The Monumental Complex of Santo Spirito in Saxia

The Monumental complex of Santo Spirito in Saxia, which incorporates the Corsia Sistina (Sistine Ward), the Chiostri dei Frati, delle Monache and del Pozzo (Monks’, Nuns’ and Well Cloisters), and finally the Palazzo del Commendatore, is situated in an area occupied in the Roman era by the Villa of Agrippina Major (wife of Germanico and mother of Caligola) and from 727 A.D. by the Schola Saxonum: the refuge centre for pilgrims who arrived in Rome to visit the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles. Today remains of the Villa of Agrippina Major, such as Roman walls in the opus reticulatum style, mosaic floors, fragments of sculptured marble and the remains of frescoes, are still visible in the premises located below the Sistine Ward.
The complex, destroyed by fire pillaging, was rebuilt by Pope Innocenzo III in 1198 who destined it to helping the sick as well as to the shelter of the poor and the proietti (babies abandoned by their mothers at birth).
The hospital, which was named Santo Spirito in Saxia and which still retains this name, was made up of a rectangular ward illuminated by small windows and was capable of housing 300 patients and 600 poor people. Pope Innocenzo III entrusted the management of the hospital to Guido, one of the Counts of Guillame of Montpellier (Templar Knight, founder in 1170 of the Order of the Hospital Brotherhood and in 1174 of the hospital “Saint-Espirit”) who, in a short time, transformed in into an exemplary centre of hospital modernization in Rome, Italy, Europe and the world. Following its example in fact, another 500 subsidiary centres grew up and spread over the European continent.
Guido of Montpellier, in his creation of the Santo Spirito, wished that “the assistance and healing to the sick was to be without the coldness of a paid service, elevating it instead to a sacred duty, worthy of being paralleled to the purity of the apostolic era and of early Christianity. He thus summoned to the bedside of the sick medical experts ad well as pious and merciful women, the Nuns, who, renouncing the world, dedicated themselves to the care of the poor and the sick” ( De Angelis, 1958).
The Hospital of Santo Spirito – “Seat of charity” (ibid.) – housed, fed and protected the homeless, the pregnant, the orphans, the abandoned, the sinners and the persecuted, rising to such importance as to encourage Guido to found the Brotherhood of Santo Spirito.
Like other public institutions, it declined in the Avignonese period (1309-1376) despite the interest and the privileges shown towards it by subsequent Popes. It was strengthened and entirely restored together with the Brotherhood, firstly by Pope Eugenio IV, and afterwards by Pope Sisto IV, who lavished privileges, favours and indulgences on the Brotherhood for the upkeep of the hospital. Eugenio IV even assumed its preceptorship, considering this appointment not unfitting for his high dignity. His example was followed by Sisto IV who, with the Papal Bull of the 23rd January 1477 proclaimed “Our hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia of the Alma Urbe, that we have recently rebuilt from its foundations and enlarged with sumptuous works, giving assistance and shelter to the poor, has as Superior non other than the Pope of Rome”.
The institution has always benefited from the lavish attention of all Popes, as certified by the Papal Acts that regarded it as an Apostolical Hospital as it was founded and supported primarily with money from the Church: “Our Hospital has been built with the funding of the Roman Church”.
Proof of the vitality and moral significance attributed both to the hospital and the Association, was found in the Liber Fraternitatis Sancti Spiritus, “a rare and precious collection of autographs, as much from the powerful as from the more humble of devotees, everyone of whom left a trace of their own passage and adherence to a pact of charity and love” (De Angelis, 1958).
In 1473, Pope Sisto IV, noticing the serious state of degradation into which the hospital was falling: “crumbling walls, gloomy, airless and narrow buildings, without any form of comfort, giving more the impression of a prison” rather than of a place of assistance for the sick, ordered the reconstruction of the building, also in preparation for the approaching “Giubileo” (Holy Year).
Thanks to Pope Sisto there was a complete renaissance of the hospital which consequently became the most important centre of medical research. Within its walls worked such illustrious doctors as Giovanni Tiracorda, the doctor of Clemente X, Lancisi, Baglivi and many other, who were also authors of important scientific studies. In the Antica Spezieria (antique apothecary) of the hospital, a great deal of research was carried out in the pharmaceutical field, for example, on the use of china bark in the treatment of malaria.
In keeping with religious assistance, the Santo Spirito Hospital was able to benefit from the assistance of men of such high moral and humanitarian standing, for example San Filippo Neri and San Camillo de Lellis (the latter being the founder of the Camillian order, that still today lends assistance to the hospital) that the Church elevated them to Sainthood.
The presence of the Teatro Anatomico (Anatomical Theatre) also attracted artists and scientists of great renown: among whom were Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, who chose to frequent the theatre for their studies of anatomy, while Botticelli allowed subsequent generations to admire the façade of the Santo Spirito Hospital, reproduced in the background of the fresco La purificazione del lebbroso (The Healing of the Leper), visible in the Sistine Chapel.
