Photo ©Ilaria Giannini
Santa Maria della Scala
One of the oldest European hospitals, now a cultural centre and museum
Santa Maria della Scala
Piazza del Duomo, 3, 53100 Siena SI, Italy

Santa Maria della Scala, one of the oldest buildings originally used as a hospital in Europe. However for some time now has given up its sanitary functions and is subject of an important renovation work for museum and cultural use. This large complex, in the heart of Siena opposite the cathedral, conserves a wide range of historical items, ranging from Etruscan and Roman times, through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.

It holds monumental open spaces alternate with narrow corridors, improvised and coloured frescoes with stories of life, obscure crypts and  intertwined tunnels dug into bricked spaces. Santa Maria della Scala is a large building (350,000,000 metres square) and is above all the splendid synthesis of the city and her history. It is a container where architecture, works of art and history tell of a life that has continued uninterrupted for a thousand years.

Rising on the via Francigena, Santa Maria della Scala is one of the first European examples of hospital and shelter, with an autonomous and articulated organisation to welcome pilgrims and support poor people and abandoned children.

A fresco in the hall of the Pellegrinaio
A fresco in the hall of the Pellegrinaio - Credit: Ilaria Giannini

Following bequests and donations, between the end of the 13th century and the beginning of the 14th the hospital started to subdivide and organise its land in vast farm agencies called “grance”. Their presence included vast areas of the Val d’Orcia, the Val d’Arbia, of the Masse, the Crete and the Maremma, and which altogether was the largest land concentration of the Siennese state. For almost five centuries these were the foundations of the economic structure of Santa Maria until, in the 18th century, alienation was ordered.

Santa Maria della Scala had a very important role also in the cultural ambit, such as to be justly considered the “third artistic centre” of the city, together with the Palazzo Pubblico and the Cathedral. Works include the great fresco cycle with the Storie della Vergine (stories of the Virgin) realised on the external façade (unfortunately lost) by Simone Martini, pieces by Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti (1335), the series of frescoes in the large hall of the Pellegrinaio, and the decoration of the vast apsidal zone of the church painted in the 18th century by Sebastiano Conca.

Today Santa Maria della Scala is presented like one of the most significant multi-purpose cultural projects in Europe, able to efficiently respond to the needs of the great Sienese collections and to growing study, research and tourism needs.