Tucked away in a sprawling, gothic piazza in the heart of Florence, Italy, lies one of Italy’s oldest churches with a unique artisanal history. The Basilica Santa Maria Novella—with frescoes by Florentine masters, grand marble arches, and stained glass windows depicting Madonna and child—retains the Renaissance charm and grandeur the Dominican monks gave it when they transformed the church into a monastery in 1221. In the 14th century, the monks began tending medicinal herb gardens so they could formulate remedies for mild afflictions.
“Vinegar of the Seven Thieves” was one of them, dispensed to treat women with fainting fits. By the 1700s, the infirmary in which the remedies were prepared became a full-fledged pharmacy. It specialized in all natural essences, pomades, spirits, balms, waters, liqueurs, and other preparations using the same formula the Dominican monks developed centuries before. The fame of Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella spread beyond Italy to Russia, China, and the Indies.
The Grand Duke of Tuscany, who invested in the church and the pharmacy, called it “His Royal Highness’ Foundry” (Fonderia di Sua Altezza Reale). Four generations of families have run the Officina Farmaceutica since 1866, when the last monastic director, Cesare Augusto Stefani, acquired the enterprise from the state. Today, the tradition of herbal art from the Dominican fathers continues at the Via della Scala headquarters in Firenze. There is an herb garden that appears seemingly untouched by the intervening centuries, and evokes a meditative calm as though the old Dominican monks still tended it.
Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica Di Santa Maria Novella is located at Via della Scala 16, 50123, Firenze, Italy
Tel. +39 055 216 276; smnovella.it.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol 7 2012.