Santa Maria Novella in Piccadilly
Thursday 2nd of August 2012

Many of those who have been to Florence for the Pitti Uomo shows will know the little Santa Maria Novella shop on Via della Scala, actually the antica speziera, part of the church buildings and simply the most beautiful pharmacy in the world.

Established within a Dominican monastery in 1221, it was intended to prepare medicines to safeguard the health of the monks. It was only 400 years later that the monks deigned to open their little dispensary to the public, though by that time their range of products had somewhat expanded. Natural plants and other ingredients were suspended, distilled or infused in a variety of means, leading to a range that was divided by those means into oils, juleps, elixirs, waters, spirits and salts. The modern equivalents are perfumes, creams, gels and oils, though there are also liqueurs for the more adventurous drinker.

The Santa Maria Novella branch in the Piccadilly Arcade doesn’t really compare to Via della Scala. There is no frescoed vault depicting the four corners of the earth, or walnut cabinets carved in fanciful neo-gothic. But it is still one of my favourite little shops in London.
Chemists used to be such beautiful places. Small, shallow shelves stacked to the ceiling, filled with tiny glass bottles that hinted at multicoloured secrets within their reflective depths. Perhaps they weren’t all like that. But the traditional nature of the chemist and the dispenser’s position of responsibility did mean that such pharmacies retained their antique furnishings long after they had been dropped by the butcher and the baker. Old European cities like Bruges frequently have such places in their city centres, the woodwork retained for American tourists.
Santa Maria Novella managed to find just such a pharmacy when it set up its shop in the Piccadilly Arcade two years ago. Although not its oldest branch – the first London one, on Walton street, has been around for 14 years – the Arcade corner shop is a perfect distillation of old English delicacy and Florentine grandiloquence. The over-decorated bottles fill those stacks of shallow shelves, the glass behind them reflecting every side of the wonderful packaging.
I have tried many of the Jermyn Street perfumers over the years, for fragrances and shaving necessaries, and the Santa Maria Novella range comes out a good way in front. Its shaving cream creates a rich lather that effortlessly protects the skin, and its fragrances are sophisticated yet subtle. Think Acqua di Palma but without the overexposure.
As with all the SMN products, the perfumes are all made in laboratories next door to the antica speziera, just as those Dominican monks first started doing almost 800 years ago. The soaps seem extremely expensive, until you use one and it never runs out. They are made using machines that date back to the seventeenth century, moulded one by one and, most importantly, are far less diluted than modern soaps. Hence the longevity. The creams use almonds that are all ground by hand in a pestle and mortar. The signature pot pourri uses a centuries-old recipe of flowers and herbs from the hills around Florence.
If you’re ever within driving distance of Florence, visit the original dispensary. In the meantime, the Piccadilly Arcade is a lovely little substitute.
Photography: Luke Carby

SMN's Crema da Barba shave cream and After Shave Emulsion are perhaps the two most incredible shaving products I have ever discovered... I am also a big fan of their Almond Soap. Great brand with incredible products.
2012-08-07 14:57:54

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