By Bruno Daddi
As this is Jubilee year, we think it is a good idea to offer a few alternative itineraries to the many visitors to the city. These are all fairly short walks that will help make the most of the afternoons now that it gets dark a little later. We start out from Piazza Santa Maria Novella and, after visiting the famous basilica with the newly restored frescoes of the stories of St. Philip and St. John by Filippino Lippi (1457-1504), in the chapel dedicated to Filippo Strozzi, along with the funeral monument to Strozzi himself by Benedetto da Maiano , we find ourselves back outside in the square. Here we can see the two obelisques made from mixed Seravezza marbles that once marked the turning points for the old Chariot races. Two important hotels also overlook the square: Grand Hotel Minerva, often the seat of cultural events, and Hotel Roma, built in Liberty style with stained glass and mosaics by Galileo Chini. In Via della Scala, we can find Palazzo Dal Borgo at n. 6, now a hotel, an interesting building with its graffiti decorated facade depicting the Triumph of David (an allegory of Cosimo de' Medici's victories on the battlefield). We are instead heading for n. 16, the premises of the famous Santa Maria Novella Perfumery and Pharmaceutical Shop, which belonged to the Dominican convent until 1866 and, after becoming Council property, has always been run by the descendents of Damiano Beni, the last Chemist monk. Regarding this, we should explain that the law suppressing Religious Orders, passed by the Italian Government in 1866, meant that the State could possess itself of all their goods and belongings and this naturally included the buildings of Santa Maria Novella along with the Pharmacy premises. On October 16th, Beni drew up an agreement with the State to take over the "aromateria", as it was then called. He very cleverly made sure that the contract was signed in the name of his nephew, Cesare Augusto Stefani. The latter had already been working for some time in the shop. Later, in 1879, Stefani, as legal tenant, was able to prolong the lease with the City Council of Florence, proprietor of the buildings from 1871 thanks to a specific provision of the law. He agreed to rent it at an annual fee which permitted him to give his name to the Pharmacy, start the activity and also included all the furnishings that came with the shop, such as equipment, instruments, utensils, artistic objects and furniture. This arrangement was continued by his successors. His heirs, in fact, were only too well aware of the value of the property and did all they could to maintain it over the years. In this way they have managed to retain its really typical atmosphere and today this unique shop is the only "conventual"pharmacy still open to the public in Florence. The shop, which in some form or another dates back to shortly after 1221, the year of the arrival of the Dominicans in Florence, was placed under the protection of the Rose of Lima and St. Peter of Verona, who is best known in Florence for having founded several brotherhoods, including the reknowned Misericordia (1244) and for having fiercely opposed the Patarine heresy, which ultimately led to his martyrdom. Once through the lovely doorway in grey stone, topped by a pediment bearing the Dominican symbol, we find ourselves in the hall and are immediately met, before we have even reached the salesroom, by the strong and fascinating perfume given off by the medicinal flowers and plants used for the typical preparations of the Pharmacy. Then we find ourselves inside the imposing salesroom itself, full of ancient frescoes and furnishings, with stately statues that create an almost magic atmosphere. We promise ourselves to come back later and buy some of the wonderful products inside. Instead of staying here we should ask if we can also visit the other rooms on the premises, like the room overlooking the garden, or the room that was once the old chemist's shop and which once led into the large cloister. The latter contains several unique pieces of furniture and various objects, like some very old water jugs, vases, stills, mortars and pairs of scales. The ceramics all come from Faenza, Montelupo and the Richard Ginori firm. We return to the room overlooking the garden we mentioned before which was used, in the mid 18th century, to receive important guests, like the Inspectors from the Guild of Doctors and Chemists, who were usually offered some of the pharmacy's special preparations, alkermes, rhubarb elixir, even chocolate; this sitting room is furnished in Directory style. Another famous speciality was the "antihysteric water", which however was never offered to important guests. It was regularly and extremely effectively used to bring people round after fainting fits, an ailment that - whether genuine or not - affected many people in the past and could be a very useful tactic in tricky situations. Even in those days in fact people could get up to more tricks than Old Nick! Our visit however is not yet over; our next stop is in fact in the Sacristy of San Niccolò, which contains a suggestive Deposition and a characteristic Noli me tangere, attributed to Mariotto di Nardo, after which we really must have a quick look around the gallery and the ancient distillery. As we have to go back through the salesroom on our way out we can at last stop and buy some of the splendid wares. Then we realise that has got dark outside and so put off the rest of our exploration of Florence until another day.