Santa Maria della Scala Travel GuideIntroduction
Santa Maria della Scala (also known as the Hospital, Ospedale, and Spedale) is located in Siena, and as the name suggests was formerly a hospital that was founded in the year 898 by a cobbler named Sorore. It was dedicated to caring for abandoned children, the poor, the sick, and pilgrims of the time, and was funded by bequests and donations from the wealthy and prominent citizens of Siena, as well as by the hospitals own agricultural operations on the land that surrounds it. It was one of Europe’s first and oldest hospitals before it was transformed into a museum. After the transformation, it has been credited for having played a major cultural role in the growth of art and culture in Siena.
Located across Siena’s Piazza del Duomo, Santa Maria della Scala is actually a complex of buildings. The notable sections include the 13th century Church of the Santissima Annuziata, and the Pellegrinaio or “Pilgrim’sHall” where pilgrims were lodged on their way to other cities such as Florence, Rome, or the Vatican. The hospital is also said to have acquired relics such as a nail from the cross of Christ, the Virgin Mary’s girdle and veil, as well as relics from St. Augustinus and St. Marcellinus, all of which may have contributed to the hospital being a popular stop for pilgrims at the time.
In the 1300s, Santa Maria della Scala commissioned many very important interior and exterior frescoes to decorate the premises, along with several significant altar pieces. Unfortunately, the exterior frescoes of the Ospedale no longer exist which is a shame as they were created by important Sienese artists such as Simone Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio. According to records, the frescoes depicted the life of the Virgin Mary and were as follows:
- Santa Maria della Scala currently houses a series of frescoes that Birth of the Virgin by Pietro Lorenzetti
- Purification of the Virgin (often confused with the Presentation in the Temple) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti
- Betrothal of the Virgin by Simone Martini
- Return of the Virgin to her Parents’ House also by Martini.
What is unique about these frescoes is that it not only honors Mary, but her parents Saints Joachim and Anne as well. These were the subjects of special devotion at the Hospital during the 1320s and 1330s.
Thankfully however, the interior artwork of have managed to survived over the centuries, and the artists involved are the likes of Bartolommeo Bulgarini whose altar pieces which housed various relics are of particular note.
By the 18th century, the hospital became part of a university, and in 1995, it was officially opened to the public as a museum. As the years went by, more and more sections of the former hospital was restored and opened for viewing, and until now, renovation and restoration works are ongoing for other still-closed locations.
What to See
To match the subject of the exterior frescoes that the hospital commissioned, the altarpieces inside the Santa Maria della Scala also depicted scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. The main painter of these altarpieces was Bartolommeo Bulgarini who was awarded the commission for five of the main altarpieces. Other altarpieces were created by other Sienese artists.
The largest and most extravagant piece that can be found would be that of the Assumption of the Virgin Thi by Bulgarini which, besides being detailed and richly-colored, also makes use of gold leaf. It is particularly ornate as it was meant to serve as a reliquary for the Virgin’s girdle which the hospital obtained in the mid-1300s. Another important altarpiece would be the Reliquary Shutters of Andrea Gallerani which was created by an unknown artist. There is also another painting behind the shutters and inside the altarpiece which once again depicts Andrea Gallerani is pictured again.
