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Early modern medicine in Naples - Incurables Hospital c1520

Thank you to The 18th-century Apothecary in Hampshire for reminding us that they delivered most of what we would now term primary health care. Now to Naples.

Religious duty did not clash with medical science in the early C16th; in fact many of Naples’ hospitals staff had been made saints by the Catholic Ch­urch eg St Cajetan (1480-1547) who founded and worked in hospitals for incurables around Italy. In Naples St Cajetan set up the Mount of Piety to help the poor, so they did not need usurers to pay for medical costs. This later turned into one of Italy’s oldest banks, Banco di Napoli. A statue of him is outside the Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore in Naples.

Saints flourished in Southern Italy, relying on their relics’ mir­aculous healing pow­ers. So a thriving trade in relics grew up which church author­it­ies tried to control, concerned as they were about diabolical cults. Even more specifically, many diseases had their own patron saints eg St Roch for protecting against plagues.

Pharmacy interior
5 m-long walnut table, cabinets with decorated blue and white majol­ica jars
Sculpture of a post-operative uterus on the wall

Medieval medicine was largely built on theories, not on research as to which treatments actually worked. Only when Europeans learned from Islamic medicine in Baghdad and Cairo did research start to become import­ant. The earliest European pharmacies that I can find were a] in the Fran­cis­can Monastery in Dubrovnic Croatia (opened 1317) and b] in Tallinn’s town hall square in Estonia (opened 1422).

The Hospital for Incurables in Naples is an old, extant hospital in the centre of town. It is important to us because it linked elements of early medicine, magic, alchemy and religion, all dedicated to helping the poor and sick. Founded in c1520, the Hospital was set up by a noble Catalan woman called Mar­ia Lorenza Longo after she had suffered and recovered from a paral­ysing illness herself. By combining her family wealth with that of the wealthy Genoese Ettore Vernazza, Longo was able to fund a big hospital complex in Naples. Over time med­ical research­ers from around Europe travelled to Naples, to learn about treatments.

Pharmacy entrance, double stone staircase

Private charity in the city centred on this Incurab­les Hospital which also help­ed people from outside Naples. Initially their main role was to handle the spreading of venereal diseases.  Gradually the Incurables Hospital broadened its services and under Longo’s guidance, it started to specialise in helping pregnant wom­en with Caesarean sections. Princesses and noble woman came to the Incurables Hospital to give birth, whilst poor women were look­ed after by the nuns in the Order of the Capuchin Poor Clares.

Note the impress­ive double stone staircase and a bust of Maria Longo. And note the two sculptures depicting a virginal uterus, and a post-operative uterus that has undergone a Caesarean, reflecting the Incurables’ focus on helping women through childbirth.

The hospital was renovated in the C18th by architect Bartolomeo Vecchione and Domenico Antonio Vacc­aro in the baroque-rococo style. Additionally many works of art were added to the hospital build­ings, in the belief that art and beauty could be used to help treat sick people. Beauty was particularly important once the hospital started to look after hundreds of mentally ill patients, separated in dormitories according to their diagnosis.

The hospital later included the splendid Pharmacy and a laboratory in which medicines and drugs were pre­pared. Baroque and Rococo styles were utilised in a bigger complex of halls, marble stairs, majolica pavements, bronze sculptures and refined furniture of walnut wood. The ceiling was dom­­inated by a great Homer's Illiad painting by Neapolitan Pietro Bardellino, show­ing scenes from the Trojan War related to medicine. See the rock staircases, a fres­coed ceiling, el­egant inlaid wooden furniture and shelves with decor­ated majolica jars.

One section of the pharmacy was where the medicinal invent­ories were stored and cures were prepared. There was a monumental 5 m-long walnut table in the room and the surr­ounding walnut cabinets held many blue and white majol­ica jars dec­or­­ated with biblical and allegorical scenes, and filled with ointments.

The cabinets also contained products of mineral origin and teeth of marine animals, linking back to old alchemical traditions. It was only through the use of chemical drugs that progress was made in the history of Medicine. The very creation of the pharmacy made the hospital into a place of treatment, rather than just a hos­pice, particularly with common diseases like ven­er­eal infections.

See the Medicinal Gardens where homeopathic mixtures were devel­op­ed to soothe pat­ients. The medicinal gardens, since modernised, have a huge camphor tree and other medicinal plants that went into the medications.

The tour then leads through to the Great Hall, which was used as a reception and assembly room for medical experts and auth­orities. Its walls are lined with yellow and blue majolica vases and jars, painted by Lorenzo Salandra, and Donato Massa who painted the majolica floor.

Nearby is the cloister of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, run by an order of hermits. The ceilings of this “Cloister of Maternity” were painted by Flem­ish artists. Parthenope, Naples' mythical siren founder, was ? buried in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Parthen­ope’s possible burial place had strong signif­icance for a Neapol­it­an literary humanist group which founded The Academy of the Idle in these beautiful cloisters in 1611. 

Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie
Cloister of Maternity

Inside the Museum of Sanitary Arts there are many interesting old medical tools, old irons, prints and books that together memorial­ise the Neapolitan medical school and health history. Visitors will be interested in the histories of Italian research into diseases and treatments, and the init­ial Italian discoveries en route to anti­biotics. There is also information on the life of the Domenico Cirillo (1739-1799), an Enlightenment physician-botanist at the Incurables.

This pharmacy was one of few remaining examples of the hundreds of similar apothecaries that once spread out across Naples. Visit the pharmacy, along with the museum of sanitary arts, the medicinal garden and cloister of the nearby Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie a Caponapoli.


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