With a good map and a keen eye, one can find a small gold placard marking a non-descript large wooden door on Via della Scala. Gently push the door open and wander inside. Inlaid marble floors, towering chandeliers, enchanting aromas, and glass cases teeming with handmade soaps and honeys will have you wondering if you actually stumbled into Marie Antoinette’s powder room. As your curiosity draws you from one room to the next, you realize that not even royalty could warrant such grandeur. Rather, you are standing in the world’s first pharmacy–La Farmacia di Santa Maria Novella.
Unlike most shops in Italy, the pharmacy is open all day (9:30 a.m. –7:30 p.m.). Let the rosemary and lavender aromas that greet you at the door take you back eight centuries to Medieval Florence. Between prayer hours, the friars of Santa Maria Novella spent their time concocting ointments, lotions, disinfectants and medicine, and utilizing ingredients strictly from the convent herb garden to stock the local infirmary. In a period paralyzed by the ever-present threat of the next plague, the friars had their hands full of hypochondriacs (can you blame them?) and their work cut out for them.
By the year 1612, products were in such demand that the friars opened their doors to the public, and the pharmacy that we venture to today was born. Within a hundred years, the intoxicating aromas of thyme, mint and rose wafted over the Alps, and the friars’ products began to gain international attention throughout Europe, India and China. The pharmacy became a favorite of Kings, Queens, Dukes and Duchesses. Today, the pharmacy is considered a profumeria and is arguably the most well-known in the world. In most rooms of the pharmacy, you will find a clerk happy to concoct a special scent on your behalf. If your pocketbook can’t accommodate the steep price tags (mine sure doesn’t!), don’t be shy to sample a dot of lotion or a spritz of perfume from the designated tester tables.
Not only does the pharmacy offer a luxurious and sensory experience, but it will also satisfy your intellectual appetite. As you browse, take note of the pharmacy’s artifacts on display. Antique mortars and pestles, used to grind herbs from the monastic garden, sit quietly on the shelves and hand-written recipe books lie open, revealing the friars’ secret ingredients (if only we could read that handwriting!).
Gawk, smell, sample and learn. Although you may not be able to pick up your prescriptions, the Pharmacy of Santa Maria Novella offers a fascinating, free and unique way to experience a piece of Florentine history.
Directions: From Piazza del Duomo, stroll west on Via de’ Cerretani and continue on Via dei Banchi. In about nine minutes, you will reach Piazza Santa Maria Novella. From here, follow your nose down Via della Scala (the road runs along the opposite side of the piazza from the church). The address is 16 Via della Scala, and it will be on the right side of the street.