The Museum is composed of several large sections of the complex and span four levels that go down. Three of the levels are open to the public and are organized as follows:
- Entrance Hall (Piano terreno)
- Chapel of the Relics/Chapel of the Mantle (Cappella delle Reliquie)
- Palazzo Squarcialupi
- Lanes East (Corsie est)
- San Leopoldo Hall
- San Giuseppe Hall
- San Pio Hall
- Pilgrim Hall (La sala del Pellegrinaio)
- Sant’Ansano Hall
- Old Sacristy (Sagrestia Vecchia)
- Chapel of the Madonna (Cappella della Madonna)
- Church of the Santissima Annunziata (Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata)
- Young Women’s Chapel (Cappella delle Donne)
- Hayloft or Barn (Fienile)
- Oratory of the Company of Saint Catherine of the Night (Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte)
- Warehouses of the Corticella
- Lanes Center (Corsie centrali)
- The Treasury (Il Tesoro)
- National Archeological Museum (Museo archeologico nazionale)
- Company of Saint Mary Under the Vaults (Compagnia di Santa Maria sotto le Volte)
- Chiasso di Sant’Ansano
Museum Ground Floor
Chapel of Women (Cappella delle Donne)
This chapel is the first one that visitors will encounter immediately after leaving the ticketing office. It is the entrance to the complex, and is the side that is closest to the cathedral square. It was built in the mid-1400s as additional lodging to accommodate female pilgrims. There are frescoes and sculptures here that are the works of artists such as Martino di Bartolomeo and Andrea di Bartolo.
Old Sacristy(Sagrestia Vecchia)
This part of the complex was constructed in order to house the precious relics that the hospital purchased in the 1300s. The relics themselves are contained in altarpieces made of materials such as precious metals and stones, and enamels. Meanwhile, its ceiling and walls were painted by Lorenzo Vecchietta , and depict scenes including Christ and the four evangelists and prophets. It is also home to a famous fresco by Domenico di Bartolo which depicts the Madonna of Mercy, also known as Our Lady of the Mantle which was originally created for the Chapel of the Relics, but was moved here in 1610.
Chapel of the Madonna (Cappella della Madonna)
Accessible from the Old Sacristy, it was built around 1680 and stands at a location of an older chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary’s parents, Saints Joachim and Anna. It houses a set of paintings by Giuseppe Nicola Nasini and his son Apollonio, which consists of two large canvases on one wall, framed by stucco and depicting the Nativity of the Virgin and the Presentation in the Temple. On the opposite wall is a painting which shows the Flight into Egypt. At the altar can also be found another painting by the Sienese painter Paolo di Giovanni Fei which depicts the Madonna and Child being surrounded by seven angels.
Other paintings here show other scenes from Mary’s life such as the Coronation of the Virgin Mary, and the Massacre of the Innocents by Matteo di Giovanni.
Church of the Annunciation (Chiesa della Santissima Annunziata)
Located in the oldest part of the complex, it was the original chapel of the hospital and was built in 1257, but was later renovated in the 15th century. Later still, in the 17th century, the main altar was replaced by one made of marble and created by Giuseppe Mazzuoli. Its accompanying altarpiece is a bronze figure of Christ made by Vecchietta Lorenzo. There are also two side altars which were added in the early 18th century.
This area leads to the older sections of the hospital complex. The ceiling is decorated in the Renaissance style, and here can also be found many tombstones and burials. There are numerous paintings, frescoes, and sculptures.
Chapel of the Relics/Chapel of the Mantle (Cappella delle Reliquie)
To the right atrium can be found the Chapel of Relics. It was built in the second half of the 14th century in order to house the relics that the hospital purchased in 1359, before the relics were moved to the Old Sacristy many years later. As with other parts of the complex, there are numerous frescoes here which depict various religious figures such as the Virgin Mary, Saint Cosmas and Damian, John the Baptist, and John the Evangelist.
The Passegio is a large area which served as the main meeting place at the hospital. This section contains various sculptures and coats of arms of the various families who have helped fund and/or build the hospital, including that of the House of Savoy
Lanes East (Corsie est)
It is a passage that allows access to three larger rooms, the Sala San Pio, St. Joseph Hall, and the Hall San Leopoldo. The Hall of San Pio was mainly used for the treatment of hospital patients and for providing medical assistance, a function that it has performed up until 1975. It has a fresco that depicts two episodes from the life of the Blessed Sienese Giovanni Colombini. It also currently houses a fallery which includes paintings from convents, churches, and oratories of religious orders that were suppressed during the Napoleonic era and the post-unification period. Most of these came from the Palazzo Pubblico, the residence of the Governor of the Medici, as well as Santa Maria della Scalal’s own collection of artwork. The St. Joseph Hall hosts a series of plaster casts made by the Sienese sculptor Tito Sarrocchi, and the pieces on display are some of the nearly two hundred plaster models donated by the sculptor to the city of Siena in 1894. The Sala San Leopoldo is currently used to house the museum’s permanent collection of art for children.
