Visiting Florence’s Perfumeries

Visiting perfumeries in Florence may seem indulgent, especially given the fact that this city is home to amazing Renaissance masterpieces, not the least of which is Michelangelo’s hunky David. That said, Florence suffers from a serious affliction,  “overtourism,” and if you want a low-key day in this historic city, get over the guilt and feel free to avoid the Uffizi and the Accademia Gallery. There are so many other wonderful things to see (and smell) in Florence.

Visiting Perfumeries in Florence may seem indulgent…

Firenze, as the Florentines call it, is home to one of the oldest pharmacies in the world. The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is a two-minute walk from the Basilica de Santa Maria Novella, architecturally one of the most important gothic churches in Italy.  When I say the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is old, I mean, like it was founded in the year 1221.

To get the full extent of the legacy of this pharmacy, a quick history lesson in the role of the church in medicine and healing is helpful. Santa Maria Novella’s Farmaceutica was founded by Dominican Friars who, in addition to building a stunning church, had private gardens planted with medicinal herbs which they used to create medications, balms and tinctures. The curative wizardry of Santa Maria’s Dominican friars became so legendary that by the 14th century, all sorts of people flocked to Florence for their healing prowess. Meanwhile, “the Black Death” aka, The Plague hit European shores around 1340, therefore unique remedies were in high demand. The Dominicans created all kinds of perfumed waters to stop the spread of diseases. Rose Water was a particularly popular disinfectant.

The Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is both a museum and a perfumery

Today, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is both a museum and a perfumery, where you can buy an extraordinary array of lotions, soaps, and scents. Medieval frescoes line the walls and when I was there, the curved entrance was covered with a lush cornucopia of violet flowers. Once inside, you enter a lush immersion into the most amazing array of natural scents.

I’ve long been a fan of S.M. Novella Idrasol Cream (which is now nearly impossible to find in the U.S.) but had no idea how very many other products Santa Maria Novella has available. I am completely smitten with their soaps and candles. With the dollar so strong, I ended up buying far more candles than my suitcase could reasonably hold! I’m giving them and the beautifully packaged soaps away as house gifts.

All that perfuming can be exhausting, so on my scentual tour of Florence, we opted to break for another completely indulgent experience at Florence’s Gucci Café. In true luxurious Gucci fashion, the outdoor café is built into a fantastical garden space right on the Piazza della Signoria. My Florentine friend insists that the Gucci Café is “the place” to  go for an afternoon aperitivo. I opted for the Gucci Spritz, a pink-hued cocktail made from botanicals and Mediterranean herbs. The Gucci cafei is perhaps best known for their Mémoire di Negroni, a heady mix of gin, sake, bitters and vermouth. To add to the allure and the price of the cocktail, all waiters are clad in Gucci and you get a free snack plate with your drink order!

Because one aromatic adventure begets another, we also visited Aquaflor, a legendary Florentine perfumery. Aquaflor is a few minutes’ walk from the Basilica de Santa Croce, with its black and white façade and luminaries buried within. This ancient pharmacy is housed in a historic Renaissance palace,. While not as large and opulent as S.M. Novella, it’s equally as aromatic. I am obsessed with their soaps, which come in dollar-pancake-sized assortments.  Custom boxes of 5 soaps cost all of 15 Euros! Choosing between the scents (rose, gardenia, bitter almond, and verbena ) was so challenging that I had to purchase several boxes. Side note: you can even book a private workshop tour and arrange to mix your own perfumes.

Evidently, there are several other scentual destinations in Florence. If you have recommendations on someplace equally as aromatic that I should visit, do tell!

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