6.4 Santa Maria della Scala and the Viscounts
Exterior of Santa Maria della Scala in Piazza del Duomo
All too often Siena is considered a provincial town, its cultural offerings limited to the city’s most famous symbols: the Palio, Piazza del Campo, and the Duomo. Leaving aside the fact that Siena has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 and is one of the most well- preserved Gothic cities in Italy, its historic centre also boasts the Palazzo Pubblico, the seat of the city council since 1310; the marvellous cathedral, a unique example of architecture influenced by Romanesque and Gothic styles with a unique design, and one of the oldest hospitals in Italy: Santa Maria della Scala.
At present, it does not appear on the list of the first hospital structures in Italy as the building was decommissioned from its original function due to its position directly in front of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, a location that is always bustling, especially in summer.
The ticket office of the OPA complex, of which the cathedral itself is part, is located within Palazzo Squarcialupi. Even when the museum is closed, the area is still packed with tourists who flock to the site to capture a shot of the beauty before them.
Since the last hospital wards were only decommissioned in 1994, many Sienese still recall Santa Maria as the clinic where they were patients, or where they went to visit friends and relatives. Today, this complex is a museum, a marvellous place where history, archaeology, art, and modern cultural activities are incredibly intertwined. We are accustomed to linking the concept of hospital to the care of the ill and convalescent, but this is a rather modern evolution of the term; the word ‘hospital’ actually derives from the Latin hospitalis, the neuter noun of the adjective hospitalis, meaning hospice or accommodation for foreigners, and, in general, shelter/asylum for the poor or elderly.
Assuming, then, that it is not patients that are being referred to here, but rather foreigners, what is the connection to Siena?
As you may know, the city happens to be on the Via Francigena, the pilgrimage route that connected England with Rome. Considering the vast numbers of pilgrims and wayfarers who passed through the town over the centuries, the importance of the role of Santa Maria della Scala, built as a place to house and feed travelers before they left for the south—or north—of Europe, becomes evident.
The original structure, nowadays easily recognisable from the outside, once had a small chapel and a small adjacent area for refreshments, known as the Pellegrinaio. The complex was initially managed by the canons of the cathedral, although soon the management passed into the hands of a community independent of the church.
The earliest structure seems to date back to the late 12th early 13th century; it is interesting to note, however, that historical sources attest to the fact that the land on which it stands was most likely a Roman bathhouse. That very first construction, located at a level lower than where the Piazza del Duomo is now, later became the hospital laundry, which can still be seen in the archaeological area of the museum. In the second half of the 13th century, the pilgrims’ cemetery was created in front of the first Pellegrinaio and, at the end of the century, a structure was built to house the ‘gittatelli’ (foundlings).
The ‘gitatelli’ were those children not lucky enough to have a family—in most cases, because their parents could not support them—and who were entrusted to the hospital orphanage. This type of structure was common in all large European cities, such as the better known but later dated Ospedale degli Innocenti in Florence.
Santa Maria della Scala grew in size over the centuries, until it reached its current monumentality. Looking at it from Piazza del Duomo, one can get an idea of the dimensions of this great institution. However, it is only from the Fosso di Sant’Ansano, or the rear part, that the sheer size of the complex can be appreciated.
To fully understand the magnificence and grandeur of the place, though, it is necessary to visit the interior. Entrance can be gained to the complex through Palazzo Squarcialupi, where the ticket office is located.
This tour is dedicated to the structures of Santa Maria that were built in the 15th century, the most significant historical phase as far as the artistic commissions of the building are concerned. It was in this period that the grandiose cycle of frescoes, a true ‘manifesto’ of the hospital’s activities, was created in the pellegrinaio maschile (mens’ pilgrimage centre).
Entrance: Ticket Office
The first room visitors find upon entering is a large space that was once used as the pellegrinaio femminile (women’s pilgrimage centre). Above the corner where the ticket office is located, are several frescoes that time has, unfortunately, not been kind to.