In succeeding centuries, despite a number of dramatic events including war, the Hospital of Santo Spirito, thanks to the constant interest shown towards it by the Popes, has survived until our times continuing its mission of assistance to the sick for which it was founded, with such a role of relevance as to induce De Angelis to say that in the world “it shone like a beacon”. In 1896 the Roman hospitals were grouped under a single administration that was called the “Pio Istituto di Santo Spirito ed Ospedali Riuniti di Roma” (Pious Institute of the Santo Spirito and United Hospitals of Rome) that would have a glorious life and would provide an example for many other European hospitals.

“Corsia Sistina”
The Corsia Sistina (Sistina Ward), 120 m long, 12 m wide and 13.30 m high, was built by Pope Sisto IV on the ruins of the innocentian hospital, according to rational principles not lacking in sumptuousness; it is divided by a majestic Tiburio in two areas called the Lower Wing and the Upper Wing, named in the second half of the nineteenth century the Sala Baglivi and the Sala Lancisi after the two illustrious doctors who operated there.
The Tiburio (lantern), that functions as a pivot and a connection between the two rooms, is divided externally in two orders. In the superior one it is possible to admire the magnificent windows of one and two mullions, attributed to the architect Giovanni Pietro Ghirarducci from Parma. The decoration of the interior is made up of shell-shaped niches in which are placed the statues of the apostles, and of barreled arches with lacunary vaults, which could be attributed to the classical artist Giovannino de’ Dolci. In the centre of the Tiburio we can admire a splendid altar that would seem the only Roman work carried out by Palladio. To the side of it was positioned an organ the sound of which gave solace to the sick during the day. In the protiro of the tiburio, one of the two main entrances to the old Sistine Hospital opens through a double portal, of which the internal one, called the portale del paradiso (portal of heaven), is attributed to Andrea Bregno. Next to the portal of Bregno is the famous ruota degli esposti (weel of the foundlings), where newborn babies were abandoned by their mothers, and taken in and brought up in the Institution of Santo Spirito. The other entrance to the hospital, which was reproduced by Botticelli in his fresco in the Sistine Chapel, is preceded by a wide gallery made up of arches in octagonal pillars and was remembered by Vasari as being the work of Baccio Pontelli, as was the vast building project that is one of the most notable buildings of the Renaissance.
To Pope Sisto are also due the magnificent frescoes which can be admired on the walls of the whole Corsia Sistina (Sistine Ward). These frescoes, situated at the same height as the windows, and whose historical inscriptions can be attributed to Platina, commemorate the building of the hospital, the merits of Pope Innocenzo III and the biography of Sisto IV from birth to pontificate.

The Buildings and “Chiostri dei Frati e delle Monache” – The “Cortile del Pozzo”
Sisto IV, after the construction of the Lower Wing of the Corsia Sistina and at the same time as the Hospital, had a further two buildings made for the religious members who worked in the Institute. One was built for the Monks and the other for the Nuns. Both buildings, which dad in common a refectory and a kitchen, where positioned around a rectangular cloister framed by an open double gallery whose arches rested on ionic columns. Even through they seem vey similar, the two cloisters display subtle but important differences. The Chiostro delle Monache (Nuns’ cloister) is larger by one arch and displays on the frames of doors and windows the name and insignia of Sisto IV, featured again in the middle of the angular cross-vaults. Some rooms made inside the Nuns’ building were used in 1479 as a hospice for nobility and later for the wet-nurses who looked after the abandoned babies. In 1791, 12 columns from the Monks’ cloister and 10 from the Nuns’ cloister were removed by the nephews of Pio VI who re-utilised them in the construction of the staircase of honour in Palazzo Braschi.
In the centre of each of the two cloisters there is a fountain. Between the two, the most artistically notable is surely the one situated in the quiet courtyard of the Nuns’ cloister and named the Fontana dei Delfini (the Fountain of the Dolphins).
This fountain, attributed to Baccio Pontelli, in its form and precise execution, displays all the elegant characteristics of the sixteenth century. The dolphins that support the magnificent basin, the giant masks, the shells, the border inlay and the surmounting fleur-de-lis, because of their smooth finish, seem chiselled rather than sculptured. At the foot of the basin there is the coat-of-arms of Stefano Vai who oversaw the restoration of the fountain in 1632.
The third courtyard, besides those of the Monks’ and Nuns’, is situated within the porches of the Antico Conservatorio (Antique Conservatory), in that part of the building that was designated to housing virgin foundlings, and was for some time known as the Parthenon. In the centre of this courtyard there is a simple but elegant well, surrounded by a beautiful garden.

