my first test, Romanza turned into a green floral dominated by vetiver laced with a new arrival: golden jasmine. Weaving in and out of the edges were puffs of narcissus hay, orange blossom (not neroli), lemony violet leaf, an abstract woodiness, and a herbaceous greenness, but the main focus was on the vetiver. Within an hour or two, the floralcy turned largely abstract, only occasionally translating into a clearly delineated, distinct narcissus or jasmine note. (The orange blossom was always quite mercurial, and often disappeared for stretches of time before reappearing in the background.) Gradually, Romanza’s vetiver turned woodier and darker. Roughly 9.5 hours in, the fragrance was primarily woody vetiver with only the thinnest veneer of floralcy, and it remained that way until the drydown stage began hours and hours later. For the most part, this version of Romanza, let’s call it Version #1, was nice. It was too green to be my personal cup of tea, but it definitely had some appealing parts.
Version #2 in the heart stage of my second and third tests had a completely different scent profile. The greenness that emerged at the top of the 3rd hour was focused almost entirely on violet leaves laced with varying, fluctuating amounts of vetiver. And this is where Romanza lost all appeal for me. Violet leaf is a note that I always struggle with and dislike, because it is invariably synthetic, lemony, and pointedly sharp on my skin, in addition to being far, far too green for my personal tastes. It’s the same way here, alas. There is also a long-lasting sourness lurking in the base, perhaps as an indirect byproduct of the (equally synthetic) civet, but whatever the source, I didn’t enjoy that, either.
Some of my difficulty with Version #2 stems from the fact that the other elements are, to all intents and purposes, irrelevant amidst this avalanche of violet greenness. By the start of the 3rd hour, the artemisia/wormwood and neroli have both disappeared. More importantly, the once dominant narcissus has suddenly become a demure wallflower on the sidelines. It dissipates even further midway during the 4th hour, becoming an abstract background note that doesn’t even smell of hay anymore and is only a form of dryness. There is zero jasmine to take its place in this version. None at all. There is also no cedar, merely a generic woodiness that is heavily muffled and indeterminate. (By the way, at no time in any of my tests did I detect any patchouli or myrrh). As for the vetiver, it’s largely subsumed within the violet leaf.
In fact, with the exception of the very distinct and powerful violet leaf, everything else has fused into a shapeless blur. It’s an endlessly green, leafy, crisp, lemony, spring-like bouquet with only occasional, ghostly pops of narcissus hay, woods, and dry earth in the distant horizon. At the start of the 6th hour, the civet emerges. Sometimes, it’s merely a generalized animalic muskiness but, most of the time, it smells either urinous, peppery, or both. In all cases, though, it feels sharp and synthetic to my nose and in all cases, it’s subsumed within the sea of violet greenness on my skin.
For me, Version #2 is both uninteresting and disappointing — and I don’t say that solely because I dislike green fragrances. For me, the blurriness of the scent and its lack of note distinction robs Romanza of its earlier character, and reduces it down to an overly simplistic accord. I’ve lost track of how many fragrances I’ve tried that are centered on a green bouquet dominated almost entirely by violet leaf. Without the benefit of other clearly delineated notes, the end result is rather one-note, characterless, and generic to me.
Even so, I wouldn’t mind it if it were only a temporary phase, but my greatest issue with this version of Romanza’s heart stage is that it stretches on seemingly for infinity. In my second and third tests of Romanza, the violet leaf greenness consistently lasted from the top of the 3rd hour until the 18th and 21st hour, respectively. That’s a minimum of 15 hours straight (!!) of sharp, lemony greenness, albeit one that is infused with animalic civet from the start of the 6th hour onwards. And it happened twice! I can only chalk it up to the fact that my skin holds onto synthetics like crazy and has done wonky things with violet leaf in the past as well, but I was aghast nonetheless. I’m sure it’s a personal aberration limited to me and my skin chemistry, but I can only recount what I experience and this was it, unfortunately, for Romanza’s main stage on two different occasions.
On the positive side, both Versions #1 and #2 share the same appealing drydown, one that is markedly different from any of the stages that preceded it and that’s always dominated by a golden warmth. It simply takes ages and ages to get to it because Romanza has astonishing longevity on my skin. In fact, it took so long for the drydown to kick in during my second test that I’d given up all hope of it after 17 hours and thought it had merely been a fluke the first time around. In Version #1, it appeared in the 15th hour; in my Version #2 tests, it typically took place after the 18th or 21st hour.
In all three tests, though, Romanza wafted a snuggly, sexy, golden warmth that was dry, musky, slightly woody, and just a wee bit animalic. The amber doesn’t smell like either ambergris, labdanum, or a benzoin resin; it’s wholly abstract, merely a plush softness that feels golden and warm. In the first part of the drydown, it is infused with musky woodiness; the second part, many hours later, it smells like musky, sexy, warm skin, more clean than dirty, never skanky or sexual, and bearing just the faintest dusting of powderiness. It’s really lovely, though I had to glue my nose to my arm to detect it since the entire drydown phase consists of the thinnest lacquer on the skin.
