Firenze: Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella: Baroque Charm, Post-Industrial Customer Service

We are fortunate to receive a generous gift box from the Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella each year from an Italian business associate of Jason’s, stuffed with lotions, potpourri, soaps, candles, and more. I have been a fan for years. I love the stuff.

The tea room is tucked away, behind a warren of small rooms, hallways, specialty dedicated rooms with marble counters (dietary supplements, room fragrance). We stopped first in the small chapel to the right on the way to the tea room, admiring the medieval frescoes up close.

Free art with your purchased hedonism.

I had brought my friend Nahyeli to the officina profumo when she was in town last week, and staying with us for a few days. I’d never been to the tea room before, but had heard and seen a bit about it, and marveled that I had not yet been in for the tea and cake. We agreed that we were in no shape to shop premium fragrance and skincare until we fortified ourselves with tea, cake, and medieval liquor.

After we had carefully examined as many historic flasks, pipettes, and huge bottles as we could stand, we waited for a bit for a table to clear. The tea room was bustling at all six of its tables. We were ushered to a tiny marble-topped bistro table, where the capable hostess took our orders for tea, cordials, and cake. It all came out moments later, the tea steeping in beautiful tiny porcelain teapots with matching cups, the cordial in tiny vessels of pressed glass, a generous slice of cake atop a saucer with two silver forks. I felt like I’d stepped into one of my beloved Russian classics, perhaps Gogol or Dostoyevsky on a grand estate, minutely detailing the habits of a landowning family.

I ordered one loose tea for Nahyeli, and another for me (cinnamon and spice), to go with our almond sugar cake. Both cordials glowed russet in the afternoon light that filtered in through the windows looking onto the courtyard. We sampled each other’s teas, as both of us are dedicated tea aficionadas, and shared the cake, then sipped on the cordials to finish – I had the stomatico, and Nahyeli the traditional Medici alkermes. The latter is no longer being distilled from the rosy carapaces of some desert beetle, but none the less surprising in its taste.

Tea, cake, cordial. Missing only a dowager duchess.

I love how in Italy I am still able to taste (and smell) completely new things, and have added alkermes to my short list of “wow! totally new Italian flavors!” (Kaka mela, sun-warmed ficchi, castagnaccio, grifo, biettole, valeriana, and now, alkermes.)  As we paid, the comessa complimented us on our mix of Spanish, Italian, and English, saying that she was Russian. We compared notes on language and language learning, and deploying acquired languages in situ. Our nerves relaxed, our bodies hydrated, we made our way into the dietary supplement room.

I took a few more pictures and admired the lawn of the cloister.

The lush lawn of the Dominicans.

We had carefully perused the product list over tea, and so had a few specific questions before we made our choices. Nahyeli selected a draining supplement, while I opted for a borage-based skin supplement that purported to also be useful for fair skin when exposed to sun (hand shot up). I have many fond memories of picking borage flowers for the dinner salad on Lummi Island, in Washington state.

The esteemed farmacia antica is less antica now, in that you receive a tessera, or a small card with a magnetic strip, which each comessa (sales associate) swipes at each of their grand marble counters to add your items to your shopping list. You take the tessera to the cassa, when your shopping feels as complete as it can possibly be in such an emporium of time-tested luxuries, and they have your bag waiting for you. Only there do they swipe your credit card to pay the unholy sum that is your ransom fee, worthy of the Medici themselves.

After the apothecary/dietary supplement room, we progressed to the main attraction: the grand foyer where the perfumes, soaps, and skincare are arrayed, underneath frescoed ceilings, the mahogany woodwork buffed to a deep shine. Innumerable commesse stand at their posts, ready to dab or spray you, or to proffer samples to sniff at. They are impeccably attired in smart blue suits with the SMN stemma, or logo, on the breast pocket of their blazer. It is impossible to overstate how busy this place always is. It is a Destination for every female tourist over the age of 14 who is visiting Florence, and many a father and husband in tennis shoes and cargo shorts trail behind, looking awkward and/or bored while their womenfolk make their selections. It is also popular with tour groups, and frequent groups of 30 to 40 or more (often Asian) file through, swiping their credit cards before they leave. This place has got to be so profitable. The commesse, in addition to being suited and beautiful, must also be hired on the basis of their prodigious language skills, because it feels like the UN in there.

Nahyeli and I approached the perfume dais, where the high queen of profumo that day was a striking young woman from Buenos Aires, with skin as flawless as tiny teapots we’d just served ourselves from in the tea room. Her stylish, owlish glasses perched perfectly on her straight nose. Her poise was commendable, and I am certain that that post for a commessa is a pole position for only the most professional associates with steel nerves, since the perfume dais is the most mobbed of all counters. Nahyeli and I spent a good twenty minutes spraying and sniffing. I’d bought a bottle of the profumo vaniglia in 2005, and enjoyed it. I’d been following their Instagram account for a few months to make sure I got all the public input on their profumo, which comprises at least 50 or 60 single note and blended fragrances. As soon as the co
mmessa
heard Nahyeli’s Spanish, she switched too, and we dominated her time a bit longer before we made our decisions. Nayheli took a pass, but I was moved to purchase a 100 euro bottle of the Tabacco Toscano, about which I had read so much, its popularity well justified.

One more stop, for tonic water for the complexion, because what could be a more medieval and  solid choice in such an institution. I chose one that was promised to make my skin smooth and supple (yes please), and it too was swiped onto my tessera. Under normal circumstances I am an impatient and very decisive shopper, but it was pleasant indeed to be there with a fellow member of the Tea and Fragrance Appreciation Society. We beelined into the cassa room where they swiped our credit cards, and left the officina profumo with our heavy white bags of gorgeous traditional products.

