History of Medicine in Trastevere

History of Medicine in Trastevere
April 1995

Sergio Cagga/Paul Gwynne

 In Trastevere there is the Museum of the
 History of Health which forms part of the
 hospital of Santo Spirito in Sassia, there
 is the ancient Pharmacy (farmacia) inside
 the convent of the discalced Carmelites
 (Carmelitani Scalzi, literally the shoeless
 Carmelites) at piazza della Scala and there
 are three secret flower gardens inside the
 hospital of Regina Margherita. All these
 places are open only in the morning and so
 an early start to your itinerary is advised,
 unless you want to make two journeys. You
 could start from the ancient farmacia on
 Piazza della Scala. In the medieval period
 it was quite common to have a flight of
 stairs running up the outside the house,
 instead of inside. You can see fine examples
 at the Arco degli Acetari (a little square
 hidden along Via del Pellegrino, reached by
 walking under an arch on your left at the
 beginning of this road coming from the Campo
 de' Fiori). In Trastevere itself there is
 another example at Vicolo dell'Atleta (a
 side street off Via dei Salumi); also at
 Casa Particappa (Via S.Angelo in Pescheria -
 behind the Portico d'Ottavia). Another set
 of these outside staircases used to be
 beside a house built by Pope Pius IV
 (1559-1565) to recieve converted prostitutes
 the 'convertite dalla mala vita'. This was
 near the Porta Settimiana, at the beginning
 of Via della Lungara the pilgrimage way from
 the port of Rome- on the right bank of the
 Tiber at Trastevere -to the Basilica of St
 Peter's. According to legend, under the
 flight of stairs of this house was a
 painting of the Madonna. One day a midwife
 named Cornelia uttered a prayer at this
 image of Mary for a little girl who had been
 born dumb, when miraculously the girl
 suddenly began to speak. This site became
 place of pilgrimage and Pope Clement VIII
 built a church there. The church was named
 St Maria della Scala (St Mary of the stair,
 stair in Italian is scala). The Carmelitani
 Scalzi- the religious order -were charged by
 the Pope to look after it on 1 April 1597,
 almost 400 years ago. The painting can still
 be found inside the church on Piazza della
 Scala. In their convent beside the church
 (on Piazza della Scala, 23) the monks set up
 a spezieria to store the medical herbs grown
 in their gardens; then they instituted a
 six-years course on the cultivation of herbs
 for the fathers that had that particular
 responsibility. The place became an
 important research centre for the curative
 effects of herbs- in their antique
 pharmacy/museum they still preserve not only
 the recipes (preserved in an antique
 manuscript written in 1634), but also some
 original remedies such as the water used to
 combat the plague and antibiotic ointments.
 The knowledge of the Carmelite monks, expert
 in theorical and practical pharmacy, was
 used to help both the poor and needy while
 at the end of XVIII century the same monks
 became pharmacists to the popes, from Pius
 VI (1773) to Pius IX (1875). In 1875 the
 convent was taken over by the state and
 about 5.000 books belonging to the
 Carmelites passed into the National Library.
 Within three months the pharmacy was
 bankrupt and put under the hammer, but
 fortunately the monks were able to
 recuperate their loss and carry on with
 their activities until January 1954. This
 farmacy is special and is worth a visit
 because it is one of the most ancient in
 Europe with original fixtures and fittings.
 It has three rooms: the shop, the laboratory
 and the herb-store. Today, as a reminder of
 their past activities, the monks produce
 herb liquors made according to the ancient
 recipes at the Liquorificio. Nowadays at
 Piazza della Scala, 23 there is a new
 farmacia, as you walk in there's a door on
 your left and a bell to ring to the
 Liquorificio. It can be visited everyday
 9am-11am, but first you need to fix an
 appointment with father Luigi (tel: 5806245
 9am-12 noon - call at least one day in
 advance). The best way to visit the pharmacy
 is to organise a group of 5-12 people and
 don't forget to leave a little offering for
 the convent. Not far away is another
 historical medical site: the hospital of S.
 Spirito in Sassia, the oldest hospital in
 Rome and today also the Historical Health
 Museum. As its name recalls, the site is
