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Hallé and Boncerf - Report

38: The First Smellwalk, Paris 1790: Visualising Olfactory Narrative

“VERBAL RECORD. From a visit made along the two banks of the River Seine, from Port Neuf to Rapée de la Gare, February 14, 1790. BY M. HALLE.” (Translated from the original text)

The first recorded smell walk in the Western world took place Feb 14, 1790 – 7 months after the storming of the Bastille in Paris. Commissioned by Royal Society of Medicine, Jean-Noel Hallé and his assistant, Boncerf, conducted a ‘sanitary survey’ and investigation of noxious smells along the banks of the river Seine in Paris.

This work explores “smell as a sequential narrative”. Human experience of smelling is as a series of sniffs, one after the next. To retell the story of Hallé’s smell walk visually I looked to the work of a C12th Benedictine monk, Matthew Paris, who collected tales of pilgrimage routes and created ‘journey maps’.

Matthew Paris’ pictorial itineraries represent a spiritual rather than a physical journey from London to Jerusalem. This ‘virtual pilgrimage’ enabled Medieval monks to meet their vows of stability, not incur expense and yet to conduct their personal imagined pilgrimages to the Holy Land.

The map is designed to be read sequentially along an N-shaped trajectory to maintain focus on the goal ahead. With a series of prompts, Vasiliu (2017) suggests Paris’ maps were a “mediational tool” – here olfactory stops (indicated with text and illustrations) facilitate imagination of smells on the route.

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Date: 2019-2021

Media & size: Ink and watercolour. Animation.

‘Smell Mapping: How to Visualise Olfactory Narrative’, in. American Historical Association 136th Annual Meeting. Available at: 2023