Among these are the Crocifissione e l’Orazione nell’Orto della Cerchia by Bartolo di Fredi and the Madonna della Misericordia con la Trinità fra i Santi Giovanni e Lorenzo by Martino di Bartolomeo, an artist representative of the Sienese school in the first decades of the 15th century who painted several works based on religious themes in the city and, together with Spinello Aretino, the cycle dedicated to Pope Alexander III in the Sala di Balia in the Museo Civico.
La Sacrestia Vecchia
Continuing on, on the righthand side of the main corridor, is the Sacrestia Vecchia (The Old Sacristy), which was used for this purpose by the canons of the adjacent Church of Santissima Annunziata. Here, they also kept important relics that the hospital purchased from Constantinople in 1358, including one of the nails from Christ’s cross.
It may seem inappropriate to use the term ‘purchase’ when talking about sacred relics, but that is exactly what happened in the middle of the century, ten years after the terrible plague known as the Black Death had decimated half the population of Europe. Siena needed what would nowadays be considered, with no intention to diminish the sacredness of the act, a promotional scheme to entice wayfarers and pilgrims to stop in the city in order to pray and leave offerings at the place where these precious objects from the city of the Bosphorus were housed. On the left side of the Sacristy, is the Madonna del Manto by Domenico di Bartolo, dated 1444 and made for the nearby Cappella del Manto from which it was removed in one piece and placed here in 1610. On either side of the work situated under the classically inspired canopy, one can see the ‘missing’ parts of the fresco which were recovered from beneath coats of whitewash during restoration work in the 1970s. Domenico di Bartolo is one of those Sienese painters who, though born in an artistic environment marked by Gothic stylistic elements, was among the first to contemporise his work with the new developments from the Florentine Renaissance, introducing perspective and a sense of monumentality into Sienese painting. Looking upwards, one can admire the ceiling and lunettes entirely frescoed with the Simbolo Apostolico by Lorenzo di Pietro, known as Vecchietta.
Next is the Pellegrinaio (pilgrims’ ward), wonderfully frescoed by Domenico di Bartolo, Priamo della Quercia, and Vecchietta in the 1440s. Thanks to enlarged photographic panels, it is possible to imagine what this space, used as a hospital ward until a few decades ago, once looked like with its sickbeds, nimble nurses, and learned doctors.
In spite of the different hands that contributed to the decoration of this room, a certain organicity is visible in the whole, the main theme of which is the life and activities of the hospital. The remarkable quality of the frescoes shows a desire for self-reference on the part of the commissioners who, having freed themselves from the canons of the cathedral and linked themselves directly to the Municipality of Siena, wished to communicate the prestigious role they now played in the urban fabric of Siena.
Those were the same years in which a legend began to take hold concerning the existence of a saintly founder of the hospital, Blessed Sorore, a pious man who, as a result of a dream—perhaps his own, perhaps his mother’s—was inspired to found a hospital for the needy.
There are ten scenes in total, five on each side, almost entirely painted by Domenico di Bartolo, with the exception of the two located in the last bay at the back, which were executed by Achille Crogi and Giovanni di Raffaele Navesi following subsequent structural enlargements; one that was done by Priamo della Quercia, brother of the more famous Jacopo; and one by Vecchietta.
In addition to the fresco here and those in the Sacrestia Vecchia, Vecchietta also created a magnificent bronze ciborium, the ‘brother’ of another housed in the Cathedral.
The Arliquiera (painted cupboard containing relics), another work by the aforementioned Vecchietta, was painted in 1445 and was commissioned by the hospital to hold the relics brought from Constantinople.
The faces of the religious figures on the gilded panel include those of great Sienese personalities, such as Blessed Andrea Gallerani, Blessed Ambrogio Sansedoni, Saint Bernardine, Blessed Agostino Novello, and among them, Blessed Sorore.
