Monday, December 31, 2012

Guest Post: Mary Donnarumma Sharnick

This week I'm delighted to bring you a guest blog post from Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, author of the remarkable novel Thirst, a historical thriller set in Venice.  Not only has Thirst been getting great reviews, it's being made into an opera!  Mary's blog has more information.

Now, here's Mary:

Greetings of the Season and Best Wishes for a Happy and Productive New Year!
My thanks to Tinney S. Heath for her generous invitation to join an ever-expanding group of guest bloggers. I’m Mary Donnarumma Sharnick, Tinney’s fellow Fireship Press author, a writer of historical fiction presently focused on Renaissance Venice, its islands in and beyond the lagoon, and its maritime empire. My first novel, THIRST, published in March, 2012, is set in 1613 Venice proper. You can learn all about it at and .
At the moment, I’m drafting the first novel of a proposed trilogy based on the historical Michael of Rhodes. This fascinating man wrote a maritime manuscript accessible to readers in a facsimile edition (THE BOOK OF MICHAEL OF RHODES: A FIFTEENTH-CENTURY MARITIME MANUSCRIPT, VOLS. I-III. The MIT Press. Editors Pamela O. Long, David McGee, and Alan M. Stahl. 2009) The manuscript, begun in 1434, provides copious and detailed accounts of mathematics, ships and shipbuilding, navigation, time reckoning, journey maps, a glossary of maritime terms, prayers, drawings, astrological charts, copies of wills, and more. The editors of the Michael of Rhodes Project have penned a number of essays that together craft a coherent context of Michael’s life and times.
Last April, journalist Tracey O’Shaughnessy asked me why I write fiction rather than history, given my insatiable curiosity about the past, its diarists, and its scholars. While I could not and cannot provide Ms. O’Shaughnessy with a pithy answer, I can explain how the historical record jump starts my novelist’s mind.
If historians verify the Who? What? Where? and When? of past human events in specific worlds while suggesting the Why (s)? of them, writers of historical novels instead create contextually accurate fictions that invite readers to experience vicariously how it feels to be alive in such worlds.
The Michael of Rhodes Project lets me know that in 1401, when he was sixteen years of age, Michael left his family and island and traveled to Manfredonia where he joined the Venetian fleet as an oarsman. It lets me know that, over a decades-long career, he advanced to the highest position allowed a foreigner. It shows me his faith (prayers and drawings) and intelligence (he mastered the Venetian dialect, mathematics, and a plethora of other learning). It tells me his wife Cataruccia pre-deceased him. It teaches me about galley construction and naval discipline.
What it cannot do is let me know how Michael felt to be alive. What motivated him to leave hearth and home? What did it cost him, a foreigner (Only because the plague, popularly called “the Death,” wiped out perhaps eighty percent of the Venetian population, were outsiders allowed to man the great republic’s oars.), to achieve among higher-born Venetians? Did his dream of belonging to la Dominante, the dominant one, ever turn to nightmare? What personal challenges did he encounter at sea and on land? Whom did he trust? Who failed him?
Fiction allows me to explore such questions. Fiction lets me enter the physical, emotional, intellectual, ethical, and spiritual realms that comprise a human belng. Though students and critics of the novel refer to such human beings as characters and protagonists, readers must, if they are to be satisfied, believe any character, any protagonist, is a virtual human being, an earthly creature not so different from ourselves.
So my Michael is an imagined one. Certainly he is anchored (no pun intended) in the verifiable historical record. But he derives from that record rather than imitates it.
From the historical Michael himself I have learned how the first galley on which he rowed would have looked and functioned. What I have imagined is how Michael was initially drawn to it. Below find my novelist’s rendition:
He had just turned five, old enough to keep up with his father’s pace to the short dock in the cove his mother could see from the doorway, old enough to accompany Theodore to the pre-dawn dropping of the nets. Sitting in the rowboat within sight of the big harbor and chewing on a crusty piece of the previous night’s bread his mother had handed him after crossing her arms against her chest to say good-bye, he watched the ripples in the water against the coming dawn. Then, just as the sun rose, he heard what had sounded like a chorus singing. He turned to look. That was when he knew.
It was not so much the looming galley itself, but more the synchrony of the rowers that mesmerized him. Their cohesive movements, matched with their booming voices that became one voice, urged him to abandon home, even though he could not yet reach the door latch to let himself out or in. Even then, he yearned to join this crew of men. With them he would be able to become a part of something bigger than himself, than his parents, than the island of Rhodes. The seas and the lands that sprang from those seas belonged to the rowers, he believed. They would become his, as well, he decided then and there. He had dropped the bread crust, forgetting sustenance for a moment, hungering instead for adventure.”
For me, Michael of Rhodes has already transformed from a static historical figure into a kinetic, flesh-and-blood person. My novelist’s goal is to develop him fully and vividly so that future readers feel as if they are in his good company when they read (working title) PLAGUED.
Now, back to work!

