Hospital façade as it was, Fabio Borbottoni
Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova is the oldest Florentine hospital still in existence. It was founded in 1288 by Folco Portinari, four years after he donated a large part of his banking fortune to create a female hospital wing. Family matriarch Monna Tessa convinced him to build the hospital.
My character Caterina works in the hospital during the first few months after her graduation from med school in 1943, before her deportation in November. Though there was a numerus clausus (anti-Semitic education quota) in Italy, her professors, like many other Italians, looked the other way. Her employers likewise ignored the law.
This hospital is very special to her because it was founded by the father of Dante’s belovèd Beatrice. Caterina feels a very special relationship to Dante because she was born on the 600th anniversary of his death.
Cloister of Bones, Copyright Sailko
Over the centuries, the hospital grew very large and powerful, thanks to all the contributions from wealthy Florentines. Many talented Florentine artists also contributed their artwork, though not all of these paintings and sculptures have been able to remain in the hospital. Some of them have been transferred to nearby museums so they can be better-preserved.
The 15th century was a particularly booming time for the hospital, with a lot of expansions, renovations, donations, a visit from Pope Martin V in 1419, and the addition of a cloister.
Monna Tessa’s tombstone in the Cloister of Bones, Copyright Sailko
Bernardo Buontalenti designed a large veranda meant to serve as the hospital entrance, but sadly didn’t live long enough to see it constructed. He passed away in 1608, and Giulio Parigi began constructing the veranda in 1611. Only in 1960 was the veranda finally completed.
In 1660, the lanes in the women’s ward were replaced by Giovanni Battista Pieratti, and made bigger and more spacious.
View of hospital from above, Copyright Sailko
In 1863, the Cloister of Bones was added. The bones of Monna Tessa, the inspiration for the hospital, were moved here and placed under a tombstone. Many other people are interred here, though there aren’t any contemporary burials.
Probably the hospital’s most famous intern was Leonardo da Vinci, who was there from about 1507–08.
Main hospital entrance, Copyright Sailko
When she returns to Florence in November 1945, Caterina plans to go to the hospital for a copy of her medical license, a recommendation letter, and papers proving she worked there. She also plans to go to the university for copies of her transcript and diploma.
As it turns out, she doesn’t need any copies of those documents, since they were never lost. Her friends Velia and Salvatore Morandi, who live on the first floor of her old building, went into her apartment after she was taken away, and packed up as much as they could for safekeeping. They even rescued some smaller furniture, her radio, and her victrola.
The hospital is right in the heart of Florence, in the centre of the historic Old Town, in Piazza Santa Maria Nuova. In years past, it contained a botanical garden to grow herbs for an apothecary’s shop, and an insane asylum. Like all hospitals, it’s come a long way from the era when most people went to hospitals to die, not to get better.