Yet, for all that, Romanza clung on with truly astonishing tenacity. In all my tests and regardless of how much fragrance I applied or which version appeared, Romanza consistently lasted more than 24 hours on my skin. In my third test, small dime-sized patches on one arm wafted that musky goldenness well until the 36th hour. (I didn’t take a shower just to see how long it would keep going.) In all cases, I sprayed rather than dabbed or smeared because Luckyscent had kindly provided a manufacturer’s atomiser sample. The spraying mechanism was a bit wonky, often sending just as much scent into the air as it did on the swathe of my skin, but I typically applied the equivalent of 2 good, solid sprays from an actual bottle. (In my 2nd test, I also tried the equivalent of 3 sprays on my right arm.)
Regardless of quantity, Romanza typically had very soft projection and sillage. It usually opened with a very translucent, sheer bouquet that projected 2.5 to 3 inches from the skin. The opening sillage was consistently 4-5 inches except on the arm where I’d used 3 sprays where it was about 6 inches. In all cases, though, the numbers dropped after 90 minutes: the projection became roughly 1 to 1.5 inches, while the scent trail was only about 3 inches. Romanza remained that way until the 5th hour when it began to hover just above the skin. It became a skin scent 7.75 hours into its development, but was still easy to detect without much effort until the 10th hour if I brought my nose close to my arm. After that point, it became harder because Romanza really clings to the skin. Yet, whenever I put my nose actually on my arm, it was definitely and clearly there.
That’s obviously something that works for testing and reviewing purposes, but isn’t so practical or ideal in real life. In fact, I can’t see most people doing that to see if their fragrance is still around, which may be one reason why there is a split in the longevity votes on Fragrantica for Romanza. The big majority thus far (9 votes in total) rate Romanza as “very long lasting” which is defined as 12+ hours. However, an equal amount of votes are split for the polar opposite end of the scale: 4 for “poor” and 5 for “weak.” The bottom-line, in my opinion, is that Romanza clings so intimately to the skin for the vast majority of its lifespan that it might be easy to think it’s completely vanished (especially in the later hours) unless you exert major effort. I don’t know how happy some people might be about that.
I’ve spent a lot of time in explaining Romanza’s nuances and development, so I don’t want to make this even longer by quoting comparative reviews, and will only say that almost everyone seems to love it, whether on Fragrantica, Basenotes, or the blogs. Out of all the many internet things I’ve read, only one person on Fragrantica disliked the scent and that’s because he says he experienced synthetic, soapy jasmine. For everyone else, though, Romanza is either a narcissus scent, an animalic floral, or a Spring kaleidoscope. My favourite review is the very long one by the talented, brilliant “Claire V.” writing on Basenotes. It’s the first comment, but too long to quote here and is written in such a lovely, fluid way that taking out tiny snippets wouldn’t make much sense, so I hope you’ll read it for yourself. For her, Romanza is primarily a narcissus scent, one that begins with “chartreuse opening” that conjured up Wuthering Heights instead of Oscar Wilde, is then accompanied by a violet leaf/hyacinth accord, and then later by a powerful streak of hay and jasmine. No matter which site or blog you read, though, men and women alike are enthusiastic about Romanza, so it’s clearly unisex in appeal as well as in olfactory profile.
My only word of caution is to repeat that I think you must truly adore both narcissus and greenness to enjoy Romanza. I don’t fall into either category, so this is not my personal cup of tea, I’m afraid. I don’t mind a limited amount of narcissus in my fragrances, but I have real antipathy towards violet leaf in almost any amount (beyond the tiniest drop).
Even if it’s not for me, I think Romanza is well done. Its first 10-20 minutes are brilliant, fascinating, evocative, and mesmerizing. Version #1 was interesting throughout. And both versions have a great drydown. In general, the Spring-like aesthetic should appeal to a lot of people. Others may be intrigued by the various contrasts: darkness/lightness, masculine/feminine, hard/soft. Finally, it’s an easy-to-wear, versatile fragrance if you love the main notes.
I do think, though, that it’s a little expensive for the size and price. While I don’t know Romanza’s American price yet, in Europe, it seems to be €138 for a mere 35 ml. The other Masque fragrances (with the lone exception of Tango) cost €150 for a 100 ml bottle. That’s quite a difference. The price hike might be too much for such a small amount if you’re one of those people who has longevity issues with Romanza or if you prefer big scents that don’t stay close to the body. But, if you’re a narcissus lover, you should try Romanza to find out for yourself.
Disclosure: My sample was kindly provided by Luckyscent. That did not impact this review. I do not do paid reviews, and my opinions are my own.