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Constantijn Huygens Letter writer and perfumer

Constantijn Huygens (1596-1687), secretary to stadtholder Frederik Hendrik of Orange, was a keen letter writer. Out of his vast body of correspondence, some 10,000 letters have survived. As part of a special project, these are now accessible online. Not only was Huygens an important figure at court, he also proved to be an accomplished perfumer.

The year 2022 was a special year for digitisation of the surviving correspondence of Constantijn Huygens. 5,943 letters addressed to Huygens as well as 3,293 letters written by him can now be accessed by anyone through a dedicated website. During the Dutch Golden Age, Huygens played a key role in very diverse fields. His letters reveal the way diplomacy was conducted at that time. They paint a rich picture of Huygens the negotiator and politician. And they offer insight into his huge personal network; in fact, he wrote to at least 1,218 different correspondents.

‘My mother’s scented water’

In a collaborative project with KNAW’s Young Academy and perfumers in Paris, a recipe of Huygens’ – ‘scented water from my mother’ – was reconstructed in 2022. The result includes a scented cologne that visitors to Huygens’ Hofwijck will be able to smell. A scented candle was also made as a souvenir. The first one was lit on 7 April 2022 by Robbert Dijkgraaf, Minister of Education, Culture and Science, accompanied by Parisian ‘nose’ Marypierre Julien. Similarly, Huygens’ letters have also generated a considerable amount of interest from the international historical olfactory research field.

For scholars and the general public

The digital accessibility of this correspondence is of enormous value to the Dutch cultural heritage. These letters enable scholars worldwide to conduct research. The smart digital search options in the database have significantly increased accessibility. As a consequence, different scientific disciplines can make use of the material. Interested members of the general public can also delve into this key figure from Dutch history. They can do so, by browsing the database themselves, but the project also presents the material in a very accessible way, including via social media and blogs.

Scents and images

In 2022, the anthology Constantijn Huygens. A Life in Letters (Catullus, Soest) was published, featuring a selection of 38 letters to and from Huygens. Under the same title, a conference was held at the KB National Library in The Hague on 2 December 2022. And in the spring of 2022, the Constantijn Huygens, Scents and Images exhibition opened at Huygens’ country retreat Hofwijck in the city of Voorburg. The phrase ‘scents’ is not without reason. One of the fascinating new discoveries – a find from a portion of 678 previously unidentified letters – revealed that Huygens was also a perfumer. He exchanged recipes and requested ingredients via letters. Given the sheer scale of his operations, as an amateur perfumer, Huygens was probably quite unique in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. This story, too, can now be told.

Visit the Huygens Institute website and the dedicated website containing information for the public.