Tinney Heath says:  Thank you so much, Mary.  That was great - I, too, love that moment when a historical figure becomes real for me.   I saw a presentation at the medievalist conference at Kalamazoo once on Michael of Rhodes; I'm eager to read your book about him. 

Here's a little bit about Mary:

Mary Donnarumma Sharnick has been writing ever since the day she printed her long name on her first library card.  A native of Connecticut, she graduated from Fairfield University with a degree in English, and earned a master’s degree in Renaissance studies from Trinity College, Hartford.  Fascinated by la Serenissima and the islands of the Venetian Lagoon since her first visit in 1969, Mary has returned to Venice numerous times.  A Solo Writer’s Fellowship from the Beatrice Fox Auerbach Foundation afforded her the opportunity to live and write in Venice during July, 2010.  Mary teaches writing and chairs the English Department at Chase Collegiate School, Waterbury, Connecticut.  With her husband Wayne, she leads her writing students on “slow travel” tours of Italy, the country she considers her second home. 


Friday, December 21, 2012

The crèche at Greccio

Fresco by Giotto di Bondone, Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

Do you know the story of the first nativity scene?

Or perhaps I should say stories, for there are several.

What they all agree on is that it was the idea of St. Francis of Assisi, and that idea first became a reality in the little town of Greccio in the year 1223.

Francis and his followers had a humble sanctuary near Greccio, a former hermitage given to them by messer Giovanni di Velita, the lord of Greccio, who - like many other residents of the town - was a devout follower of Francis and a member of his Third Order.

The monastery at Greccio today

The sanctuary at Greccio was said to be Francis's favorite of the various properties he and his friars had been given by wealthy devotees, and it was here that he decided to reenact the nativity.  He planned it well ahead of time.  Ever a stickler for orthodoxy, he first asked permission of Pope Honorius III, who granted it.

Pope Honorius III, listening to St. Francis (Giotto)

Francis's followers set to work, building a stable near the town and stocking it with animals.  Some fifteen days before the event, Francis asked messer Giovanni to help prepare candles and torches for a procession.  This was done.

On Christmas Eve, when it grew dark, the friars and the townspeople formed an extraordinary candlelit procession, which wound its way slowly up the hill toward the little stable.  As Adrian House says in his biography of Francis, Francis of Assisi:  A Revolutionary Life, "The night seemed to light up like day and the woods on the hillside rang with the joy of the singing."

Once everyone was gathered around, a mass was said near the manger.  (It is sometimes said that shepherds and their flocks gathered around the edges of the crowd, but if so, there must have been some confused and sleepy sheep.)

Francis acted as deacon for the mass.  He sang the gospel and he preached on the meaning of Christmas.  It is said that he even imitated the voices of the animals as he told the Christmas story.

