Italy's Santa Maria Novella: The ancient perfume store you've never heard of

(CNN)In an unassuming building on a quiet street, not far from the bustle of Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station, stands what is probably the world's oldest pharmacy and cosmetic shop.

It's easy to walk right past the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, and I nearly do. The rather plain entrance gives no inkling of the aromatic treasures within this 600-year-old establishment, which still uses ancient recipes to make its modern-day perfumes and skin care products.
Stepping inside, I'm engulfed by a potent fragrance of flowers and spices.
    The ambiance reminds me of a Florentine palace, with elaborate chandeliers, rich drapes, 18th century furniture and mellow lighting.
    Highly polished shelves are lined with bottles of sweet-smelling potions, colorful liqueurs, eau de colognes, soaps and creams.
    Behind the counter, a classily dressed saleslady is helping an elderly American couple choose between floral lavender and leathery tobacco hand-pressed soaps.

    Fragrant wares

    Despite its grandly upscale appearance, the store's staff insist anyone is welcome to peruse its fragrant wares.
    "This is a free space, not a fancy, high-street shop where customers must be impeccably dressed; you can walk in wearing shorts," Gianluca Foa, the pharmacy's commercial director says as he gives me a tour of the premises.
    I look around and sure enough a young Japanese couple (in shorts) is placing an order at a touch screen kiosk that looks a little incongruous in such an opulent setting.
    As he shows me around, Foa regales me with the history of the place.
    Dominican friars arrived in Florence at the beginning of the 13th century and converted the church of Santa Maria Novella (then known as Santa Maria delle Vigne) into a monastery.
    They made an apothecary in the adjoining cloister and started cultivating medicinal herbs and dispensing balms, ointments and other herbal remedies to the convent's infirmary.
    When the Black Death arrived in Europe in the mid-14th century, wiping out 70% of Florence's population, the monks began making a rosewater distillate to use as an antiseptic to disinfect homes.
    "The Acqua di Rose is still one of our best-selling products; of course it's now used as an astringent toner and perfume rather than a disinfectant," says Foa.

    Scent of a woman

    The pharmacy came to prominence in the 16th century when it created a scent for a future queen.
    I'm drawn to the row of bottles containing colorful liqueurs, especially the scarlet red one called Alkermes. A whiff of the bottle gives off the spicy aroma of cloves and cinnamon, with the underlying fruity notes of orange blossom.
    "The scarlet color comes from coccinella (ladybug), which are dried, crushed and used as a natural colorant, in keeping with the ancient recipe," explains Foa.
    The monks made these liqueurs and elixirs from herbs and spices, and they were consumed as medicines in the infirmary.
    Alkermes was given to new mothers to recover from labor pains; nowadays it's used as a food colorant in a typical Italian dessert called zuppa inglese, a sort of trifle.
    The golden-colored Elisir di China, with quinine as an active ingredient, was used in the treatment of malarial fever. Today this slightly bitter liqueur is often served warm with lemon rind, as a post-dinner digestif.
    The pharmacy came into prominence in the early 16th century thanks to Catherine de Medici, daughter of the most powerful family of Renaissance Florence.
    To commemorate her marriage at age 14 to Henry II, the future king of France, the monks of Santa Maria Novella created a special perfume named Acqua Della Regina (Water of the Queen).
    "The monks had the idea to use alcohol as a base in the perfume, instead of the then prevalent olive oil or vinegar, which left a rancid smell later," says Foa.

    Made in Florence

    The perfume is still available. It's been renamed Acqua di Santa Maria Novella, but its unique scent of bergamot and aromatic spices remains unchanged.
    Under Catherine's patronage, the pharmacy's repute spread, and in 1612 it opened its doors to the public.
    Most of the flowers and herbs used in the production today are sourced from the pharmacy's own garden.
    Its signature potpourri, packed in hand-embroidered deep burgundy silk sachets, brings to mind a springtime walk in the nearby Tuscan hills.
    While some of the tropical ingredients such as patchouli and sandalwood are imported, the products are largely chilometro zero (locally made), right down to the labels, stationery and bags.
    Until a few years ago all production took place at the historical premises, but this has now shifted to another facility, three kilometers away, in the north of Florence.
    In the Antica Spezieria (old pharmacy), 18th century vitrines display the ancient distillation apparatus, old thermometers, vials of perfumes and examples of antique packaging. A pottery museum contains porcelain vases used to store products in the 16th and 17th centuries.
    There's a fascinating display of centuries-old books handwritten by the Dominican monks, detailing their traditional recipes.

    Art and aromas

    The pharmacy's library still carries 14th century frescoes from when it was a church sacristy.
    The pharmacy's history has been immaculately conserved. This is especially evident when we walk into the library, which used to be the sacristy of the church and still carries frescoes created in 1380 by the Early Renaissance painter Mariotto di Nardo.
    "There's something unusual about The Last Supper; can you spot it?" asks Foa. It takes me a moment but then I see that Christ and the Apostles are seated at a round table, instead of the more familiar rectangular one famously depicted by Leonardo da Vinci in the late 1490s.
    As we emerge from the library, we bump into a white-haired man wielding a fancy camera. Foa introduces me to Costantino Ruspoli, a photographer who has shot for the Pirelli calendar.
    Ruspoli is now documenting the antiquity of the pharmacy in a coffee table book.
    In a city so full of touristy landmarks, this historical pharmacy and perfume museum is a welcome break from the crowds.
    It's further proof that in Florence you can find art -- and aromas -- in the most unexpected places.
    Getting there:
    The apothecary is a 5-minute walk from Florence's Santa Maria Novella train station. Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella, Via della Scala, 16 -- 50123 Florence; +39 055 216 276. Open daily from 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Free entry. Contact in advance for guided tours.