Unravelling the Legendary Santa Maria Novella Scent

Photography By Bagus Tri Laksono
9/27/2019

The year was 1221; the Gothic era was slowly moving towards the Renaissance era. Dominican monks were assigned to build a church that later became known as the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. The church that was completed in the 14th century is without a doubt a design gem from the period and is iconic with its inlaid green and white marble façade that is designed specifically by Leon Battista Alberti. However, the popularity of Santa Maria Novella for 800 years is not only because of this amazing church but also for the world-renowned apothecary that was initiated by the Dominican monks from this church.

Back then, these monks were growing herbs to make balms, salves and medicine for their infirmary. Over time, the superior quality of their products became famous and in 1612, the monk Fra Angiolo Marchissi opened this apothecary to the public. The amazing reputation of this apothecary has also earned them the right to bear the honourable title, “His Royal Highness”, from the Grand Duke of Tuscany. This was the starting point when Officina Profumo – Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella (Perfume and Pharmaceutical Workshop of Holy Mary Novella) was born.

Aside from their known ointment remedies, this apothecary is also famous for their artistry perfume making. In the past, they created a special perfume for Caterina de’Medici, the Florentine noblewoman who was crowned “Queen of France”, called Acqua della Regina – Water of the Queen. Until now, the apothecary still produces this perfume and is named Water of Santa Maria Novella.

The popularity of the products and formulas developed by the monks were reaching Russia, India and even China. Today, this apothecary located in Florence still uses the traditional preparation methods based on the original recipes of the monks. There, the apothecary is housed in the extraordinary original building with rooms that are filled with vaulted ceilings, ornate gilding, frescoes, walnut cabinetry, glass-stopped decanters full of colourful potions, marble floors, glass-stained windows, bronze statues, antique scales and mortars. There is also a small museum that features antique terra-cotta apothecary jars.

In May 2016, the Santa Maria Novella brand finally arrived in Jakarta with their mini version of the apothecary open inside the exclusive small luxury residence called The Gunawarman. Thanks to sophisticated and savvy businesswoman Poppy Dharsono, Santa Maria Novella products can finally be found in Indonesia. Located inside the Gunawarman right by the entrance, the boutique takes form in a mini building that is done in a Gothic-Renaissance style. The design is inspired by both the Santa Maria Novella flagship store in Italy and also the overall design of The Gunawarman. SOW Projects, the studio that designed the hotel and restaurant of this residence also created this boutique.

Like in the original flagship store in Florence, SOW Projects translated the original design by using teak wood and custom- shaped glass produced by artisans. Vintage furniture including antique apothecary jars and old cash registers add to the authenticity of the whole ambience. Like their other boutiques in the world, Santa Maria Novella design has a common denominator to communicate the character of the parent company, its history and that of its products.

For their first boutique in Indonesia, Santa Maria Novella provides 120 variants that are divided into several big categories such as wax products, face care, body care, home fragrance, men’s products, perfume, soaps and accessories. The fragrance section is the main focus and highlight of the store, with the famous Water of the Queen featured in this boutique. Santa Maria Novella has created a wide range of fragrance-based products such as perfumes, essential oils, candles, room fragrances, body and face care that have unique stories attached to it. They also have single-note perfumes that are not available in many other perfume brands in the market. This allows users to mix their unique scent. After all, choosing fragrance takes emotion. It always deals with our feelings and many times can be personal.

With over 800 years of experience, Santa Maria Novella continues to create products using natural ingredients which are very safe for all skin types. The ingredients of their face and body care products are extracted from plants and produced without dangerous ingredients like parabens or SLS. Perfumes are made from natural essential oils and not synthetics. All materials are grown and taken from their garden in Florence and manufactured in a factory close by.

Poppy as the proprietor for this brand in Indonesia has been a great admirer of this product for a very long time. She shared the story about how she found this brand during our visit to her lovely residence (that is also featured in this issue).