 anciently associated with the Saxon
 community in Rome. In 728 A.D. Ina, king of
 the Saxons, founded a church and a hospice
 for native pilgrims- hence the name Sassia
 from the Latin Saxia. He also gave an image
 of Mary with the Christ Child which is still
 jelously guarded in the church of Santo
 Spirito in Sassia the facade of which can be
 found along Borgo Santo Spirito. In the XII
 century Pope Innocent III founded the first
 Apostolic Hospital for the Sick and for
 Abandoned Children. The German pilgrims
 moved and established themselves in the
 nearby area of the Borgo, on the other side
 of Via della Conciliazione. (A fresco by
 Raphael in the Vatican Stanze depicts a
 scene of the Fire that ravaged the Borgo and
 which was miraculously quenched by a
 blessing from Pope Innocent IIII.) To reach
 there walk under the Porta Settimiana and
 along the Via della Lungara to the end. When
 you arrive at Piazza della Rovere you'll see
 the Hospital in front of you, the big Santo
 Spirito door open through the Vatican walls
 on the left and the Lungotevere in Sassia on
 the right. The entrance to the Museum is on
 Lungotevere in Sassia ,3 down the stairs to
 the right. It is open Mon-Wed-Fri
 10am-12noon. While walking Via della Lungara
 take note of a little trattoria at number
 41/a called 'da Giovanni'. Here there is
 home-cooking at a modest price, for a full
 meal you won't spend more than 12-15.000
 lire. For a bowl of pasta and a salad, plus
 wine 7-8.000 lire!! It could be a good place
 for a lunch of Roman specialities on your
 way back to Trastevere. In the museum there
 can be found old instruments, anatomical
 prints and a reconstruction, with original
 objects, of a chemical laboratory of the
 XVII century. The itinerary could continue
 with a visit to the three cloisters inside
 the building. The first two cloisters can be
 found by walking through a little door open
 beside the entrance to the Museum of History
 of Health. These are not particularly
 beautiful but once there its worth a look.
 The church is, however, beautiful. Return to
 Piazza della Rovere and pass through the
 Porta S. Spirito to Via dei Penitenzieri
 where at the beginning of the street you can
 see the Cortile del Pozzo (the courtyard of
 the well) at this entrance to the Hospital.
 At the corner of Via dei Penitenzieri and
 Borgo Santo Spirito you'll find the Church
 of S. Spirito in Sassia. I find this church
 beautiful because of the colour scheme: it's
 surely worth a visit. Outside the church,
 the left side of the facade, along the Borgo
 you'll find the door to the Palazzo del
 Commendatore, the house of the president of
 the Hospital. The courtyard is as fine as
 the interior of the church. As you arrive
 you'll see a fountain (1614) that comes from
 the Vatican and, above, a curious clock with
 a cardinal's hat (1827) and a lizard marking
 the hours. You will also notice the entrance
 of the old Spezieria (storage place for
 medicinal herbs) and the entrance to the
 Lancisiana Accademy -founded in 1714- with
 its library of some 17.000 books on the
 History of Medicine. From here you could
 either walk back to Trastevere (with a stop
 at Giovanni's) or, if it's too late to see
 the secret gardens inside the Regina
 Margherita Hospital, have lunch in the
 Borgo. There, along Borgo Pio at the number
 13, you can find a very cheap trattoria, but
 to avoid the crowds and queues it's
 necessary to get there early (before 1pm).
 It's worth having a look of the secret
 gardens, perhaps after lunch? There are two
 entrances on Via Morosini: the receptionist
 will show you the way. Once there, you will
 feel miles away from the chaotic Viale
 Trastevere. The main cloister, with roses
 and other flowers, has seats and is very
 sunny. From there you can walk to a garden
 with a fountain and the entrance to the old
 church of the hospital and to a second
 cloister which is even more quiet with huge
 ancient terracotta storage jars and a well.
 These gardens are unknown to many tourists
 and even Romans are unaware of their
 existence. I spent one month in this
 hospital in 1987 and I greatly enjoyed
 having the possibility to pass some of the
 time in a nice garden and to see visitors.
 Your visit can only be a pleasure for both
 you and the Hospital's inmates. Don't be shy
 of walking here or in similar places as you
 could often find yourself in a magical spot.