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Florence | Store GuideJuly 2, 2010

Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella

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In Florence for the day, I must stop to one of my favorite places. The Oficina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in via della Scala. Now a museum with its shop, there are no such places in the world as this one. As mentioned many times before, when I did past life regression I found out I was an assistant of a Medieval alchemist such as Merlin, possibly himself, therefore this place, every time I come, gives me a warm and familiar feeling of coming back home.

If you wish to take me seriously fine, and if you can't, just accept my invitation and 'travel' with me in the realms of this life entering the doors of this ' magical ' old  pharmacy . Entering the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is like walking into a foreigner's vision of Italy: fresco ceilings, bronzed angels, stirrings of a violin concerto and rows of soaps and elixirs stacked neatly in glass cases.

This artisanal perfumery, which has produced fragrances since 1400 and opened to the public in 1612, sells a seductive mix of handmade fragrance, cosmetics and herbal remedies, old perfume bottles and old scents  whose  intact secret formulae have been kept secret through centuries.

In 1200 located next to Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. Founded by Dominican friars shortly after 1221. the year of their arrival in Florence, the pharmacy used medicinal herbs grown in the monastic gardens to take medications, balms and pomades fro the monk's infirmary.

In 1600 when the news of the quality of the products produced by the pharmacy reached the outside world, it was decided to open to the public. Thus in 1612, Father Angiolo Marchissi was appointed head of the title of His Royal Highness' Foundry (Fonderia di sua Altezza Reale). In 1700 thanks to the excellence of the formulae developed by the apothecary fathers, during the 18th century the fame of the pharmacy spread across national borders to reach such distant lands as Russia, the Indies and even China.

In 1800 following the confiscation of the church's assets by the Italian government, in 1866 the company became a state owned enterprise. Later however it was ceded to Cesare Augusto Stefani, the nephew of the last monastic director, whose family acquired the name, the goodwill and the assets of the company and has since run the business for over four generations. With Eugenio Alphandery at the helm, Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella both perpetuates and renews the ancient traditions of herbal care.

Using only natural raw materials of the highest quality and continuing to follow the ancient procedures originated by the Founding Fathers, Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella focuses exclusively on the herbalist's art, basing all its preparation on traditional herbs and oils of natural origin. The vast majority of the medical herbs used in its products are grown locally on the hills around Florence. Furthermore, none of it products are tested on animals.

Each  product tells a story. For example the precious Aqua della Regina perfume was originally created for Caterina de' Medici, the queen of France,who made it popular throughout France,while the perfume produced by Giovanni Paolo Feminis, who moved Cologne in Germany in 1725, was named Eau De Cologne in honor of the city in which its producer lived.

What is even more interesting, while I stroll with my camera exploring ceilings with renaissance painted figures that have seen many important people passing by and Neogothic style cabinets  carrying displaying bottles of Liquore Mediceo,  Alkermes, Elisisr di China, Aceto dei Sette Ladri (smelling salts) and Aqua di Santa Maria  Novella (for controlling hysterics). This latter product was produced using a local herb recognized for its calming properties. in the sales room are filled with

The perfumes include a whole series of Eau de Colognes, essences and triple extracts ranging from the sweetest Iris, Rose and Gardenia scents to the more astringent Verbena and Vetiver oils or the delightful Aqua di Sicilia. The essences are also used in the production of  soaps which are left to mature in specially ventilated storage facilities as well as a range of  face and body creams which include an Almond paste , great for parched hands Polvere per bianchire le carni (an exfoliating powder), a cleansing milk and a tonic. The Officina produces also reconstructing shampoos and conditioners.

On my way to last room the Old Apothecary, now a herbalist shop I ask the sails person an old woman with a very bored look in her face what was exactly I was smelling around those walls, she answers me adding irony  in her face " 500 years of aromas" I then realize without her kind help that they are Santa Maria Novella's Pot Pourri- one of the company's distinguishing products-is a mix of herbs and flowers from the Florentine hills, left to macerate in Impruneta terracotta Jars (orci). Once the real and proper heart of the company's production facilities.

Next to it the Green Roomused until 1700 for serving the pharmacy 's specialty: a mixture of Alkermes, China Impruneta and chocolate syrup an extremely fashionably drink at the time. The museum is stored in the Old Laboratories and Storerooms of Officina Profumo di Santa Maria Novella's. Created with the aim of giving a new lease of life to the machinery as well as the precious glassware,antique ceramics and historic copper and bronze utensils which the company has gelously guarded throughout the troubled events of the centuries.

I decide to sit down, my hands full of  different overlapped creams, Eau de Colognes and  perfumes I stop a minute to reflect...All traditions have a history and few are the ones who have been able to keep them secretly intact and  religiously confirmed by the written word like the Officina . The original texts are luckily offered to us the visitors who have the chance of examine at our easy the details of what was kept once in the Sacristy together with a treasure chest and new specialist volumes.

Finally the aromatic garden is a perfect place for a peaceful reflection, an oasis which seems to have remained untouched for centuries. The aim of the museum is not only to inform those who normally use Officina di Santa Maria Novella products of the way in which they are prepared, but also to anyone wishing to view the magnificent history and superb craft of this pharmacy. Projected towards the future, but nevertheless conscious of the past.

Joelle's Tips:

The pharmacy:

SANTA MARIA NOVELLA FLORENCE Via della Scala, 16 011.39.055/216276

The products:

My favourite unissex : Aqua di Cologna Melograno Room essence :Carnation

Now luckily all exclusive Oficina Profumo di Santa Maria Novella products and other traditional European brands are imported and available for purchase on line and at their elegant showrooms in United States thanks to American company Lafco.

SANTA MARIA NOVELLA NEW YORK 285 Lafayette Street +1 212.925.0001

SANTA MARIA NOVELLA LOS ANGELES 8411 Melrose Place + 1 323.651.3754

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