C. De Melo is an author & art historian in Florence who specializes in historical novels set in Italy.
The Grandeur of Historical Architecture
It may not look like much from the street, but the moment you step into the entryway of the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, you know you've arrived somewhere very special. You will no doubt marvel at the marble floors, high ceilings and posh decor. And when you walk into a regal space with finely carved wood, gilded cornices, and brass sculptures of a bygone era- you will be so happy that you stopped in!
While your eyes are feasting on the beauty and elegance all around you, your nose is being tickled with a heady mixture of heavenly scents. Artisan soaps, creams, lotions, elixirs, tonics, powders, candles, salts and- of course- perfume. One of Europe's oldest fragrances was created in this special pharmacy in the year 1564 to honor of Caterina de' Medici's marriage to the King of France. And, yes, it is still for sale! The fragrance is fresh and vibrant, with citrus notes and white flowers (similar to the 18th century 4711 or Christian Dior's Eau Sauvage).
BEST Soaps Ever
The First Commercial Pharmacy
Originally constructed on the site of a 9th century oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella was assigned to the Dominican Monastic Order in 1221. This church is historically significant for many reasons since several of the city's leading families (like the Strozzi, Rucellai and Bardi) paid for private chapels within its massive interior.
These chapels are covered in exquisite frescoes and boast impressive altarpieces. Art historians have traced the first use of mathematical perspective in painting to Massacio's fresco of the Trinity. In the 16th century, Eleanora di Toledo, the Spanish Catholic wife of Grand Duke Cosimo I, entertained her Spanish dignitaries inside the basilica.
While many monastic orders housed their own apothecaries within their walls, the Dominican monks of Santa Maria Novella were arguably the most popular in Florence. Throughout the middle ages and Renaissance, most people either cured their ailments with their own home remedies or procured elixirs and tonics from monasteries and convents.
A wide range of herbs, roots, and flowers were used in the art of healing. The art of flower lore is fascinating, especially since poisons were sometimes used as curatives (in tiny doses, of course). Too much poison could (and did) kill.
The "pharmacy" of Santa Maria Novella was established as a commercial enterprise in the year 1612 and has been open for business ever since. There is no fee to go inside, which I highly recommend that you do. There is a wonderful Gothic chapel, dozens of antique vials and bottles, and the old implements and machines once used by the monks are also on display. Their high-quality products are made in-house with the same recipes from the past.
Official Seal of Quality
The Details of a Bygone Era
Elixirs, Tonics, Digestives, etc.
Hannibal (Sequel to Silence of the Lambs)
Even Hollywood could not resist this historical site; it was featured in the film "Hannibal" with Anthony Hopkins. After Clarice receives a letter from Dr. Lecter, the FBI traces the elegant paper to the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy (see video to jog your memory).
Prices range from 10 euro for a bar of soap to hundreds of euro for entire spa sets. If you're looking for a unique, historical and high-quality gift then this is the place. Oh, and there is a plethora of men's products- colognes, after shaves, shaving soaps, etc. Here is the website:
As always, thank you for reading!
C. De Melo
Dr. Lecter's Letter to Clarice
Dbro from Texas, USA on November 13, 2015:
Oh my goodness! I would love to visit this pharmacy and to smell that delightful sounding fragrance from 1564. Thank you for exposing us to this unique Florentine treasure. I hope to visit it someday!
C De Melo (author) on November 12, 2015:
You're so welcome! You need to go next time you're here...really. It's such a special space. And you can see the cloisters, one of the chapels, the old machinery. It's part museum, part art gallery, part pharmacy, part perfumery :)
Anne Harrison from Australia on November 12, 2015:
This place has long been on my much visit list, but somehow I always seem to miss it when in Florence. Thank you for reminding me - and I love the photos.