Some say the Santa Maria Novella perfumery in Florence is the most beautiful shop in the world. The brand was given part of the Santa Maria Novella basilica to house its fragrances, creams and liqueurs back in the 17th century, and the images inside reflect its fragrant collections – such as the ceiling fresco in the first hall, depicting inhabitants from the four corners of the globe where SMN’s ingredients come from. But most people haven’t even seen beyond the grand retail spaces – to the offices, and up above the ceilings.
When I visited, guided by chief commercial officer Gianluca Foa, we left the main rooms through a side door and climbed to the first floor, to a cavernous office space complete with imposing wooden tables and gnarled chairs. Foa recalled his first visit there – when he was offered his job. “I think I was a little in awe of the place,” he admitted. “And then after I accepted, I was invited through to the next room for a cigar.”
We left the suite of offices and ascended steeply up to the roof – to a narrow metal gangway running around the domed ceilings of the shop below (third picture), all ancient wooden constructions with a modern superstructure around them. At the far end was a hugely complicated air-conditioning system helping to maintain the humidity below.
This harmonious interaction between the ancient and modern is a neat metaphor for Santa Maria Novella as a company. For while its roots are deep (it is credited with inventing the first alcohol-based perfume in the 16th century), it has strived to adapt to modern needs – expanding into Asian markets, for example, where the attitude to fragrance and skin treatments is very different to that in Europe and the US.
Foa was keen to stress that while the company is expanding, the growth is measured and steady, and it makes sure that retail outlets understand the history and ethos behind SMN. “Some of our perfumes go back hundreds of years and have rich stories behind them,” Foa explained. “So it would never make sense for us to put these in a shop where the sales team haven’t been thoroughly trained about us and our products.”
Although the most celebrated and popular products include a fragrance-soaked terracotta pomegranate (£48), delicately scented pot pourri (from £20) and the classic perfumes Acqua di SM Novella (£75 for 100ml) and Tabacco Toscano (£85 for 100ml), before we left I had chance to stock up on my favourite product – the Tobacco Toscano soap (£28). It always seems to last the six months until I return to Florence – giving me the perfect excuse to come back to this beautiful shop.