The ancient Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena


Italian version

What is the Roman Goddess Acca Larenzia doing in the Sala del Pellegrinaio (the Pilgrim’s Hall)? And why are there sacks of grain, baskets of bread and rolls with the crest of the old Santa Maria della Scala hospital, displayed underneath the frescos in the room?

Something new is clearly about to happen in the museum complex of the oldest hospital in Europe. But it doesn’t seem like an exhibition and indeed, upon consulting those currently working on the installation for further details, there is no talk of a specific exhibition. If they are to give us any clue about the new events (about which they evidently either know little or are not yet allowed to tell us), they point to the painted scenes above our heads.

The cycle of charitable deeds, painted by Domenico di Bartolo along one of the walls of the room, offers us a clearer answer. This new event is most likely related to the special unveiling of the Cathedral’s mosaic floor and the depiction of Moses making water issue from the rock- in occasion of the EXPO and the theme of ‘Feed the planet, energy for life’, and is linked to themes of hospitality and nutrition. Indeed, the scenes in the Sala del Pellegrinaio, which are painted by Sienese artists, reflect the history and the activities of the ancient Hospital, including offering repose to pilgrims tired from their journey along the Via Francigena pilgrimage route, medical cures, helping the poor and abandoned children, as well as its economic and agricultural activity.

So it is that the copy of Acca Larenzia, intent upon breastfeeding Romulus and Remus with her she-wolf gaze, takes on a new meaning, inviting visitors to come down from the Hospital’s ‘hayloft’ and to enjoy Jacopo della Quercia’s original artwork, which used to be found on the Fonte Gaia.

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The importance of water recurs once again as a message of life, but also important is the image of mothers and wet-nurses like Acca Larentia, the charitable giving of bread to those in need (that used to be made at the Santa Maria Hospital from its own grain), and the offering of hospitality to the Francigena pilgrims. In the Chapel of the Mantle, just such a pilgrim (re-enacted by Ugo Giulio Lurini), is the guide for visitors. On the other side, in the direction of the Squarcialupi wing, the new information point is particularly noteworthy, with many tourist information assistants on hand and a book-shop/bar for an enjoyable and cultural break. A new form of hospitality therefore, which returns to the origins of the hospital and which offers a complete detailed experience to all that want to learn of the long history of Europe that finds one of its main points here in Siena. From October, all of this will be reality. Maybe a humble step backwards will spur the inestimable cultural heritage of Siena forwards towards a new future.

Translated by Claire Cocks