Ancient Italian perfumer celebrates 400-year anniversary

FLORENCE, Italy - Wafts of perfume thrill visitors as soon as they set foot in the frescoed halls of the Santa Maria Novella pharmacy in Florence, a perfumer to poets, film stars and noblewomen through the ages.

The perfumer actually traces its roots back to 1221 by Dominican friars who cultivated medicinal herbs to make potions and balms.

The company is housed in mediaeval halls with spectacular views on a cloister in the city centre.

The fame of its products soon spread beyond the walls of the monastery and in 1612 the pharmacy opened its doors to the public under the patronage of the Medici family, which became an ambassador for the brand in royal courts.

When she married French King Henry II, Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) brought a bergamot-based perfume with her called "Eau de la Reine", a revolutionary new fragrance which became wildly popular at the royal court.

"Perfumes were mixed with oil or vinegar before, but the monks had the intuition to use alcohol.

'Eau de la Reine' was the first famous European perfume to be produced with alcohol," said Gianluca Foa, commercial director.

"Eau de la Reine" is still being produced by Santa Maria Novella, one of the products that has secured the success of the company despite the troubled world economy.

In 2011, Santa Maria Novella's turnover went up 37 per cent.

The centuries-old pharmacy today has an immutable quality to it.

The windows and the counter are unchanged since 1612, even though the Dominicans were forced to leave in 1886 when the Italian state seized the monastery as part of a large-scale confiscation of church property.

It was then sold to the nephew of the last Dominican abbot and four generations of that same family have run the company ever since.

Eighty per cent of the company's clients now are foreign - like Sabrina, from the Chinese province of Sichuan.

"I thought it was just a shop before coming here but this is fabulous," she said, admiring the frescoes.

Different products sell better in different countries. Calendula cream sells well in China, mint geranium pastilles in Japan, idralia cream in South Korea.

The firm has also invested in refurbishing the deconsecrated church next door, San Niccolo, into a very special kind of archive.

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