Ancient aromas of Italy’s Santa Maria Novella

Little has changed in the pharmacy over the years. Compare this photograph to the next, taken several decades ago.

When I went on the American Music Abroad tour in Europe, we visited France, Belgium, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland and the beautiful cities I visited still haunt my stagnant legs and beg me to come back. I wouldn’t consider myself a Europhile, as I’m a tad too patriotic for that, but I do love the land and the history and the majesty within the old world and the people who walk on it, and I would like to join those people again one day soon.

Now unfortunately, my group did not get to visit Italy which with its sumptuous intellectual and creative history has had a little pining space inside of me since I started listening and playing Vivaldi and Paganini transposed for the piano. But now with another one of my interests illuminated in the destination (as if music, art, and chocolate weren’t enough), the waiting is going to be maddening.

The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is one of the oldest pharmacy and cosmetics store, clocking in at about 600 years established. It was founded by monks who cultivated medical herbs, balms, and ointments for the attached monastery infirmary. The amount of history in the products the little shop carries is immense:

“The Acqua di Rose is still one of our best-selling products; of course it’s now used as an astringent toner and perfume rather than a disinfectant,” says [Gianluca] Foa.

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.

And of course, it came into popularity because of a Medici: the monks created Acqua Della Regina to commerate Catherine Medici’s marriage to Henry II. Renamed Acqua di Santa Maria Novella, this fragrance is still available and its original scent was preserved.

This beautiful place is a must-see for myself and other olfactic savorers. Link to the CNN article here, where they include some directions!

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