Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy: The world’s oldest pharmacy – CBS News

By | May 20, 2019

Just off Florence’s Piazza Santa Maria Novella, where a church of the same name has stood since 1360, sits another cathedral of sorts. It may not look like it from the outside but inside, it’s truly a thing of beauty.

“It’s just amazing. It looks like it’s part of the church,” said one visiting American. “There are beautiful statues and murals, all the beautiful smells, just fabulous beauty.”

Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy is thought to be the oldest apothecary in the world, reports host Jane Pauley.

The counter at the Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy in Florence.  CBS News

Pharmacy director Gianluca Foa says it dates back to 1221, when its Dominican monks here began experimenting with alchemy. 

A century later they came up with a product made from roses they hoped would defeat the Great Plague, which killed an estimated 60% of Europe.

“They thought that distilling these petals, they could create an antiseptic used to fight the plague,” said Foa. “But of course, it didn’t work.”

But it did work as a beauty product – rose water – which has been used as a face tonic for the past 800 years.

Florence’s Santa Maria Novella Pharmacy. CBS News

The pharmacy’s tradition of innovation didn’t stop there. The monks were the first to use alcohol in perfume; they created a liqueur to help numb pain in childbirth, and aromatic vinegar. “This is used to prevent faintings,” said Foa. “It’s very strong!”

Today, Santa Maria Novella’s garden produces plants and flowers used in products still made by hand, just as they were two or three centuries ago.

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And more than 2,000 people a day come to breath it all in.

And if customers need a drink after shopping, well, they don’t need to look far; Santa Maria Novella’s ancient liqueurs are now used at upscale cocktail spots, like Florence’s Hotel Savoy.

“They’re amazing for cocktails, because they are elixir,” said the bartender. “Elixir, it means something really pure.”

History and hipness co-exist in a city that defines beauty.  

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Story produced by Jon Carras.

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