A sensory explosion in Florence at one of the oldest pharmacies in the world
By Ilenia Reale / Matthew staff || Edited by Giulia Leo
My boyfriend Jacopo and I ventured to Florence for two nights and three days, suffering the sticky heat of June and fighting against blood-thirsty mosquitos. We stayed at a guesthouse for military people, since my dad is in the Italian Army and could get us a discount. The building overlooked Via Della Scala, where a former ancient pharmacy was. According to Jacopo’s mom, a Florence enthusiast, the now-perfumery is a must-visit in the city of the Renaissance. However, finding the pharmacy wasn’t an easy quest.
The civic number 16 didn’t seem to exist. The cream tiles hanging on the side of the street were shuffling like cards from a deck and Jacopo and I couldn’t keep pace. We were almost about to give up, until, on our last day, we noticed an unusual crowd squishing to get in a giant wooden door. Only a couple of hours before catching our train, we finally found the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
The entrance hall seemed quite regular; however, looking up, the ceiling was flooded by desiccated flowers of all shades from violet to mauve, to powder pink. The flowers, crawling down the walls, take over the hall, slowly leading us into an unspoken fairytale.
Our gaze didn’t know where to land. Every detail in all the rooms was extremely curated. The elaborate frescos and the refined architecture conferred a pastel aura to the perfumery. Stately wooden desks were rooted in the checkered marble pavement. Untouchable glass cabinets showcased the polished ampoules and amphorae that once had belonged to the Dominican friars who had initiated what now stood as one of the oldest pharmacies still active in Europe.
The perfumery produced elixirs, lotions, and perfumes based on recipes handed down since 1221. They were all displayed in minimalist crystal bottles with golden lines that kept me wondering whether I had the right to touch them. I was uncomfortable as I didn’t feel I belonged there. I was soaked in sweat from our hike to an astonishing panoramic point, and I was still trying to catch my breath. Everything in this store screamed far too much money; however, I had been appointed by my family to bring back gifts from Florence and that was the sort of sophistication my mom is fond of.
My attention was caught by what seemed to be fancy soap bars of every color with slices of orange and dried lavender trapped in them. A woman with a fresh blowout was standing in front of the table in admiration, while a man dressed in black was giving her his sales pitch. Jacopo and I started pacing around the desk, trying to catch a few words, but, most importantly, trying to take a look at the price. There was a whole menu written in italics that kept getting covered by the woman’s veiny hands. I was only able to grasp that there were many 3-digit numbers, which instantly alarmed my wallet.
Jacopo and I were about to turn around, when the seller, with a smile so big I could see it through his surgical mask, said hello in English mistaking us for tourists. I didn’t blame him; after all, we were lingering around the desk with clueless faces just like tourists would. Eventually, the seller behind the table told me that the fancy soap bars were actually hand-made scented wax tablets all inspired by a story. There were nine of them, all laid down on their respective cardboard boxes, and all special in their own way.
I put my hair in a clip and lowered my head so that I could get a good sniff at the tablets, but the man reassured me I could grab them. With an embarrassed laugh, I picked up a light green tablet adorned with some sunflower petals and a darker green ribbon. The perfume refreshed my nostrils with a bath of laurel and thyme. Then, I sniffed a pink one and it embraced me with a faint scent of almond. The seller pointed out that the citrus fragrance was invented specifically to accommodate the needs of Caterina de’ Medici and that the jasmine one was created as a tribute to the so-called Angels of Florence, a young group who helped rescuing masterpieces that were otherwise going to be destroyed by a flood in 1966.
They were all so aesthetically pleasing to stare at. The craftmanship showed hard work and dedication and the perfumes were signature of this perfumery. I could already see my mom’s satisfied face hanging one of the tablets in the bathroom. However, the seller cared to specify that they were supposed to be put in wardrobes and shoe racks to attenuate the bad smell. This for sure wasn’t going to happen, since two tablets cost 24 euros. I wanted them hung on the front door if anything; they cost as much as four reduced tickets to the Galleria degli Uffizi!
The seller’s storytelling skills convinced me to buy a box of scented wax tablets, which I realized were the least expensive product they sold. The decisional process is long to say the least, as I need to smell the tablets over and over to choose. In the end, I picked up the ones called Rosa Novella, white wax tablets enclosing rose buds and red petals with a sinuous scent that reminded me of a fresh bouquet of roses in full spring.
As we walked off, the seller added that the same fragrances of the tablets were also used in their colognes and their hand lotions, which we were encouraged to try. I immediately sprinted to the perfumes and tried the Rosa Novella on my wrist. I took a good sniff at the rose scent that resembled the white face powder my great-great aunt used to put on to make herself pretty, even at the age of 103. Jacopo noticed the labradoodle expression printed on my face and smiled wittingly. I think I know what I am going to get for Christmas.