Pilgrim Hall (La sala del Pellegrinaio)
Possibly the most important section of the entire complex, Pilgrim Hall boasts of its vaulted ceiling that features a series of paintings by many artists from the 14th and 15th centuries. Each fresco is highly detailed and colored exquisitely, which allows visitors to have a glimpse into the lives of the people of that time period. These pieces of art are attributed to Lorenzo Vecchietta, Domenico di Bartolo, Pietro d’Achille Crogi and Giovanni di Raffaele Navesi. This section was originally built to provide lodging for pilgrims who were on their way to Siena or Rome. Over the centuries, it has taken on various roles, including that of being a hospital ward up until 1995.Lower Floor
It is a courtyard that leads to the old barn, the oratory of the Society of Saint Catherine of the Night, the warehouses, and the Treasury.
Originally used as lodging for travelers and pilgrims, it now houses the original of marbles sculptures of the Fonte Gaia that were creatd by the Renaissance artist Jacopo della Quercia.
Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte/Oratory of Saint Catherine of the Night
It is the spot where legend says St. Catherine of Siena was standing in prayer as she comforted and healed the sick. In the seventeenth century, the oratory was enriched by numerous paintings, including four paintings depicting the life of St. Catherine. They were painted by the Sienese painters Rutilio Manetti and Francesco Rustici. Besides the many paintings, carvings, reliquaries and furnishings, the Company also retains a beautiful altarpiece by Taddeo di Bartolo which depicts the Madonna and Child, Four Angels, and Saints John the Baptist and Andrew.
The Treasury (Il Tesoro)
As the name suggests, this is the part of the complex where the hospital’s valuables are kept. It housed relics along with their containers made of gold, silver, glass, filigree, and precious stones, a lot of which hail from the imperial chapel of Constantinople. There were also crates of jewelry, chalices, other reliquaries of various shapes, including one due to the famous goldsmith Goro di ser Neroccio. Along with the treasures were important books and documents, as well as illuminated manuscripts with cover plates made of gold with enamel. Among the collection are also altarpieces and silk tapestries with gold thread which feature stories of Christ and the saints.Lowest Level
National Archaeological Museum of Siena
Since 1993, the complex has served as the home for the National Archaeological Museum of Siena. Set up in the underground rooms that were originally used for as storage and warehouses, now reside the archaeological collections that have been recovered within Siena. The space spans about 2500 square meters.
Company of Saint Mary Under the Vaults (Compagnia di Santa Maria sotto le Volte)
Originally headquartered at the Siena Cathedral, these companies and brotherhoods moved to the complex in the 1700s. The members of the order are known for providing their assistance to the everyday operations of the hospital. In their area can be found a beautiful wooden crucifix between the terracotta figures of Saint Bernardino and Saint Catherine, and on the altar of the oratory is placed a canvas made by depicting the Madonna and Child with Saints Peter and Paul. The sacristy also contains interesting frescoes attributed to Andrea Vanni and Luca di Tommè .Other Museum Attractions
- Art Museum for Children
- Center of Contemporary Art
- Giuliano Briganti Library and Photo Library of Art
- Additional spaces for temporary displays and international conventions
- Flags from all of the Contrade of Siena
- Palazzo Squarcialupi
Tips and Advice
- The museum is open almost every day of the year, from 10:30 am to 6:30 pm. Admission fee is EUR 10, and reduced rates are available for groups, students, seniors, and soldiers. Residents, children under 11 years old, and disabled persons can enter for free.
- In case it hasn’t been made apparent yet, the Santa Maria della Scala complex is humongous. Be prepared to spend a whole day or more here, and make sure to wear comfortable footwear.