(Important: I was chatting with Nahyeli in Spanish most of this time, and read none of the fine print.)

I returned home with my purchases and applied the perfume. What? What was this smell of wet dog? Steely wet dog. Maybe my nose was wrong.

I recapped the bottle and put it aside. The next day I smelled it again. Come again? what was this smell? This made no sense to my nose. I am a very nosy person. I could not believe I would have bought this.

I checked the bottle but did not see the name of the perfume. In the small bag, the receipt remained tucked into a paper flap. I lifted it up to read it and was shocked to see I had gone home with a nice, big bottle of Wool. Liquid wet wool. Hence the doggy smell. There is no way I was ever going to use this fragrance. I carefully replaced the bottle in the box with the receipts, put everything into the bag, and returned with it to the farmacia on my bike yesterday morning.

I know this part of town better now, as it is halfway between our home piazza and St. James Episcopal. Not wanting to brave the one-way traffic coming up Via della Scala, I chained my bike on an iron pike at the south end of the piazza, and took my bag to the officina profumo, feeling confident an even exchange would be quickly effected.

The cassa room was packed, so I returned to the perfume dais, where the commessa held court. She was the same one who had dabbed me with various tonic waters and serums the week before. I explained my concern. She was unmoved, and quickly went into legal defense mode.

“It is written in numerous places that we will not exchange or refund. All our products are handmade; we cannot accept them back, even for an exchange.”

I was floored. Really? I did not want this bottle of wet woolly dog, no matter how prestigious or medieval the fragrance.

“But the Lana fragrance was formulated for Valentino. It is a designer fragrance.”

I stood there, not knowing what to say, in the High Court of beautiful smells. “I don’t like it,” I said. “I did not mean to buy it. I wanted to buy a bottle of the Tabacco Toscano.”

“You must check when you pay,” she insisted. “We are not responsible for incorrect selections.”

I like perfume, and a lot, but even for me a hundred euros is steep for a nice smell. It is way too much for Soggy Wool in a bottle. Maybe I should stick to L’Erbolario, where a mistake at the cassa would cost just 20 euros, and in any case, I can select and verify my own product before I purchase.

“It is a winter smell,” she forged ahead. “It is not meant for summer. Perhaps that is why it does not appeal to you.”

“But I did not even select this fragrance,” I said. I remember telling Buenos Aires that the Lana was not for me, and her reassurance that all fragrance is so personal, there is no math or logic that can be applied.

“Wait until winter and use it,” the commessa suggested.

I continued to stand there not knowing what more to say.

And, finally, “You can spray it on all your wool coats and scarves in winter. It is very nice.”

Of that I have no doubt, but that season is now six or seven months away again … wait, did she just tell me to spray the Wool perfume on my wool items in six months to mitigate their mistake?

Yes, she did. I entertained for just a moment a threat of a verbal tell-all blog post, or to say I was done tagging them for free advertising on Instagram, or bringing visiting friends by to load up on their product. I thought I’d say how I might advise our business associates to purchase our gifts from the competing farmacie antiche in town – Santissima Annunziata, or Inglese. But I could tell by the look on the commessa’s face that she didn’t care. The tour buses would come and unload more tourists who would pay and leave and never come back.

At that point, I sighed, and said, “Then please give me a bottle of the Tabacco Toscano, because that was the only one I wanted when I was here last time.”

She sighed back at me, pursing her lips, put the request on a tessera, and I went back to the cassa again to stand in line behind three middle-aged American women who were bemoaning their luggage weight limit in light of the impressive heft of the glass bottle containers of the Officina Profumo. I did spy at least four placards in six languages of their stern exchange and refund policy. Sigh.

At lunch a few minutes later, my falso italiano husband suggested many things I could have said in the very French l’esprit de l’escalier to the commessa, or to anyone who would listen to me. (The French spend a lot of time living in past conversations, formulating perfect retorts that will come in handy the next time such a conversational configuration occurs.) My Italian is not up to his level, though, and I certainly do not boast his steely nerves. Come to think of it, he would be a great Dio di Profumo for the dais, if he liked fragrance as much as I did. The man is unflappable. He could give that Argentine a run for her money.

“The client care is as medieval as their product recipes,” I said, spooning the broth of my pork ramen.

He thought a moment. “No,” he said, “that kind of a defensive response is very industrial. Anyway, they don’t care; they cater overwhelmingly to tourists they’ll never see again. They probably had too much Wet Wool fragrance on hand as they moved into summer months. Perhaps they were advised to discretely move the Wet Wool onto some tourists to make space for the summer fragrances.”

“Actually,” I added, thinking, “I think the response was very postindustrial. Profit over client.” He nodded. “I don’t know if I can bring myself to return.”

“You probably will,” he said.

“For the tea,” I said. I made note to bring our daughter Eleanor and Jason’s mom to the tea room.

He took home both the bags with the perfumes after lunch for me.

This morning, I applied the Tabacco Toscano, and it was as pleasant and multi-levelled a fragrance as I remembered from the week before. I carefully put the Wool perfume away, for the colder months that will start again in November, to use on my woolen scarves and coats to make them smell more woolly.

I will work on making more positive associations for Wet Wool, since it is not going to appreciate sitting in its box in my perfume cabinet. (Yes, I have one of those.)

Now that I think about it, it does smell a bit like a terrier who’s been out for a walk in a gentle spring rain, and that is a nostalgic smell I do love.

One Reply to “Firenze: Antica Farmacia Santa Maria Novella: Baroque Charm, Post-Industrial Customer Service”

  1. Monica, I'm sorry this happened (first world problems, admittedly) but I wanted to let you know I stopped off at the Farmacia in Verona to check out your favored scent, Toscano Tobacco. It was delightful! Sorry again to have missed seeing you in Italy. I love your adopted country!

    Like

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