And then one of four things happened, according to which account you follow:

  • As Francis bent over the crib (or the manger), the figurine of the Christ child opened its eyes and smiled at him.  This was seen by a devout witness, possibly messer Giovanni. 
Benozzo Gozzoli, Chiesa di San Francesco, Montefalco
  • A newborn child from the town of Greccio was in the crib, and when Francis gathered the child in his arms, all the witnesses felt an ineffable sense of Christ's presence. 
Niccolò Circignani "Il Pomarancio", Reale Accademia di Spagna a Roma
  • There was nothing in the crib, until Francis reached in, and then - there was.  He picked up a beautiful child and held it up, where it was seen by all. 
  • No miracle occurred at all, except that the whole scene was so moving and so beautiful that it seemed unthinkable not to do it again the following Christmas.  And now, 789 years later, we still see nativity scenes of every sort - lifesize, miniature, living, simple, ornate - at this time of year.

Here are a couple of details from some very ornate Neapolitan nativity scenes:

In the painting by Giotto which heads this post and which is part of his cycle on the life of the saint in the Basilica in Assisi, the scene is set in a church rather than in a stable.  The crib is in the choir, behind a screen, and only males are inside.  The women crowd the doorway, trying to see.  Giotto has used the back of the crucifix to clarify exactly where the scene is taking place.

Not surprisingly, a reenactment is performed each year in Greccio. 

Altar at Greccio

Here is a link to a video of one such reenactment:

My best wishes to all of you for this holiday season!  - Tinney Heath

Paintings depicted in this post are in the public domain by virtue of antiquity.  Photos have all been generously released into the public domain by the photographer.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Spendthrift Brigade

Inferno, Canto 29:  Codex Altonensis, Tuscany, 1350-1410

Dante didn't think much of them, those twelve spoiled rich kids from Siena.  He made that perfectly clear in the Inferno - the relevant page is pictured above.   One can almost imagine the great poet sniffing disapprovingly as he looked down that substantial nose of his at the dastardly dozen - wastrels and profligates all.

"Now was there ever a people so foolish as the Sienese?  Certainly not [even] the French, by far!"  These are the words Dante the poet puts in the mouth of Dante the character, speaking to his guide Virgil as they observe a few unfortunate Sienese in the Inferno.  Then as now, Siena and nearby Florence did not exactly constitute a mutual admiration society.

 They were Dante's contemporaries, the members of the notorious Brigata Spendereccia (also sometimes called the Brigata Godereccia, from the verb "godere" - to enjoy).  Their reputation persists even today, when critics of certain political initiatives in Tuscany invoke the name as a way of saying "Wasteful, careless, irresponsible use of funds."

Who were these young men, and what did they do to live in infamy for the past 700+ years?  This is the season for conspicuous consumption, and in that arena we all have a lot to learn from these fellows.

They are said to have been a group of wealthy young men who pooled their resources - to the tune of 18,000 gold florins apiece.  With the resulting fund of 216,000 gold florins (estimated to be the equivalent of 12-15 million euros today), they purchased a palace and lived like kings until the money ran out.  Like very, very extravagant kings. 

They spent enormous amounts of money on fine dining, with all that accompanied it - entertainment, servants, gold and silver plate and flatware.  They each maintained a sumptuous apartment in their shared palazzo.  They were said to throw the dishes, table-ornaments, and knives of gold and silver out the window after a banquet.  If reports are to be believed, they fried gold florins and served them to one another, and they had their horses shod with silver.  Their food was prepared with the most costly spices, using them in vast excess, perhaps even cooking game birds on a fire fueled by outrageously expensive cloves.

While some of this may well be hyperbole, it's pretty obvious that these young men were out to impress.

Observers differ on how long it took them to exhaust their treasury:  10 months, two years.  No more than that.  One can imagine frantic parents, scrambling to legally emancipate their sons before the entire family fortune was eaten up by debt.  What little we know about the men suggests that some were permanently reduced to poverty, while others managed to make a fresh start and maintain a standard of living that was, if not as ridiculous as the one they had just enjoyed with the rest of the brigata, at least fairly respectable.

