Santa Maria Novella, Florence - The World's Oldest Pharmacy

26 February 2024

The Officina Profumo-Farmaceautica di Santa Maria Novella is often described as the oldest pharmacy in the world. When the Santa Maria Novella convent and monastery were founded in 1221, the Dominican friars began experimenting with herbs and flowers grown in the monastic garden, creating their own balms and elixirs. By the 16th century, the monks began to offer their products for sale to the public. The pharmacy officially opened its door in 1612 when it became independent from the convent, however, for the next two centuries, the Dominican friars would continue as directors of the business. In later years, the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy expanded into the world of cosmetics, fragrances and wellness products.

The Great Sales Hall, where you can peruse a variety of perfumes, soaps, candles and room diffusers, was formerly the Chapel of San Niccolo. The gothic vault is decorated with frescoes by Paolina Sarti depicting the four continents. The wooden furnishings have been produced in the fourteenth-century style.

The chapel was actually first converted in to a storeroom as early as 1612. In it were kept the aqueous products created from the distillation of herbs and roses, which were referred to as “waters”.  These distillations were stored in glass and vials or copper containers, ready to be quickly sold to customers equipped with “pitchers” for decanting, a custom that remained in use until the end of the 19th century.

But the first evidence of the production of scented waters actually dates back to 1381. During the decades of the Black Death, the Dominican friars distilled Acqua di Rose (rose water). It was used both to sanitise rooms and for personal care, taken with wine or pills.

In 1553, a very young Catherine de Medici left Florence to marry the future King of France. As part of her entourage, she also asked for her own perfumer. His name was Renato Bianco, but when he reached Paris, he became known as Rene le Florentin. Acqua di Santa Maria Novella, or Acqua della Regina (the “Queen’s Water”), was created especially for the Queen of France and is the oldest fragrance in the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy. A fresh and citrusy bouquet which today is a bestseller.

In 2014, the pharmacy opened its new garden near the Villa Petraia in Florence, maintaining the same traditions as when the friars used to carefully tend to their crops within the high walls of the convent. Each element of the garden having its own meaning such as the fountain symbolising “the source of life”,  and each component in the garden, there specifically to stimulate the five senses.

We purchased a few soaps which were cooled, wrapped and ventilated for 30 days on wooden racks before being chiseled and folded by hand. There are so many scents to choose from and every one exquisite!

Even though you can now buy the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy products in 75 shops throughout the world, and online, nothing beats a visit to the original pharmacy based in the heart of Florence. It’s one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and unique shops we have ever visited; the smells, the architecture, the history, the furniture, the flowers and overall ambience equate to a magical and unforgettable experience.

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