One of the world’s oldest, working pharmacies lies just off the bustling streets of Santa Maria Novella plaza in Florence and the quieter Santa Maria Novella church square. It is one of the world’s oldest perfume brands, and arguably the real creator of what we know today as a “cologne.” It’s called Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (“Santa Maria Novella” or “SMN” for short), and it was at the top of my list of places to visit on my recent trip to Florence.
I’ve written before about Santa Maria Novella’s headquarters and its utterly fascinating history, but I’d like to summarize it briefly for anyone who is unfamiliar with the tale. Santa Maria Novella was founded in 1221 by Dominican friars who created all-natural herbal remedies and potions. As their reputation grew, the pharmacy was opened to the public in the 1400s and the Grand Duke of Tuscany became their patron, granting them the gift of the Medici coat of arms.
In 1533, the pharmacy’s fame exploded when they were commissioned to create a signature fragrance for the young, fourteen-year old Catherine de Medici upon her marriage to Henry II of France. The result, Acqua della Regina or ‘Water of the Queen’, was arguably both the world’s first celebrity scent and the world’s first cologne. As one magazine article explains:
It served to popularise the concept of perfume to the French royal court… The royal essence soon became a sweet smell of success wafting across the most fashionable courts – including England’s under Elizabeth I. The Officina’s original scent sensation helped lay the foundations for both the French and English perfume industry.
Santa Maria Novella’s history does not end there. One of the last women ever to be burnt at the stake as a witch in France — the Marquise d’Aumont, wife of a Maréchall or Marshall — used a Santa Maria Novella scent to perfume her gloves. Marescialla is named after her, and still sold at Santa Maria Novella today in the exact same formula. In fact, several of the pharmacy’s products date back hundreds of centuries, like their Aceto dei Sette Ladri, or Seven Thieves’ Vinegar. As an admiring New York Times article from 1986 explains, it’s named after a band of seven looters who would strip the bodies of the dead during The Great Plague. They tried to protect themselves “from infection by rubbing this so-called vinegar over themselves. Today the aceto is sold as smelling salts, for which there seems to be a thriving market.”
As both a history and perfume junkie, Santa Maria Novella topped my list of things to do in Florence, so I made my way there one hot afternoon. I took the cobbled path that curved around and past the main SMN plaza where the busy train station is located to a side street located just off the similarly named SMN square where the SMN church is located. If all of sounds a little confusing to you, it was to me as well.
In the side street, I pushed past two tall, metal and glass doors to enter a surprisingly modern, late 19th century building. From the photos I’d seen of the SMN shop, I had imagined a truly ancient showroom amidst towering walls painted with centuries-old frescoes. I’d forgotten that the original workspaces and sales rooms are now part of a museum that is wholly separate from the current store.
Still, the existing shop has an old world charm of its own. There were several spacious rooms, one with soaring ceilings painted with frescoes, one with velvet curtains, both with chandeliers. The main room is shown in the first photo above. In the smaller one, walls were covered with ancient portraits, plaques showing ancient coats of arms, or the porcelain vases that were used in the 16th and 17th centuries to store products.
The main room was packed with people on the day of my visit, pouring over the truly massive, almost two foot-long product list, or examining the many cabinets that were filled with scented products. Most of them had rows of large glass urns on their top shelves containing brightly coloured liquid:
What I didn’t realise at the time is that several of these glass urns must have contained liqueurs, though that was not their original purpose. In March 2015, CNN did a profile on SMN, and their correspondent provided some fascinating details:
I’m drawn to the row of bottles containing colorful liqueurs, especially the scarlet red one called Alkermes. A whiff of the bottle gives off the spicy aroma of cloves and cinnamon, with the underlying fruity notes of orange blossom.
“The scarlet color comes from coccinella (ladybug), which are dried, crushed and used as a natural colorant, in keeping with the ancient recipe,” explains Foa [the pharmacy’s commercial director].
The monks made these liqueurs and elixirs from herbs and spices, and they were consumed as medicines in the infirmary. [¶] Alkermes was given to new mothers to recover from labor pains; nowadays it’s used as a food colorant in a typical Italian dessert called zuppa inglese, a sort of trifle.
The golden-colored Elisir di China, with quinine as an active ingredient, was used in the treatment of malarial fever. Today this slightly bitter liqueur is often served warm with lemon rind, as a post-dinner digestif. [Emphasis to names added by me.]
All the cabinets were filled with scented products, from perfumes to soaps, shaving cream, talcs, or body lotions, with each shelf organised by theme or olfactory profile. You can click on the photos below to open the images in a larger size in a new window:
The main focus of my attention was the table with all of SMN’s fragrances. There must have been 50 bottles, all in semi-frosted glass, emblazoned with the Santa Maria Novella logo, and placed in a curving, double row in the shape of a horseshoe. At its center was a small tray with seven narrow, glass flacons that were about 5-inches tall and filled with concentrated fragrance oils.
