Any visitor to Florence with an interest in perfume cannot leave without a visit to the Officina Profumo- Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, one of the oldest perfumeries in the world. Founded in 1612, the pharmacy dates back even further to around 1221 following the arrival of the Dominican friars in Florence. Located next to the Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, the monks prepared balms, pomades and medications for the infirmary using herbs grown from the monastic gardens. For four centuries the pharmacy provided medications to the church. Their fame spread and in 1612 the pharmacy opened its doors to the public under the guidance of Father Angiolo Marchissi upon whom the Grand Duke bestowed the title, ‘His Royal Highness’ Foundry, Fonderia di Sua Altezza Reale. The pharmacy survived through centuries of change. In 1866 the company was taken from the church to become a state owned enterprise after the government confiscated all church property. After some time Cesare Augusto Stefani, nephew of the last monastic director, acquired the company name, assets and goodwill. Ownership continues in his family passing through four generations. The pharmacy is now a global enterprise with outlets in Asia, Europe and America. I have visited stockists of Santa Maria Novella in Melbourne, Bangkok, New York and Paris but none of these visits can replicate the experience of the original apothecary in Florence which is filled with history and meaning. Entering from the street you pass through a long corridor into the largest room, the perfumery.
The pharmacy makes almost fourty different eaux de cologne. Some are simple soliflores of rose, violet or honeysuckle. Colognes such as Acqua di Santa Maria Novella and Acqua di Sicilia have a more traditional appeal, their formulas often dating back to the 17th century. Acqua della Regina was created for Catherine de’ Medici who went on to become the Queen of France. The pharmacy is also well known for its elixirs and skincare products. Pastes, creams, soaps, liqueurs for men, women, boys and girls, every type of customer need is considered. Perhaps the more unusual products include lavender smelling salts and Acqua Antisterica, water used to cure hysterics.
Another highly distinguished product is Santa Maria Novella Pot-Pourri. A mix of Tuscan flowers and herbs are macerated in terracotta pots making an excellent gift for friends and family. The pharmacy is a labyrinth of discovery. Beyond the perfumery is the Old Apothecary, now the herbalist’s shop. This area was the main sales room from 1612 to 1848 after which it became the space used to entertain clients. The Green Room was used until 1700 to serve the pharmacy’s speciality: a mixture of Alkermes, China and chocolate. A new discovery for the old world, cocoa was extremely fashionable during this period.
To the right are the old laboratories and workrooms used by the monks to make their preparations. Extraction machines, antique ceramics and metal utensils are displayed after careful guardianship during the troubled events of previous centuries. The monks carefully documented all of their formulas throughout time and many of these invaluable texts are displayed within this museum-like environment.
Housed in the Sacristy, the Santa Maria Novella library offers browsers access to an amazing assortment of antique texts as well as modern perfume literature. Bare in mind however, they are all written in Italian.
I have heard and read many accounts of visitors to the pharmacy being poorly attended by the staff. My experience on the contrary was very good. The store can easily reach its capacity with visitors. Staff do their best to attend everyone however it may take some time to test the fragrances you are interested in as all testers are kept behind the counter. The team speak a variety of languages and the product ‘list’ is available in Italian, English, Spanish, French, Japanese and Korean. This visit I was in search of a traditional eau de cologne and I decided to purchase Zagara. Clean, fresh and green it smells of freshly bathed skin. My attention was also drawn to 1612 Porcellana, a commemorative fragrance marking the 400th anniversary of the brand. The attractive bottle is made from white porcelain with gold markings and screw cap. The fragrance takes inspiration from the Far East, an area of great interest to the Medicis and the birthplace of this elegant material. The pharmacy’s historical premises are located at 16 Via della Scala behind the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella not far from the central train station of the same name.