The inexplicable way that scents can remind us of treasured travel memories often has a sense of alchemy about it. In Florence, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, the oldest pharmacy in the world, has been crafting beautiful fragrances, remedies and herbal products since 1221. You’ll find this extraordinary store in Florence just around corner from the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and moments from the city’s train station. A visit to this one-of-a-kind place offers the chance to step back in time and bring home a scent of Florence that will transport you right back to Italy!
The origins of the historic pharmacy at Santa Maria Novella is directly tied to the history of the basilica. Like many of the religious sites in Florence, such as the Duomo and the Basilica of Santa Croce, the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is a treasure trove of history and artwork and is certainly a must see. The story begins in 1221 when Dominican friars arrived in Florence and founded a church that would become the city’s first great basilica. Building on the church we see today began in the 13th century, but the striking façade was a later addition in the 15th century by the great Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti. Inside you’ll find artwork by some of the greats of Italian art, such as Giotto, Masaccio, Filippino Lippi and Ghirlandaio, as well as two cloisters and a museum.
To understand the start of the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, we have to look a little closer at those Dominican monks who founded the church. It was common for monasteries to have private gardens that included various types of medicinal herbs that were used to create early forms of medications as well as balms and tinctures. Traditionally reserved for treating the monks within the monastery, by the 14th century news of the healing qualities of the remedies at Santa Maria Novella was beginning to spread outside the walls of the monastery. Perfumed waters were used for all kinds of medicinal treatments, including to fight off the plague in 1381. The Historical Shop, a main part of the store you can visit today, was originally built as the Chapel of San Niccolò by wealthy Florentine merchant Dardano Acciaioli as a gift of thanks for being healed by the Dominican friars.
Every space you visit today is full of history just as the sweetly scented products you’ll find on display have many stories to tell. The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella products are still produced with ancient recipes, including perfumes quite literally fit for a queen. In 1533 Caterina de’ Medici was betrothed to Henry II, the future King of France, and she asked none other than the Dominican friars at Santa Maria Novella to create an essence that captured her beloved Florence. The masterpiece created was originally called “Acqua della Regina,” meaning “The Queen’s Water,” which was a grand success in the royal courts of France. Not just a sweet scent, Acqua della Regina also made history as one of the first alcohol-based perfumes in the world. Today you can still buy the same perfume – now called Acqua di Santa Maria Novella.
By the 16th century, the pharmacy was busy creating highly sought-after products and in 1612 the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella was officially founded. Formulas and traditions that had been passed down orally were perfected and preserved, many still being produced to this day. In the 18th century, the pharmacy was beautifully decorated with intricate carved wood paneling, ornate chandeliers, and frescoed ceilings. This incredible space is enhanced by the most beautiful scents that fill the air as you move from room to room.
You’ll see the Historical Shop in the former Chapel of San Niccolò, the elegant Green Room where the pharmacy’s own drinks were once served, the Ancient Apothecary, and the Sacristy with its beautifully frescoed ceiling with images of monks holding books and reading. In the Museum you can see historic ceramic vases that once stored herbs and products as well as historic books, equipment and more. There’s even a Tea Room where you can sample products and teas in an elegant setting.
Today the production is high tech and a world away from the Dominican friars tending their gardens 800 years ago. However, what remains firm is a dedication to natural ingredients and tradition. Just outside of Florence, near the Medici Villa della Petraia, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has recreated a traditional hortus conclusus (enclosed garden) in the 13th-century tradition that produces fresh herbs and ingredients used to create the special products you can bring home with you.
On display is a tempting selection of handcrafted perfumes, soaps, skincare and body care products, home scents, potpourri, and so much more. The candles and soaps with dried flowers are especially lovely souvenirs or gifts for friends and family. For something uniquely Florentine, there’s even an iris scented perfume. Irises grow wild in the hillsides around Florence and are the flower that inspired the iconic symbol of Florence.
A visit to the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is an easy stop as you wander Florence. You’ll find it only a short walk away from our Italy Perfect vacation rentals in Florence. Or while you’re waiting, take advantage of their store locations around the world and their online store with international shipping available. Why not have the sweet scents of travels from the past and travels to come fill your home right now?
Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Via della Scala 16, Florence
All photos courtesy of Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.