Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is a Florentine institution. Founded in the 13th century by monks from the Dominican order, the pharmacy is one of the oldest in the world, famed for its fragrances, beauty products, supplements and more. We speak to director Eugenio Alphandery about the past, present and future of this fantastic pharmacy
Few brands can trace their history back to the 13th century, but, then again, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is no ordinary brand. Famed the world over for its fragrances, beauty products, herbal supplements and curative items, the Farmaceutica has rightly become an unmissable stop on any tour of Florence.
‘The story began as far back as 1221 when the Dominicans decided to build their monastery in Florence, where the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is still located today,’ explains Eugenio Alphandery, director of this time-honoured epicentre of health, beauty and wellness. ‘The monks started to study and experiment with the properties of healing plants cultivated in the orchards near the monastery.’
Paying tribute to this heritage, the Farmaceutica still nurtures the Santa Maria Novella garden, where it grows many of the raw materials used for its products. One of the key ingredients raised here is balsamite, described by Alphandery as ‘an aromatic plant well known for its beneficial and calming properties’, which is a key component of two of the Farmaceutica’s traditional favourites: the Pasticche and Acqua di Santa Maria Novella (digestive pastilles and a calming liquid formula originally known as Acqua Antisterica, or anti-hysterics water) that are still available to buy today.
As Alphandery explains, ‘Every single Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella product has its own story to tell, starting with the Acqua della Regina created by the friars for Catherine de’ Medici in 1533 on the occasion of her marriage to Henry II of France.’ It is believed that de’ Medici was ’one of the earliest people to endorse the Dominican brand’ and so, when she was crowned queen of France, ‘the friars created an essence that came to be known as Acqua della Regina (queen’s water) in her honour.’ Still available to buy today, the Acqua della Regina was the Farmaceutica’s first fragrance with alcohol and predates the best-selling Acqua di Colonia which is still produced in a wide variety of scents, from Frangipane to Iris and Verbena.
While honouring the brand’s past, Alphandery ensures the Farmaceutica is constantly thinking about its future. As well as selling historical products the company also ‘makes use of research laboratories where innovative products are created’. Alphandery continues: ‘In 1999 the property on Via Reginaldo Giuliani was acquired, a building of 4,000 square metres constructed for a farmers’ association in 1930. This is where tradition is perpetuated and renewed, using raw materials of high quality and following the handicraft processes of the Dominicans helped by modern technology and first-class machinery.’
It is this combination of heritage with modernity that has ensured the Farmaceutica remains relevant for today’s modern shopper. ‘“Tradition and innovation” has been, and still is, the motto of the Officina di Santa Maria Novella, and it is a principle I have tried to apply both to broadening the range of products and to opening stores abroad.’ With over 30 stores worldwide, there is no question that Alphandery’s strategy has been an effective one.
The Via della Scala store is the perfect example of how the Farmaceutica balances this blend of history and modernity. As well as being able to invest in the latest innovative products, visitors can also admire the museum sections of the boutique to learn more about the brand’s rich history. ‘The shop on Via della Scala is open to the public and can be visited by appointment, as can the garden of medical plants and the production premises.
On display in the museum sections of the shop are antique pharmacy instruments (thermometers, mortars, moulds for soap), glassware (bottles, alembics) and one of the most complete and interesting collections of ceramic apothecary jars in Tuscany, made in Montelupo between the closing decades of the 16th and the first quarter of the 17th century. Also on show in the museum are the old machinery and tools used in the manufacture of products.’
Though these historical displays are an obvious draw, Alphandery is keen to frame the Farmaceutica as a contemporary company rather than an ancient relic. ‘Even though a small part of the shop is devoted to this, I have never regarded the Officina as a museum, but as a company oriented towards innovation that has its roots in history while continually updating its contents and carefully avoiding the risk of turning into a showcase of the past.’
Thanks to its unique product selection, captivating heritage and investment in the brand’s future in the form of its hi-tech production facility, Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella ensures it is so much more than a museum piece. Instead, it remains a reason for visitors to return to Florence time and time again.