This is one of those spots that often makes the rounds on Instagram, sometimes photographed by curious visitors but more often by locals who usually mention wanting to revive this intriguing but abandoned space – Antica Spezeria di San Marco.
Though the 19th-century facade faces via Cavour, it was part of the once massive Dominican convent of San Marco situated just around the corner. A spezeria was a sort of pharmacy or apothecary shop and was a typical feature of many medieval and early modern convents and monasteries. In addition to medicinal products–usually simples derived from plant or mineral substances or compounds made up of different things combined according to a doctor’s instructions–the San Marco spezeria was also known for special elixirs, cosmetics and perfumes that were sold to the general public starting in 1450. Lorenzo the Magnificent was known to be a fan of the friars’ brand of alchermes–a bright red liquor made from rose water, vanilla, cinnamon, cloves and other herbs thought to have healing properties. (The red comes from crushed up female cochineal insects–think ladybugs–used to make a scarlet dye.)
Known as a favorite spot for the crème de la crème of Florentine society including Pico della Mirandola, Michelangelo and members of famed local families like the Medici, Pitti and Strozzi, we can only imagine what the interior must have looked like. Illuminations like the one found in the medical handbook Tacuinum sanitatis, give us an idea about how these high scale apothecaries were set up. Highly decorated glass and ceramic flasks and jars were carefully labelled so that the contents could be easily identified by the apothecaries; consumers in turn could trust that they were receiving the proper ingredients. Elaborate wooden counters and careful shelf displays contributed to the creation of what scholar Evelyn Welch “a strong up-to-date visual presence”–highly necessary for the success of an apothecary shop.
The Antica Spezeria di San Marco remained one of the premier apothecary shops throughout the 19th century but unfortunately has been closed since 1995, and in my opinion ripe for that aforementioned revival.
See The church of San Marco its’ covent is worth a visit but for something a little different see the Last Supper of Sant’Apollonia (1447) a few streets away. Here is one of Andrea del Castagnos’ major works, and yet it was only rediscovered in 1891. It’s in excellent condition which is merely down to the fact that it remained covered behind a plaster wall for so many years. Above you can see the Resurrection, Crucifixion and Deposition of Christ which were never covered hence the poor condition. On the wall behind you can see the original sinopia.
Eat Walking back towards the centre of Florence, you’ll find a good choice of places to eat. For lunch or a snack I would recommend Vecchio Forno on Via Guelfa. A popular bakery for many locals, their breads, mini pizzas and delicious cakes all come highly recommended. For something more substantial Simbiosis should tick all the boxes. A great pizzeria and restaurant, with a interesting winelist full of organic and unusual finds.
Drink You can find plenty of places to get your caffeine fix around here, but if your after wine, beer or cocktails, make your way back into the centre towards San Lorenzo and stop off at La Menegere. Great coffee, cocktails and food, it also doubles up as a homeware store and florist!