Ancient Alchemies: Santa Maria Novella

SLIDESHOW: Products in place at the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, including spicy liqueurs such as Alkermes (front right). Click to see inside this time-honoured fragrant pharmacist.

The care and attention to detail once practised by the medieval monks at the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella in Florence is still in evidence today in its luxurious soaps, perfumes and liquors.

Not far from the impressive Cathedral Santa Maria in Florence’s beautiful historic centre is another equally alluring shrine. Along a bustling narrow lane, behind some imposing doors, is the Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. The ancient shop is one of Italy’s first pharmacies and its luxurious soaps, perfumes and liquors are as much in demand now as in the 13th century.

Set up by Dominican friars in 1221, the Farmaceutica originally provided medicines and unguents needed for the monks’ infirmary. Herbalists created medieval potions such as rosewater for its pleasant cleansing scent; and lozenges, made from the local herb costmary, were made to cure upset stomachs and headaches. Herbal teas made from mint, and buckthorn and mallow flowers, were brewed to improve digestion and clean the body. At one point, alchemy, the process of turning base metals into gold or silver, was also studied.

Word of the pharmacy’s success spread and custom grew, culminating most famously in the Renaissance bestseller ‘Acqua della Regina’ or ‘Water of the Queen’. The water, scented with citrus and bergamot, was created specially for Florentine noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici. In 1612 the pharmacy opened to the public and a thriving business was born. The range expanded and by the time the Farmaceutica was taken over by the Italian state in 1866, it was producing everything from medicinal liquors and cough lozenges, to soap and toothpaste.

It was eventually transferred to the nephew of the last monastic director and, four generations on, it is still run by the Stefani family. As the business grew, production of the toiletries was moved to a small factory on the outskirts of Florence and state-of-the-art equipment was brought in.

However, although modern machinery may have replaced handcrafted methods, the care and attention to detail practised by the medieval monks is still in evidence today. The soaps, which are made with whole milk, are still aged in ventilated cabinets; and potpourri, one of the oldest and most famous products of the Farmaceutica, is still matured in terracotta pots.

Natural, high-quality ingredients are used in all the products, which include cosmetics (none are tested on animals); spicy liqueurs such as Alkermes (from the Arabic ‘qirmiz’, which means ‘of scarlet colour’); scented candles; herbal teas; and perfumes made from centuries-old formulas. The Farmaceutica even produces gentle pet deodorants for dogs and cats.

A long history is evident in the shop rooms: the original herbal shop still has a medicinal air with the minimalist shelving and storage drawers of the old pharmacy. Otherwise, the Farmaceutica is impressively baroque. The glorious rococo-styled rooms, which are also now a museum, are worth visiting if only for the embossed décor, antique ceramics, sculptures and filigree-decorated storage cabinets. Soaring domed ceilings, florid gold-painted stucco and exuberant murals decorate chandelier-lit emporiums.

These days, the Farmaceutica is a respected brand with elegant outlets in major cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Panama and Seoul. Base materials really have been turned into gold.

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