All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to email@example.com. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in November 2010.
Spedale e Chiesa di S. Spirito in Sassia (Book 9) (Map D2) (Day 8) (View D3) (Rione Borgo)
In this page:
The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
Today's view (Spedale de' Pazzi)
Spedale di S. Spirito in Sassia
Ruota degli Esposti
Palazzo del Commendatore
S. Spirito in Sassia
S. Lorenzo in Borgo
The Plate (No. 171)
When in 1759 Giuseppe Vasi published this etching, Spedale di S. Spirito, the main hospital of Rome, had been recently enlarged by Pope Benedict XIV with the addition of a new long ward (Braccio Nuovo) having the same design as that built in 1478 by Pope Sixtus IV (and usually known as Corsia Sistina). The two wards formed a very long front which Vasi accurately depicted with the analytical approach of an architect, rather than that of a painter.
The view is taken from the green dot in the 1748 map below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Palazzo del Commendatore; 2) Braccio vecchio (old ward) dello Spedale; 3) Braccio nuovo; 4) dome of the chapel in the mid of Corsia Sistina. The map shows also: 5) Church of S. Spirito in Sassia; 6) S. Lorenzo in Borgo; 7) Spedale de' Pazzi.
In 1890, in the frame of a general redesign of the river bed, high walls were built on its banks to prevent the occurrence of floods; Braccio Nuovo was pulled down and today's view shows in its place the trees of a small modern square at the western end of Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II.
Spedale de' Pazzi (madhouse) was also pulled down: it had been added to Spedale di S. Spirito in 1725 by Pope Benedict XIII who relocated there the lunatics who were housed in a building near SS. Bartolomeo ed Alessandro in Piazza Colonna; some of its premises are shown in Vasi's plate covering Porta di S. Spirito.
New facilities for Spedale di S. Spirito were built in 1928 on the side towards the river; Corsia Sistina continued to be used as a ward hospital until the 1980s.
Spedale di S. Spirito
Sassia is a reference to Saxons because on this site was located Schola Saxonum, a hostel for (English) Saxon pilgrims which according to tradition was founded in 728 by King Ine of Wessex who in 726 abdicated and travelled to Rome to increase his chances of being welcomed in heaven.
The hostel was rebuilt by Pope Leo IV and in 856 it was visited by King Ethelwulf of Wessex; after the 1066 Norman conquest of England the arrival of pilgrims greatly diminished and so did the donations from England; the hostel fell into abandonment.
In 1198 Pope Innocent III was granted permission by King John Lackland to build a hospital on the site of the former hostel; the new institution was placed under the protection of the Holy Spirit and the management of Guy de Montpellier, a Templar Knight who designed the double cross which is the emblem of the hospital.
Spedale di S. Spirito knew a period of great development during the whole XIIIth century, but it declined after the move of the papal residence to Avignon; during the Great Schism it was turned into a fortified site by one of the factions which competed for supremacy in Rome; the patients were all killed.
Pope Eugenius IV reorganized the hospital and its governance by establishing that the prior in charge of the institution should be chosen from among the prelates of the papal court.
In 1470 a fire damaged the hospital; Pope Sixtus IV realized that the old structure was more appropriate to a jail, than to a place where the sick could recover their health and he decided to build a brand new complex; the new hospital was completed in 1478; Baccio Pontelli is one of the architects who were involved in its design.
Corsia Sistina consisted of a very long rectangular hall (130x13 yd) having at its centre an octagonal dome; it had a fašade at the end of the hall which was reconstructed in 1938 based on one of the 46 large frescoes which decorate the interior of the building and which portray events associated with the history of the hospital.
The image used as background for this page shows the heraldic symbol of Pope Sixtus IV (an oak with intertwined branches).
The hospital was occupied by the troops of Emperor Charles V during the 1527 Sack of Rome and it was flooded in 1598 (you may wish to see the inscription placed by Pope Clement VIII to record the event). These mishaps did not interrupt the enlargement of the hospital with new wards and other facilities. Pope Benedict XIV, in addition to building a new ward, asked Ferdinando Fuga to redesign the cemetery of the hospital.
