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Ancient alchemy: pharmacy, apothecary and fragrances

Each one of us has an ancient wisdom in our sense of smell. A smell conjures up the image of a memory in our mind. Our five senses give rise to emotions, both positive, like pleasure or happiness, and negative like anger and fear. The cultivation of fragrant herbs was very important to the Ancient Greeks, Romans and Arabs, so much so that they made potent essences out of them, which were activated by the heat of a fire. 

The Middle Ages in Florence and the re-discovery of several ancient alchemical documents from the East, witnessed the beginning of the Arte dei Medici e degli Speziali (the Guild of Physicians and Pharmacists), who published the "Ricettario Fiorentino" in 1498, the first pharmacopoeia codex to appear in Italy. From the middle of the 14th century, the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Novella were selling rose water to the citizens of Florence. This was a disinfectant and refreshing essence created from plants for fighting epidemics. Medicinal herbs were grown and transformed into ointments and balms and were exported all over Europe. The Perfume and Pharmaceutical Workshop of Santa Maria Novella is still active today and is the oldest pharmacy in Europe.

La sala della tisaneria
Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, la Tisaneria

During Cosimo I's time, officinal herbs were grown in the gardens of the Florentine villas, like in that of Castello and Petraia. The Botanical garden itself was created in 1545 by the Medici family specifically as a garden for medicinal plants.

Veduta aerea della villa medicea di Castello
Villa medicea di Castello

Apothecary art was also known in another ancient Tuscan pharmacy, that of San Gimignano, in the Spedale di Santa Fina, which produced medicinal herbs in its botanical garden, following the ancient alchemical documents on cultivation and production. The herbs were used as medicinal balms, for culinary use and for sensorial use. The Salvioni Pharmacy still stands in the central square of Montalcino, in Val d'Orcia, and it dates back to the sixteenth century, when it was a workshop of apothecary art.
The person who really made the ancient Arts popular in Europe became Caterina dei Medici, when she married the King of France: it was she who introduced her trusted perfumer, Renato Bianco, to the court.

Ritratto di Caterina de' Medici
Ritratto di Caterina de' Medici

He soon became the indispensable Renè Florentin, creator of perfumed essences that facilitated relationships in society and also the creator of famous poisons, which courtiers and unscrupulous spies hankered after, turning to him when they wanted to eliminate obstacles stopping them from conquering power.

  • Progetto finanziato a valere sui fondi Legge n. 77 del 20 febbraio 2006 “Misure speciali di tutela e fruizione dei siti italiani di interesse culturale, paesaggistico e ambientale, inseriti nella “lista del patrimonio mondiale”, posti sotto la tutela dell’UNESCO”