Usually something has gone all wrong if you have to visit a hospital during a holiday. Fortunately the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia is a museum nowadays. Tradition dictates that it was founded as early as 1277, and it was only closed in 2013, upon the opening of the new Ospedale San Jacopo on the outskirts of the city. There are basically two explanations for the name of the old hospital. The first claims that the Ospedale del Ceppo was founded on the spot where a tree trunk (ceppo) had miraculously come in bloom. The blossoming tree trunk became the symbol of the hospital and can be seen in one of the medallions or tondi attached to the façade. The second explanation is perhaps a bit more convincing: the ceppo was a tree trunk that had been hollowed-out and served as a money-box for alms that were used to finance the activities of the hospital.
The Ospedale del Ceppo was initially administered by the Compagnia di Santa Maria dei Poveri. Over the years the hospital was expanded several times. In 1451-1456 the famous architect Michelozzo (1396-1472) worked on the complex. There is no direct evidence that he was also responsible for the beautiful loggia, but at the same time it cannot be ruled out that he was the man who designed it (my travel guide seems convinced he was). 1501 was an important year in the history of the hospital. In that year the Florentine Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova took over the complex in Pistoia. The Pistoian authorities had previously evicted the Compagnia di Santa Maria dei Poveri and at some point a Carthusian monk named Leonardo Buonafede (ca. 1450-1545) became the new director of the Ospedale de Ceppo. It was Leonardo Buonafede who commissioned the wonderful glazed terracotta decorations that adorn the façade of the hospital. The director cannot have been a very modest man, as he himself is depicted in many of the decorations.
Only two families in Tuscany mastered the technique of glazing terracotta to perfection and for obvious reasons they were loath to share their family secret. First of all there was the Della Robbia family, with Luca (ca. 1400-1482), his nephew Andrea (1435-1525) and Andrea’s son Giovanni (1469-1529) as its most famous representatives. Invention of the technique of glazing was attributed to Luca, and the Della Robbias tried to keep it secret, but somehow information about it was passed on to a rival family, the Buglionis. Art historian Giorgio Vasari claims this was a typical case of cherchez la femme: a woman who supposedly dated Andrea della Robbia was said to have given away the family secret to Benedetto Buglioni (ca. 1460-1521). Benedetto and his nephew Santi Buglioni (1494-1576) subsequently also became famous for their creations in glazed terracotta.
The first terracotta decoration that was attached to the Ospedale de Ceppo was the Coronation of the Virgin that can be found in the lunette above the entrance to the left of the loggia. The relief was made in 1511-1512 by Benedetto Buglioni. In 1515 Benedetto also made the medallion on the façade that features the emblem of the hospital, the blossoming tree trunk already mentioned above. Most medallions were, however, made by Giovanni della Robbia, starting in 1525. The three in the centre have scenes from the life of the Virgin. From left to right we see the Annunciation, the Assumption and the Visitation. The last medallion features the coat of arms of the De’ Medici family, the rulers of Florence. The two semi-medallions on the edges of the façade were also made by Giovanni della Robbia.
The highlight of the façade is undoubtedly the long frieze made of glazed terracotta that features the seven works of mercy and five of the seven cardinal virtues. Apparently there is some confusion about who made the frieze. My travel guide claims it was once again Giovanni della Robbia, but that is just plain wrong. Six of the seven works of mercy were made by Santi Buglioni between 1526 and 1528, while Filippo di Lorenzo Paladini from Pistoia (died 1608) was responsible for the seventh and last work. He made the scene about giving drink to the thirsty in 1583-1586, more than fifty years after Santi Buglioni completed the other works of mercy. If you study giving drink to the thirsty you will immediately conclude that Paladini did not even master the glazing technique half as well as the Della Robbias and Buglionis.
The seven works of mercy
The first scene is about clothing the naked. The scene is easily missed, as it is not on the façade of the loggia, but around the corner. Director or spedalingo Leonardo Buonafede immediately enters the stage here. In the next scene, about sheltering the pilgrims, he can be seen washing the feet of Saint John the Baptist, the patron saint of Florence. To the left of Leonardo we see another haloed figure. He is Saint James the Great, patron saint of Pistoia. The scene can therefore be seen as symbolising the union of the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence and the Ospedale del Ceppo in Pistoia. The third scene is about activities that can be considered hospital work. On the left doctors are checking a patient’s pulse and inspecting urine. On the right a patient is subjected to a head operation.
