Walking down the hallway’s marble floor towards the inner sanctum my pulse quickened. I entered the bright sanctuary with its high vaulted ceiling. Heavenly scents filled the spacious room and alluring beauty products graced elegant cases. As delightful as this room was another beckoned to me—a room filled with history and enchantment. The gilded ceiling indicated that the room was indeed special. Antiquated cases held ointments, elixirs, and old manuscripts. I had been dreaming of this place for years. A woman with a beatific smile greeted me, “Buongiorno.” I had made it. I was at one of the world’s oldest apothecaries—Santa Maria Novella…and it was sublime.
In 1221, Dominican friars arrived in Florence building their monastery outside the city gate. They experimented with herbs using them in concoctions like balms to keep their fellow brothers healthy. When Catherine de’ Medici (Queen of France) commissioned a scent for her marriage, they created Acqua della Regina (now Acqua di Santa Maria Novella) and gained prestige. In 1612, Fra Angiolo Marchissi opened the pharmacy to the public and the Grand Duke of Tuscany gave the friars the honor of calling it “His Royal Highness’ Foundry.” Over four hundred years later, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is beloved all over the world. Production is still carried out in Florence by the old recipes. A 15,000 square meter garden in the Castello district of Florence provides Balsamite and other herbs for the products.
The main store on via della Scala operates in the historic area of the monastery. You can buy ancient preparations like Acqua di Melissa, known for its digestive properties, which is prepared from Fra Paladini’s 1690 recipe. They also sell liqueurs, mints, anti-hysterical water, smelling salts, and other fun items. The sales people are happy to tell you the history behind the products. Make sure to ask about the “Vinegar of the Seven Thieves.” Visitors can also see gorgeous art and architecture like 14th century frescoes in the former sacristy and tour the store’s museum with its collection of ceramics, glass, and antique machinery.
The products are luxuriant and the store exudes historical elegance. Sales people load your selections onto an electronic card which you take to a checkout area—no schlepping creams and soaps around in your arms. I purchased a few products that have now become “essential” parts of my beauty routine: Sapone alla Mandorla, Acqua di Rose, and Crema Calendula. Sapone alla Mandorla is a ridiculously moisturizing soap made with sweet almond oil. The bar comes wrapped in a yellow box with the “Officino Profumo” insignia. The emblem of Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is found on every product; their packaging matches their product’s regal quality. Acqua di Rose (rose water) has the faintest scent of flowers. Its substantial, frosted-glass bottle looks great on my vanity and the water refreshes my skin in the morning. Crema Calendula is an emollient face cream that makes my skin feel soft. For pampering and Italian beauty, Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is the most historic and best apothecary in Florence.
Besides history and travel (and obviously soap, face cream, and rose water), I also love perfume. Perfume has been used for thousands of years in rituals, for seduction, as a display of wealth, or just for pleasure. To me, it’s an affordable luxury. When purchased while traveling, perfume can be the best souvenir because it’s a daily reminder of a place you loved. I had read about a shop called AquaFlor in the Santa Croce region of Florence where the owner, Sileno Cheloni, is a master perfumer. The shop has a laboratory with an “olfactory library” that holds over 1500 scents. Signore Cheloni will create a custom perfume for you by appointment. Since I hadn’t made an appointment, I knew that wasn’t going to happen but I hoped that he would have a “ready to wear” fragrance that I would like.
We came upon the exterior of the store and I was charmed by the rustic looking sign proclaiming its name and reeds dipped in scented oils marking the door. AquaFlor occupies three ground-floor rooms of a Renaissance palace. The first room we entered featured inviting club chairs in a dark brown leather. Glass jars and various products lined the dark-colored wood shelves. High plaster walls and arched ceilings finished off the opulent interior design of the room.
A sales woman invited us to sit. She asked me questions about my likes and dislikes and chatted in general about my life. I could tell that she was trying to get to know me…and I was intrigued. How was this going to enhance my perfume-buying experience? After she was satisfied, she got up and selected a few scents. She drew a glass wand out of jar scented with the perfume and waved it in the air. I was under her spell. She then led it under my nose. I was mesmerized. Two perfumes enchanted me. She spritzed one on each arm. As my husband mentioned that he was hungry, she encouraged us to go have lunch. We had to let the perfumes develop to see how they would smell on me (perfumes smell differently on each person). As the top notes of a perfume dissipate, the bottom notes become clearer, too, and the scent changes.
Throughout lunch I continued to sniff my wrists. The perfume I had favored at first was not the one that smelled the best on me though. I knew that I had found my love—Tzigana—and I couldn’t wait to get back to the store to purchase a bottle. When we returned, I happily tried on various creams before adding a perfect hand cream to my purchase; it was the kind that melts right in. A table full of colorful coins and bars of soap drew me into the next room. The soaps shapes (like gold bullions and extra large medallions) made it look like the table was full of treasure…and in a way, it was. I selected a few different soaps that made for precious gifts.
Our saleswoman made the purchasing process as elegant and luxurious as the selection had been. Even the wrapping spoke of grandeur. The thick glass bottle of perfume was laid in a box, tissue was folded over it, and it was secured with a seal. A ribbon was tied around the box and it was placed into a fitted, cloth AquaFlor bag. I love that bag! The coins came in charming little cloth bags, too. The ensemble was then placed in a shopping bag with scented tissue paper.
Florence is known for its gorgeous art. The products of AquaFlor and Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy made me feel like a great beauty…like a muse of one of Florence’s famed artists. The superior experiences at both stores gave me pleasant memories, as well as beautiful products, to treasure. Every time I spray Tzigana, I smile and remember Florence and the beautiful store on via Borgo Santa Croce. And when I feel the moisturizing lather of Santa Maria Novella’s soap, a refreshing splash of their rose water, or the silky touch of their cream, I feel a little like royalty. Although I’m glad to have their treasures at home with me, I can’t wait until the next time I cross through their elegant doors.
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