RAGS TO RICHES
SANTA MARIA NOVELLA WENT FROM DISPENSING POTIONS FREELY TO THE POOR TO SUPPLYING PERFUMES TO ROYALTY. AFTER 800 YEARS, THE WORLD’S OLDEST FRAGRANCE FIRM CAN STILL CLAIM A CERTAIN DIVINE INSPIRATION.
A failed cure for plague led to astonishing success for Santa Maria Novella, the world’s oldest cosmetics and perfume brand.
“Here you can see beautiful frescoes painted by Mariotto di Nardo, one of the most important painters of the Florentine Renaissance,” says Gianluca Foà, chief commercial officer of Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella — the world’s oldest cosmetics and perfume brand. We’re standing in the sacristy of the former San Niccolò church in Florence, one of two chapels donated in the 1400s by a grateful patron to the Officina’s founders: an alchemic sect of Dominican monks.
The frescoes, painted at the turn of the 15th century, depict scenes from the Passion, including a round-table Last Supper. They were almost ruined by the floods of 1966 when the river Arno broke through the windows. “We restored them just in time for the celebration of our 400-year anniversary in 2012,” Foà says. “Now we revive the colours and give back to the city.”
Makers of herbal remedies, healing elixirs, balms, soaps and perfumes, the Officina has officially been giving back to the city since 1612. In truth, the monks, whose original dispensing room still backs on to the Santa Maria Novella convent, were distributing homemade ointments free to Florence’s needy since at least 1221.
It was tragedy that accelerated the monk’s medicinal know-how. Beginning in the spring of 1348, the Black Death swept through the city, killing more than twothirds of an estimated 100,000 Florentines. It changed Florence irrevocably, both civilly and spiritually. Giovanni Boccaccio, writing in 1353 in The Decameron (whose plot begins at the Santa Maria Novella convent), noted that the “scourge had implanted so great a terror in the hearts of men and women that brothers abandoned brothers, uncles their nephews, sisters their brothers, and in many case, wives deserted their husbands”. Parents, he wrote, even refused to nurse their children.
Prayers and endless processions brought no aid, so the Dominicans turned to nature. Observing how roses in their vineyards fought off parasites, in 1380 the monks decided to distill rose petals to create a therapy. Unfortunately it was no use against plague. Happily, the holy men had created the perfect antioxidant skin tonic: rose water. The Acqua Di Rose is still the Officina’s most popular product — a 637-year bestseller.
But it was the invention of modern perfumery for which Santa Maria Novella became known globally in the 16th century, and in part thanks to a distillation device conceived by a frequent visitor, Leonardo Da Vinci. The Officina says he used a studio in the convent to paint, and also created for the monks a glass bottle with a serpentine head to separate the vapour of essential oil from distilled water. The new alcohol-infused perfumes left skin pores dry, non-oily and sweetsmelling, unlike the dank former concoction of essential oils melted with olive oil, almond oil or vinegar.
In 1533 a 14-year-old Florentine, Caterina de’ Medici, introduced Santa Maria Novella’s perfume to France when she married the future King Henry II. Her commission from the monks — the rose, rosemary and bergamot Acqua di Santa Maria Novella — is another timeless bestseller. The French royal patronage established the Officina’s fame to the point that in 1612 the monks decided to sell their products to the public, rather than giving them away.
“Our history is here, on these walls,” says Foà. “It’s our biggest value. But we are not just history, otherwise the company couldn’t compete with multi-nationals. We don’t advertise. Our choice has been to invest in quality: we are investing all our profits in raw materials, in quality of the product, in skilled people, in machinery, rather than the advertising. It’s paying us back.”
Certainly the Officina’s global footprint is growing. The company has 75 worldwide flagship stores and 300 shop-in-shops. In Australia the brand is distributed through Franque in Toorak Road, Melbourne, whose founder, Sarah Hook, has earned a solid reputation for curating artisanal goods from Italy and France, including the Hermès-owned crystal maker, St Louis.
Although the Officina prides itself on adapting to the global market, the company still manufactures all its goods in Florence, including bottles. Close to the offices in the north of Florence are laboratories and two gardens growing pesticide-free jasmine, magnolias, lilacs, freesias, and precious irises. (Tropical-centric trees and plants, such as sandalwood, incense wood, patchouli etc., are sourced from certified distributors overseas.)
And the Officina will remain Florentine-owned. “We are resisting the attacks of the multinationals to buy the company. Never!” Twenty years ago, Foà says, “this company was failing and looked like closing forever. Our owner, Mrs Stefani, called her neighbour, Mr Eugenio Alphandery, who was a mechanical engineer dealing with textiles. He came here just to replace some machinery. But he was afraid another treasure of our beloved city would be lost forever, so he decided to buy into the company and make happen the miracle.”
Perhaps inspired by Nardo’s Passion frescoes in the nearby chapel, it seems the Officina ProfumoFarmaceutica achieved its own resurrection.