The fourth scene is about visiting the prisoners. One prisoner, who is chained to the floor, stands out because of his halo with a cross. He is of course Jesus Christ himself. In the centre another man is holding Leonardo Buonafede by the wrist. The man is Leonardo’s namesake Saint Leonard of Noblat, who died in 559. Saint Leonard is considered the patron saint of prisoners. The fifth scene deals with burying the dead. On the left a dead man wrapped in a shroud is put in his grave, while on the right we see a priest and acolytes standing with a person on his deathbed. Leonardo Buonafede appears to be addressing the widow of the deceased. In the sixth scene about feeding the hungry he can be seen leading a ragged man to a table where three men are eating. Their meal consists of bread, soup and chicken. On the right bread is distributed. The scene is quite touching: a small boy pulls at the robes of the man dressed in black to get his attention and the man on the far right is clearly blind.
The last scene is about giving drink to the thirsty. We know that Santi Buglioni made a previous version of this work of mercy, of which several pieces were discovered in 1934. For reasons unknown the first version of giving drink to the thirsty proved to be unsatisfactory. Perhaps something had gone wrong in the glazing process or maybe this part of the frieze had somehow been damaged. As was already mentioned, Filippo di Lorenzo Paladini made a new version in 1583-1586. Leonardo Buonafede was long dead then, so now one of his successors, the anonymous bearded man in white, was given a central position. While the other six scenes look clear and fresh, the final scene looks a bit smudgy. When Giovanni della Robbia and Santi Buglioni had died, the secret of glazing terracotta properly was unfortunately lost. The fact that glazed terracotta was simply no longer fashionable may also have been a contributing factor to its disappearance.
Of the seven cardinal virtues only Prudence, Faith, Charity, Hope and Justice have been depicted. Apparently these were the virtues that Leonardo Buonafede’s hospital found most important. The five virtues can be seen in the images inserted above. Courage and Temperance are absent.
Although the exterior decorations are the highlight of the Ospedale del Ceppo, the interior also has a lot in store. We visited the former hospital in August of 2020 and were lucky that there was free entry. As we were still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, the only condition was that wearing face masks and plastic gloves was compulsory. The gloves were necessary because of the many touchscreens in the museum.
In the first two rooms visitors can learn more about the history of the hospital and about the external decorations. The touchscreens offer very detailed information about the different scenes of the frieze, which proved to be of great value for writing this post. This part of the museum also offers a lot of information about the glazing technique and about the Della Robbia and Buglioni family trees.
A corridor subsequently gives access to a large hall with a reconstruction of an infirmary. On closer inspection the beds that have been set up here turn out to be glass cases where various medical instruments have been put on display. We see scalpels, pliers, scissors, clamps and syringes. It is clear that Pistoia was an important medical centre. Although the hospital itself was founded in the Middle Ages, a medical faculty for the training of doctors and surgeons was not established until the seventeenth century. The first chairs of medicine were set up in 1666. The faculty proved to be a huge success, and in 1778 the Ospedale de Ceppo and Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova in Florence were separated again. Six years later the Ospedale de Ceppo was merged with another hospital in Pistoia, the Ospedale di San Gregorio. The faculty in Pistoia then entered its Golden Age, its chair of obstetrics becoming especially famous. Part of the exhibition is a device for simulating births. Between 1913 and 2019 the machine stood in London, the result of a loan. In the latter year it was returned to Pistoia.
The medical faculty of Pistoia was closed in 1844, after a dramatic decline in the number of students. In almost 180 years, the faculty had spawned a number of big names, about whom we can learn more in the museum. Among them were the surgeon Sebastiano Marcacci (1618-after 1690) and the anatomist Filippo Pacini (1812-1883). In 1854, the latter managed to isolate the cholera bacterium.
Sources: Dorling Kindersley travel guide about Florence and Tuscany and the helpful information from the touchscreens in the museum.