Florence: Where Shopping Includes Historical and Cultural Opportunities


As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence is a world-renowned destination for art lovers and those who are curious about artisans and their work.


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Walking through the narrow, winding streets of this city, one is caught up in its artistic legacy—from the truly marvelous architecture of the Duomo, to the world-renowned art museums, to the jewelry shops lining the famous Ponte Vecchio. It is without question that creativity and exceptional craftsmanship remain an important point of pride for this city.  Illume is known for bringing people to places of great historical and cultural significance as a way of inspiring transformation and change.  Most of our participants love to bring back souvenirs, but shopping is usually not considered a cultural activity and not a focus of programming.  However, in some places, local artisans preserve traditions that deserve a focused visit.  Florence offers several cultural shopping opportunities.  




Scoula Del Cuoio

One of the best places to get a glimpse of this artistic tradition is at the famous Scuola del Cuoio, or “Leather School,” run by the friars at the Monastery of Santa Croce in conjunction with the Gori Family of Florence.  The school was founded after WWII by the friars—along with the Gori and Casini families—as a way to support orphans from the war by teaching them a trade by which to make a living.

The school is located in the old dormitory space that was originally donated to the friars by the Medici family.  Throughout the years, the school has trained many apprentices—including prison inmates who have gone on to work in factories and even in the Scuola itself.  It also sponsors two annual scholarships for pupils from Third World countries.

Products from the Scuola have made their way into the hands of many notable figures, including Dwight D. Eisenhower—who owned a leather desk set that he kept in the Oval Office—members of several royal families, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Grace Kelly, Steven Spielberg, and more.  Many of these figures have also paid visits to the school itself.

Visitors to the school can watch leather craftsmen at work in the main hallway of the shop, while perusing offerings like handbags, jackets, office products, accessories, shoes, and more.  Patrons can also watch as the craftsmen gild their new purchases with personal monograms—free of charge.  The high-quality craftsmanship of the products here and the opportunity to watch trained leather craftsmen at work makes this one of the best places in Florence to buy souvenirs.

The Scuola del Cuoio can be reached through a labeled but somewhat nondescript doorway on Via San Giuseppe, which runs alongside the Basilica di Santa Croce.  You’ll cross a courtyard area behind the basilica to arrive at school.  Be sure to also carve out some time to visit the basilica—the largest Franciscan church in the world and the final resting place of several of Italy’s most illustrious figures, including Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and more.

To learn more about the Scuola del Cuoio and scope out some of its wares before your visit, go to www.scuoladelcuoio.com

Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella

If leather does not pique your interest, an equally interactive and sensory shopping experience awaits at the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.  This pharmacy began as an infirmary for the monastery created by Dominican friars who came to Florence in the 1300s. Here they began creating medicinal herbal remedies—such as balms, ointments, and other preparations—with which to treat patients at the infirmary.  Eventually the adjoining church of Santa Maria delle Vegne was rebuilt and renamed  Santa Maria Novella, from which the pharmacy draws its name.

The pharmacy rose to prominence in the early 1600s when, in celebration of Catherine de Medici’s marriage to Henry II (future king of France), the monks created a special perfume called Acqua Della Regina, or “Water of the Queen.”  The fragrance is still available for purchase at the pharmacy, now bearing the name Acqua di Santa Maria Novella.

Many of the products here are still made according to the original recipes, and most of the flowers and herbs used in these recipes are actually sourced from the pharmacy’s own garden.  In fact, most of the offerings are predominately locally made; this includes the labels, stationary and bags used to decorate the products.

Like the Scuola del Cuoio, the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella is reached through an ordinary, non-descript doorway—in this case on Via della Scala; however, the interior of the pharmacy is anything but ordinary.   After proceeding through the grand marble-floored entry-room, prepare yourself for a feast for the senses.  A series of ornately decorated rooms—each different from the other—displays the fragrant and colorful wares.  Crystal chandeliers sparkle overhead, elegant drapes line the walls, colorful frescos hang overhead, and ornate windows throw light onto patterned tile floors.

The pharmacy is worth a visit even if you are not a serious shopper.  Those more interested history or art will be happy to find that the pharmacy’s library—previously the sacristy of the church—is decorated with large frescos by Early Renaissance painter Mariotto di Nardo, beautifully preserved from 1380.  In addition, there are displays exhibiting vessels used to store products back in the 16th and 17th centuries, an ancient distillation apparatus, old perfume bottles, antique packaging, handwritten books containing the friars’ traditional recipes, and more.

If you are beginning to feel a bit of sensory overload after exploring all the pharmacy’s offerings, be sure to take a break in the tea room, where you can sample the teas, chocolates, cookies, and other specialty food products that the pharmacy offers as well.

For more information on the pharmacy, its products and hours, and how to arrange a guided tour, go to www.smnovella.it

Both the Scuola del Cuoio and the Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella offer shopping experiences that go far beyond just finding some of the best gifts in Florence.  They allow you to support and participate in a long tradition of curiosity, craftsmanship, and creativity that makes Florence such a thrill to visit.  Don’t miss the opportunity visit Florence or a similarly inspiring destination to experience for yourself the power of travel to broaden perspectives, promote understanding, and bring about more respectful and compassionate ways of life.  Call illume today to plan a group travel program for your family, friends, colleagues, or other constituency!

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