Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala ★★

Pellegrinaio, Ospedale di Santa maria della Scala, SienaDomenico di Bartoldo frescoes, Pellegrinaio di Santa Maria della Scala, Siena.

A medieval hospital complex sumptuously frescoed with scenes both medical and holy in Siena

Massacre of the Innocents (1482), Matteo di Giovanni, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena
Matteo di Giovanni's Massacre of the Innocents (1482).
The artwork and temporary exhibits inside this medieval hospital complex across from the Duomo would be worth seeing even if it didn't also offer a fascinating glimpse into another era, with frescoes showcasing Renaissance-era medical work and beliefs, painted above where the sick beds once stood.

This was a hospital for more than a thousand years, started was back in the AD 800s by nuns as a hospital, orphanage, and hostel for religious pilgrims. It was later taken over by the city, which continued operations until the 1990s.

Care of the Sick (1441/42), Domenico di Bartoldo, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena
Domenico di Bartoldo's Care of the Sick (1441/42).
Siena The best room is the Pellegrinaio (Pilgrim's Room), frescoed in ornate, 1440s Technicolor by Domenico di Bartoldo, Lorenzo Vecchietta, and other contemporaries with scenes of hospital care and everyday life—streets bustling, merchants roaming, workers bickering, and politicians orating. (The few frescoes that look quite different date to a refurb in the mid 1570s.)

Among many, many favorite details in these priceless painted scenes are the depictions of (frankly frightening) 15th century medical instruments, the doctor performing one of the most venerable forms of lab analysis on a patient sample (he's tasting an ampoule of urine to check for disease), and the nursing babe in arms who's admirably trying to share his mother's milk with beggar orphans.

Founding of the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala (1441), Vechietta, Santa Maria della Scala, Siena
Vechietta's Founding of the Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala (1441).
Siena Most touching, however, is the scene that lent the hospital its name, Vecchietta's Storia del Beato Sorore (1441). Santa Maria della Scala means "Saint Mary of the Ladder," and there is a fresco set in a crowded church showing the dream that lead to the hospital's founding by a nun named Sorore.

Sorore's mother had a dream that her daughter would found a hospital and orphanage where "tossed away" children would find a home and care and the kind of spiritual guidance that would assure them eventual admission into the Kingdom of Heaven.

In the fresco, Sorore herself is off to the right, receiving her first foundling to care for, while a line of other "innocents" is shown climbing a ladder to ascend to Heaven, where the Virgin Mary waits to welcome them alongside an angelic host.

Two other excellent wings of this labyrinthine complex with many sections:

  • Museo Archeologico - A small, a bit-of-everything archaeology museum, including some nice terracotta Etruscan sarcofagi
  • Cappella del Sacro Chiodo - Built to house a holy relic (a nail used in the crucifixion) and frescoed with a Last Judgment by Renaissance master Vecchietta.



★★ Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala
Piazza Duomo 1
» (across from the cathedral in the Terzo di Città)
tel. +39-0577-534-571
Open: Oct-Feb 10:30–4pm, Mar-Sept 10:30–6pm

How long does Santa Maria della Scala take?
Planning your day: You can wander through in about 25 minutes, but it takes a good 45–60 minutes at least to examine the frescoes closely and see whatever exhibition is on.
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★★ Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala
Piazza Duomo 1
» (across from the cathedral in the Terzo di Città)
tel. +39-0577-534-571
Open: Oct-Feb 10:30–4pm, Mar-Sept 10:30–6pm

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