I’ll be honest, I don’t recall in huge detail a lot of the things I smelt. There was simply too much stuff, and too little skin space to spray them all. Plus, shortly after I took these photos, a horde of tourists descended upon the already crowded showrooms, and at least 6 of them planted themselves beside me at the table, spraying things in the air, on scented paper strips, and on themselves. Between their olfactory clouds and my own, my nose was quite overwhelmed.
Still, a few things stood out. There was the Patchouli which I’d previously reviewed and really liked. At that time, I wasn’t sure it was my Holy Grail patchouli, mostly because it felt too light and insufficiently dense or chewy for my personal tastes. I hadn’t tried it in spray form and aerosolisation makes a difference to how a scent manifests itself, so I was eager for the chance to spritz it willy-nilly in person. It turns out that Patchouli is not, in fact, my personal Holy Grail in the genre, but the fragrance was as lovely as I had remembered. In fact, it showed off different facets in spray form, with pronounced streaks of dark chocolate and less of a camphorous, green side in the opening. So, I bought it.
I also bought Gaggia (Mimosa). It has an exquisite opening where mimosa ripples out like a fresh stream of sweetness with almost a crystalline, liquidy floralcy, before being lightly dusted with a hint of golden pollen. I couldn’t stop sniffing my arm. I’ve found it difficult to find a scent that replicates the heady sweetness I recall from the mimosa trees around one of my childhood homes, and nothing I’ve tried has come close until Gaggia.
For the first 10 minutes, it is an astonishingly lovely scent, but my general rule is never to buy a fragrance unless I’ve tested it first. I never know what will develop, how long a fragrance might last on my wonky skin, and what quirks may ensue down the line. So I asked for a sample in order to test Gaggia back at the hotel, but the store doesn’t do that. I was torn. In the end, SMN’s pricing and VAT issues tipped the balance. Each SMN fragrance cost €80 which, at the Euro’s low rate, then roughly equal to the US Dollar, translated to about $85. In addition, SMN removed the VAT tax on all purchases over €150, making the fragrances even cheaper. In America, SMN costs $125. Here, I could get 2 of them for €160 with an additional €25 discount on top of that. My cheapskate side won out, so I bought Gaggia as well.
It is a purchase I deeply, deeply regret. That exquisite opening doesn’t last, but I couldn’t tell that in the store with all the eager tourists (and me) spraying different perfumes in ever ballooning scent clouds. Once I got back to my hotel room, it was a very different matter. The first hint of trouble occurs a mere 15 minutes into Gaggia’s development when an odd woodiness creeps in. It’s wholly and completely synthetic, redolent of the fake “cedar” scent in some very cheap perfumes I’ve tried, like Maison de La Vanille‘s over-priced, painfully synthetic Vanille Sauvage de Madagascar. The woodiness is hard to explain, but it’s like cedar shavings in a hamster’s cage that has been dusted with chemicals, white musk, and a few drops of bug spray.
It’s a hideous touch that, unfortunately, encircles Gaggia’s mimosa and then smothers it completely after 75 minutes. (Or less, depending on how much I apply.) There is no escaping it, either. Whether I spray Gaggia on fabric, in the air, or in bath water, the woody synthetic dominates. In fact, when sprayed in the air, the bug spray facet surges to the forefront even more quickly. So, I’m stuck with an almost full bottle that I can’t abide, can’t use in alternate ways, and wouldn’t gift to anyone I ever liked. (I wouldn’t gift it to someone I didn’t like, either!)
How I wish I had remembered my experience with another SMN floral, Caprifoglio (Honeysuckle), which also took on a bug-spray quality when I tested it for review. Or, I should have paid more heed to the synthetics I detected in several other SMN florals I tried. I can’t recall now which particular fragrance it was, but I cringed at the deluge of fake laundry freshness from a hefty amount of white musk. The sweet sales assistant remarked with surprise that I had “a good nose” since white musk wasn’t listed in the official notes, but I don’t see how anyone could have missed it! In fact, a large number of Santa Maria Novella’s florals were heavily imbued with clean laundry musk which was quite a disappointment.
There was one fragrance that seemed to be less tainted, relatively speaking, the pretty Zagara (Orange Blossom). According to Fragrantica, its notes are:
Top: bergamot, grapefruit, petit grain, lime, sweet orange, verbena and lavender. Heart: orange blossom, carnation, jasmine and geranium. Base: oak moss.
It was a very green, fresh, and naturalistic orange blossom (and fruits) fragrance that wasn’t overtly filled with laundry musk right from the start, but the same circumstances that restricted my ability to smell Gaggia in full apply here as well. There was simply too much in the air, on my skin, and in the multitude of scent strips in my hand for me to know accurately how it developed. On Fragrantica, the main complaint seems to be very poor longevity, though one person does remark on its “cheap smelling” nature. That may be an indirect reference to synthetics and white musk, or it may not, I don’t know. Either way, unless you like extremely clean, fresh scents, I would proceed with caution with the SMN florals.