There's no shortage of stories about them, but it is surprisingly difficult to pin down exactly who they were.  Historians, Dante scholars, and contemporary or near-contemporary chroniclers have reached different conclusions, and as fascinating as Dante's words are, they do not clarify identities and details.  We do have enough, however, to hazard guesses about the identities of at least five possible members.

Illustration of Inferno, Canto 13:  Giovanni Stradano (aka Jan van der Straet), 1523-1605

The first brigata member that Dante encounters in the Inferno is one Lano of Siena, one of the squanderers, who is being pursued by a pack of ravenous black hounds.  Despairing, he cries out to death to hurry and save him:  "Or accorri, accorri, morte!"  We know it is Lano because his companion, Iacopo di Santo Andrea, calls him by name:  "Lano, not so nimble were your legs at the jousts at Toppo!"  (Dante translations in this post are by Robert Durling.)

So what is this cryptic reference?  For background information we turn to the many Dante commentators who lived close to the poet's own time, and they tell us that Lano is Arcolano di Squarcia Maconi, a member of the Brigata.  Boccaccio further tells us that Lano squandered his wealth.  Impoverished, the young man took part in an expedition against Arezzo in 1288, and when the Aretines ambushed the Sienese, Lano allowed himself to be slain, even though he could have escaped, rather than continue to live in poverty.  This ambush took place at the Pieve del Toppo.  Thus, Lano twice sought death, but in the Inferno there will be no cessation to his torment.

The pursuing hounds are sometimes interpreted as demons, as in this illustration:

Inferno, Canto 13:  Giovanni di Paolo (1403-1483)

The other four Brigata members in the Inferno are made known to us much deeper in Hell, all the way down in Canto 29.   A nasty, scabrous fellow named Capocchio ("Blockhead") tells us about them, though we don't actually see them or hear them speak. 

Capocchio says, in response to Dante's remark about the Sienese (above):

"Except for Stricca, he knew how to spend moderately,
    and Nicholas, who first discovered the rich custom of cloves, in the garden where that seed takes root,
    and except for the crew for whom Caccia d'Asciano used up his vineyard and his great farmlands, and to whom Bedazzled displayed his wisdom."

Taking the four one at a time, let's start with Stricca.  

Again, the commentators provide much fascinating background. Modern interpreters tell us that Capocchio's description of Stricca's spending as moderate is ironic, though I would have thought sarcastic was a better term.  Who was he?  Several persons with the same or similar names have been suggested.  Most popular is the idea that he was the son of Giovanni Salimbeni, which is to say, a member of one of Siena's most prominent families, and that the next man on our list, Niccolò, was his brother. 

However, there are those who hold that Stricca was of the Tolomei family (another prominent Sienese clan), in which the name Baldistricca (Stricca for short) recurred.  

Assuming that he was the Salimbeni Stricca, he was probably a city official (despite his youth and profligacy), and he served as podestà in Bologna (in 1276 and again in 1286, a lucrative position that could have gone a long way toward reestablishing his fortune), and possibly in other cities as well.  We know little more about him.

His brother Niccolò, however - if brother he was - is known as the clove guy.  That is to say, he's the one who either (depending on how you read it) stuffed gamebirds with the wildly expensive spice, or grilled them over a fire composed of cloves, or simply had his meat cooked with a lot of cloves.

Niccolò was either a Salimbeni or a Bonsignori.  Again, we're not certain, though most commentators say Salimbeni.  If the former, then he was Stricca's brother, assuming Stricca was a Salimbeni and not a Tolomei; if the latter, then he wasn't.  It appears there may have been two men by that name, and of those two families, in the Brigata.  Also, just to complicate matters, there may have been more than one brigata.

I rather arbitrarily favor the idea that he was of the Bonsignori clan, if only because I have a bit more information about him if that is the case.  If this is true, he was a knight, a staunch Ghibelline, the warrior who captained the Sienese at the battle of Castiglion d'Orcia in 1279, a supporter of Henry VII of Luxembourg, and he lived an active life at least until 1314, which is the last we hear of him.

