Each spring, visitors to the rolling hills outside Florence are greeted by the sweet scent of Iris Fiorentina—a flower that is as much a mascot of the city as the Duomo or David. This delicate floral undergoes quite a journey before it is deemed satisfactory enough for the nose of Gian Luca Perris, creative director and CEO of another Florentine icon, perfumer and herbalist Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.
A study in slow luxury, it takes three years for the iris to reach the correct size for harvesting and then a further three years until perfume can be extracted from its root before being distilled into “butter” (the scent from the root is earthier than that of the super sweet petals.) Even after that process, it took another year to perfect the accord that is the basis of L’Iris, the company’s first eau de parfum (all of the brand’s other scents are lighter eaux de cologne.) The fragrance resulting from this time-consuming production is a fitting way to celebrate Santa Maria Novella’s 800 years in business.
What we know as a global brand today was founded by Dominican friars in 1221 in Santa Maria Inter Vineas church outside Florence, where the sick were sent to heal. The monks cultivated plants that they transformed into unguents and potions to cure illnesses and maladies. The green-thumbed brotherhood became famous for their perfumed rose water, created as a remedy for the Black Death, and gained international renown after Catherine de Medici, a loyal customer, introduced the friars’ fragrances to the French royal court. Her signature scent, still in production as Eau de la Reine, could be considered the first modern perfume.
Today, its storied Via della Scala apothecary, a stone’s throw from Florence’s Santa Maria Novella church, is a mecca for in-the-know visitors who make the pilgrimage for the brand’s elegantly packaged sundries including scented wax tablets, terracotta fragrance diffusers, lotions, soaps and even chocolate produced using the centuries-old formulations set out by the monks. The space also serves as a museum for historic apothecary wares and texts on alchemy.
Perris was appointed in 2020 and brings with him a wealth of olfactory knowledge from his previous work at several noted niche perfumers and training in Grasse. “My role is to conserve the heritage and retain masterpieces while building the brand,” he says. This means new lines, such as the EDP, as well as collaborations including a forthcoming alliance with Cabana editor and interiors maven Martina Mondadori. Perris is also trying to advance the most sustainable packaging and production methods. With laboratory bottles displayed behind him at his Florentine quarters, Perris explains his vision for the storied brand: “It is about keeping the company alive for the next 800 years and not just being a museum.”
Here are a few of the greatest hits to emerge, and endure, throughout Santa Maria Novella’s octocentenary.
Santa Maria Novella’s Greatest Hits
Scented Terracotta Pomegranate
One of the handsomest room diffusers on the market, this replica of the fruit is handcrafted in terracotta and soaked in Santa Maria Novella’s beloved Melograno fragrance combining fresh pomegranate and citrus notes with earthy musk and oak moss.
Scented Wax Tablets
Gently perfume closets and linens drawers with these scented discs, made by hand in the brand’s workshops. Each one is embellished with herbs and blossoms that feature in its scent; Angeli di Firenze is combines blue cornflower petals and chamomile flowers.
Potpourri Silk Sachet
The brand has been producing potpourri for over three centuries. This mixture of buds, leaves and flower petals grown among the Tuscan hills combines to create Santa Maria Novella’s signature fragrance.
Acqua della Regina
The brand’s oldest fragrance was created for Catherine de Medici in 1533. It’s a fresh, citrusy scent laced with herbal notes that has remained a best-seller for centuries.
Tabacco Toscano Soap
Another of the brand’s most popular scents—combining Tuscan tobacco, leather, woods and a hint of vanilla—lends this vegetable-based soap it’s warm, elegant aroma.
Before & After Shave Cream
This three-in-one product softens hair as a preparatory pre-shave treatment, acts as a protective shaving cream and can be used to moisturize and restore skin after shaving.
Acqua di Rose
Originally created in 1381, Santa Maria Novella’s rose water acts as a refreshing toner and astringent suitable for all skin types.