In the heart of Florence, close to the church of Santa Maria Novella, there is a place where flowers, roots and trees help people adding tenderness to their daily lives.
This is the case of Officina Profumo Farmaceutica of Santa Maria Novella, a space where nature and human curiosity have given birth to a magical atmosphere lasting from more than 400 years.
During the 13th century, the area on the north-east of Florence hosted poor people coming from the countryside living in very miserable conditions.
The Dominicans friars decided to settled down here, close to the church of Santa Maria delle Vigne that, during the 14th century, has been rebuilt and named Santa Maria Novella.
The history of the production is very long: the sale of the rose fragrance is confirmed by historical sources dating 1381 and its commerce increased rapidly during the epidemics.
Friars grew flowers and plants in the garden next to the Officina and they were used to prepare creams, fragrances and ointments. Caterina de’ Medici loved so much these products, that they were made exclusively for her.
In 1612 the Pharmacy opened to the public and its reputation spread all over Europe; during the 18th century, the production was exported also in India and China.
Today, it is considered one of the most ancient commercial activity in the world, with an heritage of more of 400 years. It has survived to the confiscation of the just-born Italian government in the 19th century, which let the nephew of the last Dominical director, Cesare Augusto Stefani, taking the leadership of this business activity.
Nowadays, the fourth generation of this family takes care about this timeless pharmacy.
Walking through Via della Scala, the very sober entrance could be missed because of the traffic, the bars tables on the little street and the many hotels halls similar each other next to this door. Just the inscription “S. Maria Novella” in capital letters confirms you are in the right place.
The current entrance (established in 1848 after some renovations works) reminds to a noble building, with flowers and leaves sculpted in the stone following the edge of the door and creating the shape of an arch.
The facade is dominated by a sun with its rays, the symbol of the Dominican friars order.
Opening the door, a long hall with a niche on both sides hosting the statues of Galeno and Igea (health and medicine gods) welcomes the visitor and leads to a room decorated in neo-gothic style, with white and blue floral decorations.
From here it is possible to access to the sales space, one of the ancient chapels of the monastery dedicated to St. Nicholas of Bari, in which the production of the Officina is exposed in severe walnut tree wood furniture, clashing with the light yellow chosen for the decoration of the walls.
Looking to the ceiling, a colored frescoes represents the four continents and underlines the fame of the pharmacy all over the world.
Tradition reports this chapel (now the sales room) was built on order of Dardano Acciaioli for the Dominican friars, as thanking gift for having treated and recovered his illness.
On the right wall of the sales room, a big door leads to the Green room.
Built between 1335 and 1337 as private apartment, from 1542 it has hosted the laboratories, while in the 18th century it became a salon where important guests were received, drinking hot chocolate (a very fashionable drink at that time) and meeting friends.
The walls are adorned with a special wallpaper called “filaticcio di seta”: it is a technique born in Lucca using a lower quality – but very resistant – silk used mainly for decoration purposes. In the case of the Officina, the walls of the room are inspired by a floral theme, in which gold and green create a sophisticated atmosphere.
The damages of the Arno flood in 1966 were recognizable mostly in this room, but thanks to the restoration works established for celebrating the 400 years of this historical pharmacy, it has been possible to discover again this little treasure.
The little door on the left leads to the ancient pharmacy.
From 1612 to 1848, the sales room was located here and the access door was in the cloister inside the garden (now part of the Carabinieri school).
The counter, cabinets and furniture are the originals ones, created in the 18th century, as the stucco decorations of the vaulted ceiling representing dragons, golden eagles and fruit festoons, very popular motifs at that time.
Getting back to the Green room, the door on the opposite wall leads to the sacristy.
It is called also “Room of the waters” because for a very long time it has been used for conserving the distilled waters.
The walls are completely covered by frescos of the 14th century attributed to Mariotto di Nardi, a painter of the Giotto school, telling some stories of the Passion.
The original painting has brought to light thanks to the restoration in 2012, when the 19th century modification have been removed, showing the original decoration.
Officine Profumo Farmaceutica is a very unique place: once left the world outside, visitors are welcomed in a calm and relaxing atmosphere.
The place is full of history and anecdotes: the discovery of the rooms is a time travel, where the contemporary time seems to be excluded from this oasis of peace.
Fragrances, prepared in the same way from centuries, help the body and the mind to take a moment, before deciding to go back to the 21° century.