When Medieval Monks Couldn't Cure the Plague, They Launched a Luxe Skincare Line

Sometimes the secret to success is to recognize a failure and turn it around to serve a totally different purpose. Such was the case of the monks of the the Santa Maria Novella monastery, established in 1221 in Italy. They studied plants to develop natural medicines and remedies for various maladies, and had some success, but that's not what they became known for. Today their company the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is a world-renowned source for natural skin care products.

Gianluca Foà, the modern company’s Chief Commercial Officer, explains that two pivotal events changed the destiny of Santa Maria Novella’s little pharmacy. “First, in 1348, as soon as the plague epidemic came to Florence, the monks started trying to make something to fight this disease by turning to nature,” Foà says. Despite various attempts to combat the illness, more than half of Florence’s population was killed by the Black Death within a few years of the initial outbreak.

In 1353, as the city was reeling in the wake of this tragedy, Giovanni Boccacio wrote his famous book The Decameron, a collection of stories narrated by a group of young Italians sequestered from the sinister plague in a hillside villa outside of Florence. Isolation was the only reliable method for avoiding the Black Death, explains Diana Stefani, one of the current co-owners of the Santa Maria Novella cosmetics company. “In the monks’ book of recipes, one of the best recipes was to go and live on the hills,” Stefani says. “They also gave advice on changing the air in the rooms and carrying objects soaked with strong perfume,” the idea being that if you didn’t smell the plague, you wouldn’t get sick.

At some point in their studies, the friars noticed that rose petals were resistant to certain pests, and concluded that distilling the petals would create a disinfectant that could prevent humans from catching the bubonic plague. “It didn’t work at all,” Foà says, “but by 1380, they had created this rosewater tonic, which is still one of our bestsellers.” Today, the company’s rosewater products based on this original recipe are sold as skin toner.

The monks developed some important innovations in perfumes and liqueurs, which added to their fame. Read the story of the little church pharmaceutical lab that became a cosmetics giant, at Collectors Weekly.

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