Church of the Santissima Annunziata
A room behind the Arliquiera leads to the Church of the Santissima Annunziata, another 15th century architectural creation built to replace the original church, which had become too small for the hospital and which currently serves as the “winter chapel” of the cathedral.
In the apse area, a marvellous fresco by Sebastiano Conca can be found. Dated 1731, it depicta the Piscina Probatica and is masterpiece of late Baroque painting, both for its excellent execution and its intriguing optical effect.
Santa Maria has several floors, some aboveground, such as the side facing the cathedral, and others below, such as the Oratory of ‘Santa Caterina della Notte’.
Oratory of Santa Caterina della Notte
Following the Church of the Annunziata and the Pellegrinaio, a staircase leads down to the lower floor and the Oratory of Santa Caterina della Notte (Saint Catherine of the Night), the name given to the room in the 15th century, a period in which there was heightened awareness of the revolutionary role played by the Sienese saint Caterina Benincasa in the previous century; the name ‘della notte’ seems to refer to the fact that it was here that the saint used to come to sleep, exhausted after caring for the sick and needy all day long.
The room as it appears today is the result of the 17th – 18th century renovations that transformed it into an oratory with a somewhat grotesque style, in accordance with the fashion of the period; in fact, under the entrance arch, a clearly visible skull serves as a memento mori, literally translating to ‘remember that you must die’, placed there as a reminder of the frivolity and transience of earthly life, which is but an eyeblink compared to the eternal existence of the soul.
Our tour of the hospital ends in front of Fonte Gaia. No, it is not necessary to go to Piazza del Campo, where you will only find the 19th century copy made by Tito Sarrocchi, which replaced the damaged 15th century original housed here. Thanks to the exhibit, it is possible to see how Sarrocchi made plaster casts of the original reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia to ensure that he made a copy as faithful as possible to the original.
According to local records, Jacopo della Quercia’s fountain, completed in 1419, was already showing signs of weathering in the following century; on display here are the panels as they appeared in 1859, when the decision was taken to replace it.
Anything that could not be faithfully reproduced because it was too badly damaged by the wear and tear of time was recreated by Sarrocchi according to his personal taste. Despite their fragmentary state, the original reliefs by Jacopo della Quercia are impressive.
Also on display in this exhibition space are two original statues that were not made in the 19th century copy: namely, the figures of Rea Silvia and Acca Larenzia. The latter is the most well-preserved statue of the two and represents the legendary adoptive mother of the twins Romulus and Remus. The figure of Rea Silvia, on the other hand, is more fragmentary due to damage suffered during a Palio in Piazza del Campo in 1743 when a spectator who had climbed up it to get a better view of the race, caused it to fall and break into several pieces. The statue represents the vestal virgin whom ancient tradition describes as the biological mother of the founders of Rome.
As we near the end of the tour, one question remains: Why is this brochure titled ‘Santa Maria della Scala and the Visconti’?
As was mentioned in the first chapter of this collection, various attempts were made by Siena to avoid the cumbersome dominion of the Medici in Florence. In addition to several lords, Milan was also called upon for assistance.
Towards the end of the 14th century, Gian Galeazzo Visconti came to Siena with the promise of protecting the city rather than subjugating it, as is what eventually happened. Following his stay in Tuscany, Gian Galeazzo did not return to Milan empty-handed. Santa Maria della Scala remained particularly close to his heart, so much so that he commissioned Antonio di Pietro Averlino, known as ‘Filarete’, to build the Ca’ Granda— Milan’s Ospedale Maggiore—which was inspired by Siena’s own hospital.
This brochure, dedicated to one of the most important monuments in the history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in Siena, concludes here. Some salient moments in the life of Saint Catherine will be recounted in the next chapter.
Text by Ambra Sargentoni (Ambra Tour Guide) Editorial coordination: Elisa Boniello and
Photos: Archivio Comune di Siena, Leonardo Castelli, Bruno Bruchi, Sabrina Lauriston
Graphics: Michela Bracciali