Santa Maria Novella (1612)

Any worthwhile trip to Italy must include a visit to a Santa Maria Novella shop, the name of the oldest pharmacy in the world. Santa Maria Novella has shops in London too, but you and I would much prefer to get on a plane to Florence than a train to Paddington and visit the original and age-old Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.

Indescribable delight
The interior of the original Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence is an indescribable delight, parts of which are several hundred years old. The rooms are fully-preserved and house layers of historical embellishments and a large collection of antique chemist's instruments.

That's the sales room below. How easy it would have been to have continually replaced the interior with something more fashionable — and how tragic.

Faith, community and concoctions
The roots of the pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella actually date as far back as 1221, the time of its founding by Dominican friars who were assigned the Church of Santa Maria Novella as a monastery and still worship there. The Dominican order brought devout faith and community to Florence, as well as art, science and culture. Not least, they brought the skills and know-how to produce health-giving potions and concoctions through their apothecary adjacent to the monastery — some of which are still being made for us to enjoy today.
Aromatic waters
In the 14th century the monks began to make and sell 'aromatic waters', such as their famous Acqua di Rose rosewater (still available), which was used a guard against the Black Death.

Santa Maria Novella's oldest perfume is Aqcua Della Regina, which was made to commemorate the marriage of Caterina de Medici to Henry II of France in 1533 — the House of Medici being Florence's most powerful family. This citrus perfume is now called Acqua di S.M.Novella Perfume and is presented in a shape of bottle (below) that has been used by Santa Maria Novella for the last two hundred years — relatively new!

The renown of the health and beauty potions and products made by the monks was boosted when the pharmacy opened to the public in 1612, thanks to the patronage of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. 1612 is generally regarded as the foundation date for Santa Maria Novella's incarnation as a commercial pharmacy.

Pleasingly, some of the oldest Dominican preparations are still available. As well as dousing yourself in their aromatic waters, you can inhale their invigorating lavender smelling salts, suck their digestive herbal lozenges (top) and imbibe their herbal tonics.
Vinegar of the Seven Thieves
Aromatic Vinegar (below) or 'Vinegar of the Seven Thieves' — each of which knew a separate ingredient to keep the recipe a secret, as legend has it — is based on a 17th century sniffing vinegar.

Feeling frenzied?
S.M.Novella Water or 'Acqua Antisterica' (anti-hysteria water) is a digestive elixir that was formulated by Friar Angiolo Marchissi in 1614. It really hits the spot after a heavy meal or when you are feeling particularly frenzied.

More monk-like thinking
Generally, you can't go wrong with anything made by monks. British monks gave us the remarkable Caldey Island Lavender Toilet Water and French monks gave us the sublime Chartreuse. Monks preserve things, preserve ideas. In an age of barbarity, you need more monk-like thinking.
Olfactory alchemy
It's not all ancient unguents at Officina di Santa Maria Novella though. They are still working at new lines for their colognes and after shaves. Lana Eau de Cologne is a 'wool cologne' produced in association with Ballantyne to 'evoke the sensation of sinking your hands into wool'. That's a nice sensation to evoke, but how did they do it? They achieved such olfactory alchemy using notes of 'leather and precious woods' with 'moss and rose petals'.

It's thrilling that the pioneering work and knowledge of the founding Dominican monks have survived, but the continuing innovations at Santa Maria Novella that maintain and respect their history and traditions is equally reassuring.

There don't have to be full stops in history.


  1. Even Dr. Hannibal Lecter buys perfume here! (For Clarice Starling in the movie 'Hannibal' ...and gets caught due to the shops cctv-camera`s)


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