The Officina Profumo-Faramceutica di Santa Maria Novella, located in Florence, Italy is believed to be the oldest pharmacy in the world, having commemorated its eighth century in business last year.
According to Italy Perfect tourism site, the pharmacy traces its founding to 1221 when it was established by an order of Dominican friars who had previously built the great Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. "It was common for monasteries to have private gardens that included various types pf medicinal herbs that were used to create early forms of medications as well as balms and tinctures," the overview noted.
While the pharmacy was initially used to treat ailments of monks living within the monastery, "by the 14th century news of the healing qualities of the remedies at Santa Maria Novella was beginning to spread," the overview continued. Around that time the pharmacy's various treatments were made available to the public. In 1381, the pharmacy's perfumed waters were used to fight off the plague.
A 2019 segment by CBS News Sunday Morning reported on the monks' plaque-fighting remedies. They created a solution made from roses, which the monks believed could be distilled into an antiseptic that would be effective, explained pharmacy director Gianluca Foa. "But of course, it didn't work."
It did though, result in the beauty product we know today as "rose water," which is used throughput the world as a face tonic.
Later, in the 16th century, the pharmacy established a reputation for producing innovative perfumes and oils. Many of those products are still produced today, using the same recipes and ingredients. Among the pharmacy's more noteworthy creations was a perfume developed especially for Caterina de' Medici, who in 1533 was betrothed to Henry II, the future king of France. Caterina reportedly "asked none other than the Dominican friars at Santa Maria Novella to create an essence that captured her beloved Florence."
The resulting perfume made history as one of the world's first alcohol-based perfumes. The potion was so well-received that it found "grand success in the royal courts of France." That same perfume, called Acqua di Santi Maria Novella, is available for purchase today.
Additional innovations, as reported by CBS, include a liqueur to help numb pain in childbirth, and aromatic vinegar. "This is used to prevent faintings," said pharmacy director Foa. "It's very strong."
Another noteworthy creation, according to Atlas Obscura, is the Aceto dei Sette Ladri, or "Seven Thieves Vinegar." "These smelling salts," the tourism website explains, "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." This is because bad smells were thought to be a cause of illness.
The friars also developed a product called Carta D'Armenia which, according to Atlas Obscura, translates to "Armenian Paper." This product was developed in the 16th century and consists of paper incense "which is soaked in a mixture of infusions of resins and oriental spices, and burns without a flame, scenting the air."
Today the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy continues to produce a wide array of perfumes, oils and skin care products sourced from plants and flowers grown within its own gardens. More than 2,000 people visit the pharmacy each day. This is in addition to a bustling online pharmacy, which offers a wide array of products that can be shipped worldwide.
No doubt the world's oldest pharmacy was ahead of its time and generated many innovative products and solutions that have withstood the test of time. The 13th century monks' commitment to innovation and healing certainly laid the groundwork for today's pharmacists, especially the corps of specialty pharmacists dedicated to creating customized medications and developing new drug treatments.
Next time your travels bring you to Italy, a stop at the world's oldest pharmacy would be well worth your time! Or, if your busy pharmacy hours won't permit such a trip, treat yourself to an online shopping experience!