The “Palazzo del Commendatore”
The Palazzo del Commendatore, sixteenth century extension of the hospital structure of Santo Spirito in Saxia, was created during the pontificate of Pio V (1566-1572) and is due to Monsignor Bernardino Cirillo (Commendator from 1556 to 1575, the year of his death). Monsignor Cirillo, for his ingenious enterprises in the constructional field as well as sanitary, organizational and managerial, can be considered surely the most famous of all Commendators that have committed themselves fully to the management of the Institute.
The Palazzo del Commendatore was built at the same time as the building said of the zitelle (of the Spinsters) which was destined to house orphan girls, to that adjoining the ramparts in which were placed the bakery and the store-room, and the building which housed the wet-nurses who had the duty of looking after the abandoned new-born babies.
The Palazzo extends around an elegant, quadrangular courtyard delimited by an open double gallery with arches supported by columns, the capitals of which are of the doric order for the lower loggia, and of the iconic order for the upper loggia. The ceiling in the lower arcade is cross-vaulted and in the upper one is wooden, while the courtyard area is impluvium-styled, in the same manner used in Roman houses. In the central arch of the lower loggia it is possible to admire a splendid fountain, the construction of which was ordered by Pope Paul V to adorn the Vatican Palace, and later transferred to the Palazzo del Commendatore by Pope Alessandro VII. In correspondence to the fountain, at the level of the upper loggia, there is a large clock situated at the centre of the family coat-of-arms of the Preceptor Ludovico Gazzoli, surmounted by a cardinal’s hat. To the sides of the dial, framed by the form of a snake that laps its own tail, symbolizing eternity, there is the cross with two horizontal axes, emblem of Santo Spirito, and the coat-of-arms of the Gazzoli; the hour hand is in the form of a bronze lizard.
To the left of the main entrance of the courtyard, one reaches via a door surmounted by the coat-of-arms of the Preceptor Francesco of the Albizzi, the Antica Spezieria (Antique Apothecary) of the hospital, once famous for the studies which were carried out on china bark used in the treatment of malaria. Recently restored, it presently houses the wonderful vases which have survived until today together with a rich collection of priceless paintings
To the right of the main entrance is the Accademia Lancisiana and the sumptuous staircase that allows access to the first floor of the building and to the upper loggia, decorated by a precious bas-relief by Antonio Canova which portrays an anatomy lesson. The walls of the upper loggia are entirely decorated with frescoes ordered by the Preceptor Teseo Aldrovandi to a painter of the Salerno school, Ercole Perillo, and showing views of landscapes, panoplies and “grotesques”. Direclty from the Loggia via a double entrance, one enters the apartment of the Commendator, which is made up of various rooms adorned with magnificent tapestries and sculptures, among which there is a Madonna con Bambino (Madonna with Child) by Andrea del Verrocchio and period furniture. The most prestigious among these rooms is surely the ballroom known as the Salone del Commendatore (Hall of the Commendator). The Hall, with is sumptuous interior, was completely frescoed by the brothers Jacopo and Francesco Zucchi, who, in the paintings which adorn the whole room, told the story of the hospital: from the dream of Pope Innocenzo III to the visit to the Hospital building site by Pope Sisto IV, as well as a recapitulatory painting of the complex work of charity carried out by the Institute. The single scenes shown are presented ad tapestries, framed by draperies on which are represented alternately the coat-of-arms of Santo Spirito, with the typical cross of Lorraine, and that of the Aldrovandi family. In the corners of the room there are effigies of garlands and fruit.
From the Salone del Commendatore, as well as directly from the upper loggia, one can enter the Biblioteca Lancisiana, founded in 1711 by Giovanni Maria Lancisi, the doctor of Pope Innocenzo XI and illustrious scholar, who made the Library the heart of his scheme for the advancement of scientific culture. Opened in the presence of Pope Clemente XI, it is made up of two large rooms: the first is formed by an atrium and a vestibule, the second is the original nucleus of the library and has sixteen wooden shelves (ordered by Lancisi himself). Among the book collections kept in the library, worthy of mention is the Collezione Lancisi: texts donated by Louis XIV, by the Grand Duke of Tuscany Cosimo III as well as by the Prince Fürstenberg. Moreover, the library keeps 373 precious manuscripts from different ages, ranging from the fourteenth to the twentieth century. Among them two parchment codes of Avicenna’s latin writings, and the better known Liber Fraternitatis Sancti Spiritus, a priceless collection of rare autographs, as much from the powerful as from the more humble of devotees, everyone of whom desired to leave a trace of their own passage and adherence to the deed of the Santo Spirito Institution. Behind one of the walls of the library there is a small window that, opening at the same level as the frescoes in the Corsia Sistina, allowed the managing Commendator, and his successors, to control the conduct of the personnel committed to the care of the sick.
Two magnificent globes of the seventeenth century are at the centre of the library’s main room.