Ospedale

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Monday morning reunited us for the last time with Donatella, again in the piazza in front of the Duomo. There was no preparatory lecture for this excursion, and the façade of the building we entered –the Ospedale or Museum of the former Hospital of Santa Maria della Scala–was unimpressive, so the significance of the place took a while to dawn on me and has continued to grow until today, when I discovered a wonderful new website about it still under construction. Like Santa Maria Novella in Florence, this is a place I’d like to revisit equipped with more knowledge.

Donatella told us that the unimposing building we had entered was actually much larger than the Duomo, and at a volume of 350 million cubic meters, I suspect it’s larger even than the abandoned Superduomo project. Some of its size became apparent after we descended from the large chapel and entry chambers on the ground floor to the levels below, each of which seemed to extend deeper and wider through labyrinthine vaults and arched chambers. Nowhere was there daylight, but vertical and horizontal shafts opened at every turn to what looked like an infinite regress of excavation and renovation. Only when I discovered this image of the rear view of the complex on the website did I have any sense of how such a building could ever have been constructed.

Until a few years ago when its functions were moved to a new location, Ospedale was in continous operation for ten centuries as a City Hospital and Welfare center–according to the Sienese the first such institution in Europe. Today it houses a cultural complex including restored chapels and antique medical facilities, a display of the original sculptures decorating the fountain in the Campo (including Jacopo Della Quercia’s exquisite statue of the Virgin Mary), an archeological museum and ongoing archaelogical dig, a film museum, and a conference center, which during our visit was hosting an international convocation on Fair Trade.

Donatella ended the tour back up on the ground floor in the Sala del Pellegrinaio, or Hall of Pilgrimage, the intake wing of the ancient hospital where both residents of Siena and millions of pilgrims who fell ill on their journeys were tended by medical staff supported by the city and an independent foundation funded by The Bank and private bequests from those who had been helped. The walls of this great hall had originally been covered by frescoes on religious subjects, but in the fifteenth century they were replaced by an amazing sequence by Vecchietta and Domenico di Bartolo depicting the suffering of patients and the healing efforts of hospital staff and administration. The connections between the intrepid and the frail, between Hostel and Hospital, travel and pilgrimage, life and journey kept growing in my mind. Frequent signage around Tuscany linked our route with Canterbury England where Chaucer’s fourteenth century company of pilgrims ended their voyage to the shrine of Thomas a Becket, “the holy blissful martyr for to seek/ That them had helped when that they were sick.” For this aging vulnerable traveller and client of present-day “health care delivery systems,” it was not hard to imagine the solace that the frescoes would offer both poor and wealthy entrants to this building.

Discharged from the Ospedale, we planned to test Jan’s sore knee and my irritated lungs with another attempt at hiking out of the city and up the neighboring hill of L’osservatoria. We bought procsciutto and pecorino at a deli and followed a winding street through the wall below the towering cathedral of St. Francis. At a traffic intersection I noticed a pool of crystal clear water covered by vaulted arches in a green gully below us. We descended to this unnamed fountain–which we later we learned was a medieval laundromat– and ate lunch at its edge before continuing across railroad tracks and freeway to a footpath heading up the forested ridge opposite the city. After encountering chickens in an olive grove and a girl chasing butterflies, we found the old monastery and school for children adjoining a church that had been destroyed by bombs during WWII and later reconstructed. An acolyte told us where we could catch a bus back to the city, and at the stop we met the butterfly girl again, who turned out to be a grad student in lepidopterology. The bus made a circle tour of the suburbs, stopping en route at a huge hospital complex that I realized was the one monstrosity that marred the perfect landscape I had admired from the City Hall Tower. Jan pointed out that this must be where the Ospedale had been relocated and mentioned she had read that Siena is known today for its excellent healthcare and medical research facillities. At 5:00 a.m. on the morning of our departure a few days later, she got into a conversation with two jetlagged young men who had just arrived to work at that hospital on a vaccine against the avian flu currently threatening a world-wide pandemic.

Our day’s pere- grinations concluded at the top of the grand allee in the Hotel Garden where we found our amiable table companions, Sydell and Aeko, sitting contentedly on a bench waiting for dinner. Sydell is from New York City and once taught math at the same school where Jan taught English. Aeko is from Berkeley. Twenty years our seniors, they met long ago at an Elderhostel and since then often travel together in exotic places.

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