Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital was famous across Europe for the quality of care that it offered to those in need. England’s King Henry VII asked for its architectural plans when he was building a new hospital in London. The German reformer Martin Luther, who visited it in 1510 on his way to Rome, believed that it was the best example of Christian charity that he had seen in Italy.
Offering hospitality to those in need, whether they were sick, travelers, old, or poor, was a vital service that Florentines had raised to an art. And it was a communal action: the hospital had been founded in the late thirteenth century with a large donation offered by a layman, Folco Portinari, whose daughter Beatrice inspired the exiled poet Dante. It was laypeople rather than monks or nuns who ran the hospital, from the wardens who oversaw administration to the large group of women offering day to day care. They prepared the foods and medications that would restore health, washed patients and their linens, and kept the hospital clean and well supplied. Priests and medical doctors on retainer came in regularly as well, since Renaissance Italians believe that care for the body always began with care for the soul. This charitable work was funded by individual donors, guilds, and the legacies left by hundreds of Florentines over almost 300 years. Care did not end at the hospital door, but could be offered to some in their homes, most notably in the form of chicken soup kept in a large vat under the loggia.
The women who prepared the medications used mainly herbal remedies from S Maria Nuova’s own gardens on site. They also followed the regimen of the ancient Roman doctor Galen: fresh air, moderate diet, exercise, plenty of sleep, regularity in bodily functions. Their attentive care also helped ensure that patients would enjoy the 6th element in this famous classical regime: calm and peaceful emotions.
The hospital remains a public place that Florentines are very proud of – feel free to walk in to see the paintings inside the entranceway and the garden for herbal remedies just off the lobby.
You can visit the functioning hospital of Santa Maria Nuova.
To cite this essay, we suggest:
Nicholas Terpstra, ‘Sickness, health, and chicken soup’ published online 2019, in ‘Hidden Florence’, The University of Exeter, https://hiddenflorence.org/stories/marietta/marietta4_chicken/
John Henderson, The Renaissance Hospital: Healing the Body and Healing the Soul. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006.
James Shaw & Evelyn Welch, Making and Marketing Medicine in Renaissance Florence. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011.
Sharon Strocchia, Forgotten Healers: Women and the Pursuit of Health in Late Renaissance Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019