From History to Hysteria: The Traditions and Antidotes of Santa Maria Novella

- By Teresa Greenfeld -

Santa Maria Novella

Around the corner from the famous green and white facade of Chiesa di Santa Maria Novella in Florence, lies one of the world’s oldest pharmacies (certainly the world’s oldest still operating).  Bearing the same name as it’s neighbor, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is an homage to old-world traditions; each pot, jar and bottle seeped in history.  Founded in 1221 when Dominican friars from the neighboring Basilica de Santa Maria Novella began making potions, balms and herbal remedies to use in their monestary’s infirmary, one of it’s first elixirs was a distillation of rose petals to use as an antiseptic cleanser for houses post-plague.  The Officina still stocks the elixir, though you may find the rose water more useful as refreshing facial toner, rather than a household cleanser.

Though word of their renowned remedies had spread world-wide, it wasn’t until 400 years later in 1612, that Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella opened its doors to the public – long after it already secured a place in the history books.  Some 100 years before their grand opening, Catherine de’ Medici, just 14 years old (and a newlywed, having just married the future King of France), commissioned a signature scent from the legendary farmaceutica, thus giving birth to the first Eau de Cologne.  The bergamot and citrus scented ‘Acqua della Regina’ – or ‘Water of the Queen’ was so loved by the young Queen of France that she gave it out as gifts to  friends during her tenure on the throne.  Using the same original formula created for Catherine de’Medici, Santa Maria Novella’s signature scent remains one of their most popular scents to this day.

Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy The original farmaceutica in Florence, still in existence today. 

Most of their incredible, beautifully wrapped potions and products date back hundreds of years; their formulas and production methods unchanged for centuries.  The ‘Pasta di Mandorle‘, or ‘Almond Paste’, thought to be the first product the Dominican friars ever concocted,  has amazing skin healing and rejuvenating properties.  Containing sweet almond oil, grape seed oil, egg yolk, virgin beeswax, and glycerin, this hydration powerhouse also evens skin tone and diminishes age spots.  Unbelievably fragrant, the world-famous Pot-Pourri has been produced using a secret formula of herbs and flowers – which are hand-picked in the Florentine hills, soaked in essence within huge terra-cotta jars, then aged for several months -  since its creation in the 1200′s.  Using equipment hailing from the 1800′s, the Jasmine Milk Soap is molded – one by one – aged 60 days, then gorgeously hand-wrapped.  The Santa Maria Novella Water has perhaps one of the more charmingly humorous back-story.   Used to relieve female hysteria due to over-zealous  corset-lacing, ‘Acqua Anti-isterica‘ or ’Anti Hysteria Water’ as is was orginially known as, was created in 1614 by the Dominican friar Angiolo Marchissi. Made of essential oils known for their relaxing and calming effects, Santa Maria Novella Water is a best-selling item today, used to prevent motion sickness and aid in digestion.

Then, of course, there are the fragrances.  Gardenia, Orange Blossom, Lily of the Valley, and Honeysuckle are just a few amongst the more than 40 different scents available. Many of their colognes – like Tabacco Toscano, a light tobacco scent with notes of Vanilla and Amber (trust us, it’s incredible) – are unisex; all are truly unique.

Santa Maria Novella RosewaterThe Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella Rose Water at their Piccadilly, London shop.

Though no longer under direct monistic direction, the Officina is still run by their descendants (a nephew of the last monistic director purchased the company in the late 19th century, and four generations of his family have been at the helm ever since). Ruthless devotion to original, centuries-old recipes and production methods, combined with modern technology and innovation, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is something extraordinary; its treasures a much needed indulgence in a world where five minutes is long enough to declare something “out”.

Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella has locations in over 20 countries world-wide. For store locations or to find an online retailer, visit SMNovella.com.

For US orders, visit SantaMariaNovellaUSA.com

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