“In 1972, I was travelling to the Himalayas with my dear friends Prince Costantino Ruspoli and Count Averardo Serristori from Florence. During the trip, one of them gave me their custom-made family perfume as a souvenir. It was the type of perfume I like. Masculine-based notes, very sensual, with a little touch of femininity. I have always liked unique scents. The producer of the perfume was called Santa Maria Novella. It was an unfamiliar name to me at the time but I was told it was hundreds of years old. After the trip, we parted ways and went back to our respective homes. Years went by and we did not see each other for a very long time.

A few years ago, I had a business trip to Italy. I contacted these two gentlemen and decided to arrange a little reunion in Florence. I met Averardo in his family’s favourite restaurant. Afterwards, Costantino, who is now a renowned photographer, asked us to visit him at a place he was shooting at. It was in Via Della Scala 16, close to the train station. The classic building resembled a monastery from the medieval times. I was captivated and surprised to find out that it was a store! Not just any normal store, but a perfume store. Averardo told me that it was the same brand of perfume that he gave me 40 years ago. I toured around the grand store and it was beautiful. The salesroom, the café, the museum; everything made me feel like I was travelling hundreds of years back. They were selling perfumes and cosmetics, something I can’t resist to buy.

I instantly fell in love with the classic preserved building and the story behind it. As an artist, I have always loved heritage and culture. Santa Maria Novella products are crafted with old traditional recipes, combined with modern machinery. Fashion and beauty have also always been one of the things I treasure in life. As I travel the world, I have not found anything that is as beautiful and unique as this; a brand that combines history and beauty to create luxurious and rich products with great quality. So I had the idea right away to bring this to Jakarta, as I know there are people like me who would love the products and appreciate the hundreds of years of history behind it. So I thought, why not? It’s my way of keeping a beautiful memory close to me.

I travelled back home and told one of my partners about the perfume and the idea of bringing it to Jakarta. It was an easy discussion. I did not know that my partner was using Santa Maria Novella as well! He was very much interested. He was building his hotel (The Gunawarman) and thought it would be the perfect place for the store. So voila!”

Poppy who has visited the manufacturing facility told us that Santa Maria Novella used the hydro alcoholic-based recipes that have no equal on the market. The uniqueness of these products is warranted in the company’s historical recipes, as well as in the use of natural-based raw materials.

The iconic Water of the Queen, for example, is the oldest perfume of Santa Maria Novella and it was created in the herbal workshop of the Dominican friar’s convent, which later became Officina Profumo - Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. This water has a base of citrus essences with a predominance of Calabrian bergamot, and was commissioned by Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589). In 1533, she married Henry II of France and took this bouquet of fresh essence to the Court of France where it became renowned and beloved. It is still produced today following the ancient Dominican formula and is known as Acqua di S. M. Novella – Profumo. The most recent scents are Acqua di Colonia Cala Rossa, dedicated to the Isle of Capraia, one of the most beautiful isles of the Tuscan archipelago. In 2015, the Acqua di Colonia Cinquanta was created to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the twinning between the two cities of Florence and Kyoto, a fragrance inspired by perfumes and flowers of those two cities, Iris and lotus flower. The last one is Acqua di Colonia Lana, a scent dedicated to winter, to the cold, to the snow and wool clothes.

Every year a new perfume is created by Santa Maria Novella. They do not follow a trend but follow an inspiration instead. It is not easy to create a fragrance that can fit everyone. The perfume must have a personality to distinguish itself but, at the same time, it must not be too strong. It should be a pleasant fragrance, good to wear and to smell. The secret of success in this field is to combine personality and loveliness. This is the main reason behind the 800 years of Santa Maria Novella apothecary’s success.

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THIS STORY WAS A COLLABORATION BETWEEN
Erza S.T.
Author
Erza has pursued his great passion for opera and classical music for over a decade. His brainchild, the Indonesia Opera Society, has produced many classical music concerts and operas, and recently marked its 10th anniversary with a gala production. He is also a journalism lover focusing on luxury, lifestyle and travel stories, which he files from datelines around the globe.
Bagus Tri Laksono
Photographer

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