The Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is probably the oldest still-operating pharmacy in the world, and certainly the oldest in Italy. It was established in 1221, when the Dominican monks from the adjacent Basilica of Santa Maria Novella began growing herbs to make balms, salves and medicines for their infirmary. The superior quality of their products became widely known, and in the 17th century, the pharmacy opened its doors to the public.
Today the pharmacy still uses the traditional preparation methods, and still carries products using the original recipes of the monks. Especially of note is the Aceto dei Sette Ladri, or “Seven Thieves Vinegar.” These smelling salts got their unusual name from a band of seven men who robbed corpses during the plague. They were said to have doused themselves in the strong vinegar to protect themselves from the plague (bad smells, or “miasma,” were believed to be the cause of illness.)
Another specialty of the pharmacy is their production of Carta D’Armenia (“Armenian Paper”) since at least the 16th century. It’s a paper incense which is soaked in a mixture of infusions of resins and oriental spices, and burns without a flame, scenting the air.
The pharmacy itself is housed in the extraordinary original building, the rooms of which are complete with vaulted ceilings, ornate gilding, frescoes, walnut cabinetry, glass-stoppered decanters full of colorful potions, marble floors, glass-stained windows, bronze statues, and antique apothecary scales and mortars.
There is also a small museum, with somewhat irregular hours, which features antique terra-cotta apothecary jars, however the best antiques are already on display in the shop itself.
The staff are able to answer questions and provide suggestions based on your preferences. There are product lists in a wide variety of languages, and a large computerized display allows customers to explore the offerings and read the history of each product. They will want to educate you one by one on each scent of cologne, with all the different subtle notes, like wine. The soaps are easier to view and smell; the violet soap is a particular treat. The prices are very high but so is the quality. It’s worth a visit to see the interior alone–it was a former papal residence and is ornate and lovely.
Know Before You Go
It looks like nothing on the outside. Pay attention to the address and there is a small sign. You'd walk right by unless you knew there was something there.