Santa Maria Novella, Florence's Most Famous Pharmacy Blooms into its 5th Century

Julie Burns | Mon, 02/11/2013 - 05:03

Elegant perfume and beauty products top the gift wish list for many, at any time of the year. Though France is often considered to be the historical birthplace of fragrance, another school of thought puts the provenance of perfume in Europe firmly in Florence – at the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, to be exact. This precious place is forever linked with Catherine de’ Medici, who, aged just 14, commissioned the Officina to create for her a signature scent.

Known as ‘Acqua della Regina’ or ‘Water of the Queen’, the resulting citrus-based cologne water of Calabrian bergamot could be interpreted as being the world’s first celebrity fragrance. It served to popularise the concept of perfume to the French royal court in the wake of Catherine’s marriage in 1533 to Henry II of France. Interest only increased when the Medici personal perfumer, Renato Bianco, set up shop nearby – opening a perfume boutique on Pont Neuf. The royal essence soon became a sweet smell of success wafting across the most fashionable courts - including England’s under Elizabeth I. The Officina’s original scent sensation helped lay the foundations for both the French and English perfume industry. In the West, the trend for scent was then maintained by other Italian perfume lovers, including Cosimo de’ Medici, Isabella and Alfonso d’Este, to Lucrezia Borgia.

Santa Maria

The creation of a history-making perfume is just one chapter in the ongoing story of one of the oldest pharmacies in the world – Florence’s Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella. In continuous business for exactly 400 years, the original premises on Via della Scala - incorporating church, pharmacy and museum - have been recently restored, to their full former splendour. Architectural highlights include a Matteo Nigetti doorway to the Antica Spezieria, and fantastical vaulted ceilings depicting 18th century motifs such as sphinxes, masks and fruit festoons, with gilded angels on corner pedestals. The original pharmacy cabinets and furnishings and their extraordinary product content proves just as impressive.

Today, Santa Maria Novella has become a famous apothecary empire with stockists in major Italian cities and outposts worldwide. In the realm of health and well-being, its heritage seems humble in comparison, yet was always visionary.

Established by Dominican monks in 1221, by cultivating medicinal herbs in their garden, the friars’ original intent was to provide medications for their convent’s infirmary. By the 1600s, the reputation of the pharmacy’s ‘curative and ephemeral creations’ reached far and wide outside of Italy. At a formative phase in its history of ground-breaking scientific research, the manager - then and over the next fifty years - was one of the most eminent apothecaries, Fra’ Angiolo Marchissi. Inspired by the Ricettari Fiorentino and later, the laws of alchemy, he helped establish the medical and chemical-pharmaceutical sciences in Florence. By 1612, the next natural progression for Santa Maria Novella was to open its pharmacy doors to the public.

Santa Maria

At the same time, the Grand Duke of Tuscany honoured the convent with the official title, the ‘Royal Highness’ Foundry’. He also gifted the Medici coat of arms with Matteo Rosselli’s portrait of Saint Peter the Martyr, protector of the pharmacy, which still features on-site today. Thanks to beneficial links between the Florentine Dominican Order and the Medicis, and in addition, all of their successors, the pharmacy was forever fortunate in its political and scientific placement.

Its experimental and effective work also chimed with a golden age of scientific Enlightenment, with the fundamental text of the pharmacopoeia of Tuscany and the founding in 1657, with the Accademia del Cimento, the first European scientific societies. An appetite for art, for beauty and sensuality, added to an increasingly female client base with demands for more ‘ephemeral’ rather than purely medicinal products, extended the monk’s art of perfume-making still further.

Santa Maria

As the eighteenth century dawned, the Santa Maria Novella business crossed many international borders, stretching into Russia, the Indies and China. Back on home territory however, in 1866, after the unification of Italy, the government confiscated the church’s assets and enacted subversive legislation that suppressed the convents. Though becoming a state owned enterprise, company management transferred to Cesare Augusto Stefani, nephew of the Officina’s last monastic director. He eventually bought the company, and four generations of his family have managed the Officina ever since.

The pharmacy products are no longer made in the monastery, though are still manufactured a stone’s throw away from the sacred site. Outside, the old medicinal herb garden today acts as a garden of contemplation. Modern technology may be used instead, but the original recipes remain the same, and there is still no animal testing. Today, the Officina’s general manager and co-owner, Eugenio Alphandery, insists on combining the ‘lessons of the past with the needs of the present.’ In terms of his business, he explains his respect for both tradition and innovation, adding, ‘Raw materials of the highest quality are still used and the apothecary father’s artisanal procedures are still followed.’

He has a favourite comparison for this melding of the past with the present: ‘Given my passion for both antique and modern cars, I could compare this company to a convertible from the 1930s, with hand hammered body-work crafted by an artisan and a powerful, modern motor, perfect brakes and suspension; all exalting the car’s beauty and the pleasure of driving it.’

In these times of overwhelming consumer choice and the frenzy of technology, trend forecasters predict the take-up of heritage goods as a wish to return to gentler times, together with a more holistic way of life. Perhaps it’s especially pertinent at this crossroads point in the calendar; between the old year ending and the usual ‘New year, new you!’ resolutions beginning. The dispensing of perfect tonics and elixirs to combat that post-Christmas indulgence is an evergreen theme!

Santa Maria

Intriguingly, different places have different product tastes. Stateside, the pharmacy customers prefer Carta D’Armenia burning papers, Latte Virginale and Vellutria face soap, along with a penchant for an ancient Tuscan recipe for pot-pourri. Meanwhile, Santa Maria Novella water – a Renaissance remedy for hysteria and digestion, made from Costmary or balsamite – has held long appeal to the Chinese. The Japanese love the mint pastilles, while Idralia lotion has cult status in South Korea. Latest skincare range, Actus Salubris - Latin for ‘time of life, favourable to health’ - might be the next multi-cultural good buy. The perfumes are perennial favourites of the English and French, where the story really started.

Those first healing herbalists, the Dominican friars, would probably never have imagined that their carefully created concoctions would be still in demand from Florence to the far corners of the globe. From the original fan of the brand Catherine de’ Medici, through to clients such as Princess Caroline of Monaco, actress Catherine Zeta Jones and US politico Hillary Clinton, as 2013 sets in, it seems for the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy, at least, it’s rather a case of ‘in with the old, out with the new’…