The insider’s beauty secret

The interior of Santa Maria Novella, the world's oldest pharmacy, now offers award-winning beauty products, skincare, soaps, fragrances and more. Photograph courtesy of Santa Maria Novella.

What will you do on your next trip to Florence?

Would you be interested in visiting one of the world’s oldest pharmacies, which today makes award-winning, botanically inspired beauty products but originally made treatments for the Black Death?

If you said “yes,” then welcome to the insider’s club. The Officina Profumo — Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is an under-the-radar beauty secret that inspires a global cult following. It has 75 stores around the world — including one in New York City on Lafayette Street — and it does no advertising. Instead, it relies on word-of-mouth from its wildly enthusiastic patrons, who swoon over its special skincare, perfumes, soaps, body care and much more.

Much more than a museum, Santa Maria Novella in Florence is a mecca for beauty junkies and lovers of history.

The luxury perfumes, soaps, beauty products and other goods are all handmade in the Old World way, and every day more than 2,000 beauty-obsessed travelers visit the shop on the Via della Scala. There, they not only can learn about and indulge in beauty confections but can use the free Wi-Fi and refresh themselves in the tea room. There’s also a museum, where tourists can view original 16th– and 17th-century pharmaceutical pottery, and early books offering an alchemist’s view on how to combat the bubonic plague. You can also see some of the original soap machines that were used up to the year 2000. Today, the soaps are still handmade, one by one, wrapped and then aged for 30 days on ventilated clapboards. “They last three times more than other soaps,” says Gianluca Foà, chief commercial officer, who granted me an individual tour of the premises.

Santa Maria Novella is probably the world’s oldest apothecary. It was started in 1221, when there were outcasts living in Florence, Foà says. “Monks were called in to take care of the outcasts and preparations were made to help them while a convent was established… The monks (later) tried to defeat the Black Death.” One of the earliest preparations, in 1380, utilized roses, as the monks thought that petals of roses combated pestilence. Thus distilled rose petals — rose water — was born.

In the 16th century, when Catherine de’ Medici became queen of France, she brought Florentine customs to the royal court. One was the wearing of perfume and she commissioned the Dominican monks to create a fragrance in her honor, “Eau de la Reine.” It represents the first time that alcohol (and not olive oil or vinegar) was used in the preparation of perfumes. Today, the fragrance, called Acqua di S. M. Novella in Italian, is a bestseller.

In 1614, Friar Angiolo Marchissi created the Acqua di Santa Maria Novella. This elixir, to be diluted in a glass of water, was originally called “anti-hysterics water” and contains essential oils of aromatic plants.

Today, the imperial houses of Japan and the United Arab Emirates purchase products for their households from the tony pharmacy. Santa Maria Novella is a particular favorite of the Asian market, which comprises 90 percent of the clientele. “Our customers understand that we create different products. We have a high position in the marketplace… We carry on the tradition of the monks with innovations in our laboratories,” Foa says. 

The products include Pasta di Mandorle, a hand moisturizer containing almond paste; Polvere per Bianchire le Carni for facial restoration; and a line of restructuring shampoos and conditioners. The Acqu di Colonia — filled with violets — is gorgeous. There’s a wide selection of products designed specifically for babies, plus a signature potpourri, which is a mixture of herbs and flowers from the Tuscan hills. There’s also an award-winning anti-wrinkle eye contour gel that won raves in a newspaper in Korea called Fluido Antirughe Contorno Occhi. The new antioxidant skincare line, the Aetas Salubris, features a day cream made with milk thistle and a regenerative serum made with apple stem cell extract.

“Our aim is to always increase the level of our quality,” Foa adds. Many of the products are made with irises, which are an important ingredient in its face and body powders. “It costs 30,000 Euro ($31,820) for one liter,” Fao says. “We win because our quality is like that and our customers recognize it.”

Indeed, the iris, the symbol of Florence, is featured in a special toothpaste.

And in our time, the brand has, of course, found its way into Hollywood movies, In addition to being featured in films such as “Hannibal,” and “Portrait of a Lady” (with Nicole Kidman), the company’s pomegranate perfume made an appearance in the James Bond movie “Casino Royale,” starring Daniel Craig. After the character of Vesper (played by Eva Green) dies, her handbag is opened by 007, and the luxury perfume is seen inside. “Oh yes,” Foa says, “Miss Green is also a customer.” 

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