Their richer, darker, or more oriental scents are a different matter, however. In fact, most of the people crowding around the perfume table were taken by the non-florals. One French woman was raving on and on about the wonderful Nostalgia, a leather fragrance with a surprisingly addictive top bouquet of car-racing fuel and rubber. I know that doesn’t sound like it should be as good as it is, but Nostalgia is one of SMN’s biggest hits for a reason.
If the gorgeous opening lasted a long time on my skin, I would have bought it when I finally came across a bottle in person, but I was more riveted by Tabacco Toscano which I almost purchased instead of Gaggia. (How I wish I had!) It’s actually a scent that I’ve meant to review for over a year now, but something has always come up to push it aside. Fragrantica says its olfactory pyramid is:
top notes are bergamot and jasmine; middle notes are tobacco and birch leaf; base notes are vanilla, amber and malt.
It’s been a long time since I tested Tabacco Toscano in full, and my memories of trying it in the showroom are hazy due to the plethora of scent in the air, but it is basically a very soft, semi-sweet, semi-dry mix of tobacco, leather, and amber. It’s quietly spicy, warm, and fragrant, where the tobacco skews towards the gingerbread-y type more than the fruity style of pipe tobacco. A very soft layer of refined, clean leather lies under it, while drops of a bergamot are sprinkled on top to give the scent a very classical profile. I don’t recall any jasmine, but there are whispers of vanilla that definitely appear later on when the scent takes on a more ambered bouquet in its middle and drydown phases.
I didn’t buy Tabacco Toscano at the time because it felt too soft for my personal tastes, but that’s because most of SMN’s fragrances are colognes. That’s the weakest scent concentration on the market, though several of SMN’s creations have more strength or robustness than some eau de toilettes that I’ve tried. One day, I hope to do a proper, full review for Tabacco Toscano but, in the meantime, it is one of the SMN fragrances that I think stands out. If you’re looking for an airy, refined, classical tobacco/leather scent, you may want to order a sample from Surrender to Chance or go to one of the many shops that carries Santa Maria Novella around the world. (See the Details section at the end.)
Another fragrance that caught my attention was Peau d’Espagne (Spanish Leather). It is a cologne that originally debuted in 1901, and Fragrantica gives its notes as:
bergamot, carnation, jasmine, neroli, cedar, violet leaf, hawthorn, birch and civet.
The opening minutes were a bit humdrum and unexciting, but Peau d’Espagne became more intriguing after 10 minutes. The initially bitter, somewhat herbal, dark, and citrusy notes gave way to a photorealistic leather that differs in profile from a lot of other leathers that I’ve tried in the genre. It’s not the tarry, butch or raw leather of a tannery, nor the clean, almost iris-y, cool leather of new shoes or the slightly floral scent, clean leather of Hermes‘ new Cuir d’Ange. It also differs from the tarry, smoky birch leather at the heart of SMN’s Ambra, a scent with some similarities to one of Andy Tauer’s creations, Lonestar Memories.
In the old days, “Peau d’Espagne” was the name for a highly scented oil made of flowers and spices that was commonly used to scent gloves, and SMN’s cologne did remind me a little of the smell of old gloves. A closer comparison, though, would be to the strips of leather that hung from some of the craftsmen stalls in Florence’s central market, strips that were treated, a bit dry, and ready for use. There was also a good whiff of old books tossed in as well that I thought was rather charming, though not necessarily what I would want to smell like for myself. The cologne didn’t have an animalic aroma that I can recall, despite the inclusion of civet in its notes, but my previous caveats about what I smelt on that day apply here too: there was an overwhelming plethora of scent trails in the air, and I didn’t have the chance to test things in full, so my memory is limited to the opening aspects of each fragrance. That said, Peau d’Espagne receives rave reviews on Fragrantica, so it is a scent you may want to keep in mind if you’re looking for a dry, semi-masculine, “rustic” and “book” leather.
I also tried a few other things that day. I’ve never seen SMN’s concentrated fragrance oils anywhere else, and I recall a reader telling me about them a long time ago, so I gave a few of them a quick test on the skin.
As best as I can remember, they were all single-note soliflores, like jasmine, rose, and cypress. One of them stood out, and I think it was the jasmine one. I recall something narcotically heady, but it’s been more than a month since that day, so my memory is blank about the olfactory specifics. I think the reason I didn’t buy it because I was utterly overwhelmed by that point, it was a little one-note, and also because the tiny flacon cost as much as the full 100 ml bottles. Still, it’s a pity that the Essenza Assoluta or Estratti Tripli are not commonly sold at the many retailers that carry the brand, because they were very nice and far better than some of the white musk-heavy florals. The Essenza oils may be exclusive to the actual Santa Maria Novella boutiques.
So that’s it for today’s trip back in time to the heart of Florence’s most famous pharmacy and perfumery. I know a number of you have visited Santa Maria Novella, so I would love to hear in the comments what you fell for and bought for yourselves.