SANTA MARIA NOVELLA
The scented secrets of a Florentine masterpiece.
Florence is unquestionably one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. The fascination for me, goes beyond the stunning architecture, gardens, churches and galleries. It’s the city’s exquisitely unexpected secrets that on each visit, reveal themselves to capture and mesmerise the senses. One such precious find is Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, a sacred apothecary in the centre of the city. It was by complete chance, that I first came across the scent of Acqua della Regina ‘Water of the Queen’ several years ago, and on learning that the fragrance was commissioned by Florentine noblewoman, Caterina de’ Medici, crafted by Dominican monks and created moments from where I stood, I was immediately intrigued and set off to explore the birthplace of this delicate citrus- based perfume. An instant devotee, I must admit that I now make this pilgrimage every year.
Today, as I walk along Via della Scala, I catch the faint scent of Melograno ‘pomegranate’ that leads me to the subtle entrance of this ancient dispensary. A simple white hallway leads to a grand salone bearing the most aromatically gilded treasures. It really is beautiful and it takes a moment for the senses to adjust to this absolutely immersive experience. There are ornate vaulted ceilings, soft marble floors, walnut cabinetry that lines the walls, filled with hand-blown glass vessels that shimmer with mysterious jewel coloured liquids. And, of course the scent, a light veil that caresses as you browse the balms, remedial preparations and perfumes.
The atmosphere is one of reverence, a shared secret. A series of softly lit inner chambers house the sales room, the sacristy that now conserves ancient botanical texts and the original dispensary, where the Dominican monks administered their many formulas. It was shortly after their arrival in 1221 that the friars began cultivating medicinal herbs in their gardens to prepare medications, balms and ointments for their convent's small infirmary. And in 1612 under the guidance of head monk Fra' Angiolo Marchissi, the pharmacy was first opened to the public. With the blessing of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, was awarded title ‘Foundry of His Royal Highness’ and the monks began selling their ‘curative and ephemeral’ products directly. As reputation spread to Russia, the Indies and China, the laboratory eventually moved to larger premises, leaving the church property to become both museum and storefront. The business was transferred from the church to Cesare Augusto Stefani, nephew of the Officina's last monastic director and after four successive generations, ownership and preservation of the brand’s history is now under the management of Eugenio Alphandery and Chief Commercial Officer Gianluca Foà.
Using only premium quality raw materials and by following the artisanal procedures, Eugenio and Gianluca have applied their own alchemical formula, one that respects tradition and embraces innovation. It’s with this philosophy that the brand has grown to international cult status.