Pope Pius VI placed a colossal coat of arms at the entrance of a new section he added (today it is in a courtyard); the comparison between the coat of arms before and after restoration is the icon of a page illustrating the changes which have occurred in Rome in the last ten years; you can see more about the initiatives of Pope Pius VI in my page The Wind was too Strong.
Ruota degli Esposti
In 1421 Spedale degli Inncocenti was founded in Florence; it took care of orphans, foundlings and children of families in temporary difficulties; Pope Sixtus IV decided that Spedale di S. Spirito should have a section having a similar purpose; a revolving cupboard placed near the entrance to the hospital allowed the safe and secret abandonment of babies; a certain number of wet-nurses were ready to take care of them; the cross of the institution was marked on their left foot; a few days later, after their health had been checked, babies were sent to families in the countryside who reared them in return for a small monthly allowance; at the age of five they returned under the direct jurisdiction of the institution; boys were employed at the many farms owned by Spedale di S. Spirito; girls very often ended up in a charitable institution and became nuns. In 1759 in consideration of the growing number of abandoned babies it was forbidden to leave legitimate children.
In Florence left babies were given the Innocenti surname or a similar one; in Rome they were more commonly called Esposti; the first name was very often that of the saint of the day on which they were found.
Palazzo del Commendatore
The officer in charge of Spedale di S. Spirito was called Commendatore, a title which in origin indicated the administrators of the properties of a large abbey; in 1565 Commendator Bernardino Cirillo started the construction of a palace to house the administrative offices of the institution and a series of medical ancillary facilities such as a library and a pharmacy.
The library (see some of its halls - external link) is named after Giovanni Maria Lancisi (1654-1720), a physician who is still known for his studies of anatomy and for Acqua Lancisiana, a spring which he recommended.
The building has the appearance of a family palace; its architect was traditionally assumed to be Ottaviano Mascherino (and Vasi supported this opinion), but today this attribution is questioned.
Pope Paul V provided the hospital with an adequate supply of water (Acqua Paola); he also ensured the institution had a major source of income by founding Banco di S. Spirito in 1605; for a couple of years the activities of the new bank were carried out inside Palazzo del Governatore, then they were moved to Rione Ponte. The bank continued to belong to the hospital until 1917.
Spedale di S. Spirito owned many buildings in Rome and many farms in the countryside; the symbol of the hospital appears on a large number of property tablets around the city; Palidoro and S. Severa along Via Aurelia and Manziana near the Bracciano Lake were villages which entirely belonged to the hospital.
S. Spirito in Sassia
The small church of Schola Saxonum was originally dedicated to the Virgin Mary; its current name and dedication were established in the XVIth century; it was rebuilt several times until Pope Paul III ordered its reconstruction which was completed by 1545; Commendator Bernardino Cirillo however felt that the new layout and decoration of the church did not comply with the recommendations of the Counter-Reformation and promoted a major redesign of its interior; this activity was completed during the pontificate of Pope Sixtus V, whose coat of arms replaced that of Pope Paul III at the top of the fašade.
You may wish to see the church in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
In the interior there is not a square inch without decoration: the ceiling and the organ of the church belong to the time of Pope Paul III and can be seen in separate pages. Several of the doctors who worked in the hospital are buried in the church; you may wish to see the monument to the anatomist Pietro Giavota.
S. Lorenzo in Borgo
S. Lorenzo in Borgo was built in the XIIth century and in the XVth century Cardinal Francesco Armellini incorporated it into his palace, which was bought by the Cesi in 1565; the church was donated in the XVIIth century to the Piarist Fathers and it was redesigned by Francesco Navone in 1737; the opening of Via della Conciliazione led to pulling down the fašade by Navone and eventually the church was deprived of all its altars and paintings and brought back to its assumed Romanesque appearance.
It was also known as S. Lorenzo in Piscibus, most likely after a nearby fish market.
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Next plate in Book 9: Spedale di S. Giovanni in Laterano
Next step in Day 8 itinerary: S. Maria in Traspontina