The Australian - Wish Magazine - - CONTENTS - STORY JONATHAN LOB­BAN

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.

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