Very few brands, even in a country like Italy that is seeped in heritage and tradition can boast a 400-year history. Yet Officina Profumo-Farmaceutico di Santa Maria Novella’s beginnings date back as far as 1212, when Dominican monks began transforming the Santa Maria delle Vigne church, (as it was known then) into a monastery.
Here, in their gardens they grew medicinal herbs and plants to produce potions and salves for their fellow monks and then later for the patients in their infirmary. In 1612, thanks to the Grand Duke of Florence, the holy men’s concoctions became available outside the monastery walls and their fame spread to all known continents. (In fact there is a 16th century fresco depicting the 4 continents on the vault ceiling of the Sales Room).
Over the centuries, through civil wars, bouts of the plague, religious turmoil and the flooding of the Arno River, the pharmacy has continued to thrive and today, on the same original site, lovers of cosmetics and toiletries can delight their senses in this truly rare and historical venue, which was impeccably restored last year for the 400th anniversary celebrations.
Elixirs and distillates produced by the monks included rose water, used as a disinfectant during the plague, the “7 Thieves’ Vinegar” believed to calm hysterical women’s frayed nerves, (and thus named because apparently during the plague a group of seven thieves would wash themselves with this particular distillate and then rob victims of the plague without catching it themselves!) and most famously ‘L’acqua della Regina’, (The Queen’s Water) created for Catherine de’ Medici who went on to become Queen of France and helped disseminate the Pharmacy’s reputation across Europe.
Many of the products are still available today, (but for much more soothing and less dramatic purposes!) and are crafted using the same ancient methods in most cases, hand-in-hand with the implementation of specially designed new machines. Soaps are still aged for a month before being meticulously hand wrapped and their famous pot pourri is still made in terracotta vases from nearby Impruneta, just as most of the herbs they use are grown in Tuscany.
Visiting this magical labyrinth of enchanting rooms is a joy for the senses and offers so much more than a shopping experience; it is a chance to step into mystical realms of times gone by and capture the elusive past for a moment.
Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella
Via della Scala, 16 – Florence -50123
Tel. +39 055 216 276
Via Madonnina, 11-Milan- 20121
Tel. +39 02 3651 9630