A recipe book by Niccolò's cook has survived the centuries.  It's entitled "Il libro delle vivande trovate dalla brigata" (the book of foods for the brigata) and includes recipes "per dodici ghiotti" (for twelve gluttons).

Next comes Caccia d'Asciano, whose historical identity doesn't seem to be quite as controversial as the previous two.  Caccia (short for Caccianemico) was the son of a knight, messer Trovato degli Scialenghi.  "Caccianemico" is one of those gloriously descriptive Italian names that means something like "Hunts his enemy."  We know of Caccia only that his spendthrift ways cost him (and his family) a vineyard and other lands in Asciano, near Siena. 

And finally, there's l'Abbagliato.  This nickname is usually translated as "Bedazzled," though at least one modern scholar thinks the intent was closer to "Sucker."  Be that as it may, l'Abbagliato historically was Bartolomeo dei Folcacchieri.  His brother was known as a comic poet.  We know of l'Abbagliato that he was once fined for drinking in a place where it was forbidden, and that later he played a leading role in Sienese politics and often served as podestà in other cities.  He died in 1300. 

All of that dining must have required some drinking, too
So.  We don't know who all of these men were; we don't know with certainty that all of them were in the brigata; we don't know that there was only one brigata.  And yet, the legend persists.  Perhaps it would have persisted even without Dante, at least locally; we'll never know.

The poet Folgore da San Gimignano also wrote of a similar brigata (and may have been a member), but he was born in 1270, so he must have been writing about a later group, although the idea of lavish spending on fleshly pleasures seems to have carried through. 

So, as you do your holiday shopping and worry about the state of your credit cards, remember the brigata, and then you can feel fiscally virtuous by comparison.

Images in this post are in the public domain by virtue of expired copyright, except for the photo of  cloves, which has been released into the public domain by the photographer.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Here, there, hither and yon

See these books?  It's really all their fault that you're not getting a proper blog post this week.  You see, there's this pesky thing called "marketing" that an author has to do these days, in order to sell any books.

And because I've been concentrating on that, rather than on bringing you my usual ridiculously longwinded historical posts, I don't have much for you this week.  However, if you want to read about my books, I can point you to some other places on the blogosphere (I know, it's an irritating term, isn't it?) where I am popping up lately.

First, Deborah Swift, author of the acclaimed novels The Lady's Slipper and The Gilded Lily, was gracious enough to allow me to post a description of how I came to write A Thing Done.  It's on her wonderful blog, Royalty Free Fiction, which features historical fiction without any kings or queens - I thought it was a great idea, and was happy to be able to post there.  If you're curious, you can read my post here.

Next, Kim Rendfeld, author of The Cross and the Dragon, invited me to do a guest post for her.  We agreed on a topic which merged my interest in Dante's Florence with hers in the time of Charlemagne, and my post (in two parts) will appear on her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist on Tuesday, December 11 and Wednesday, December 12, preceded by her introduction on Monday, December 10.  Kim is a fellow Fireship Press author, and her debut novel has been getting some great reviews.

And finally, Sandy Frykholm, who blogs about The Italian South, also asked me to do a guest post, and that one appeared on Friday, December 14.  Take a look at Sandy's blog for some wonderful pictures, and also for travel, historical, and culinary information (including some fabulous recipes).  For Sandy, I wrote a post about Sicilian puppets.

There are more things in the works, on many different blogs:  blog posts, reviews, interviews, excerpts, and giveaways.  For a complete schedule, see the News page on my website.

But I haven't forgotten this, my own blog.  Watch this space next week for a description of a group of 13th century spendthrifts from Siena, who took conspicuous consumption to its (il)logical extreme.  Perhaps I should have run it on Black Friday, but as we are still in the max-out-your-credit-cards season, I think it will still be timely.

Meanwhile, here's your blogger, trying to get in the mood for all of this marketing stuff:

Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Hospital with a Venerable History

Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, Florence

L'Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, the early years 

This large, sleek, modern-yet-ancient hospital in Florence, considered the city's most important medical facility, is also its oldest.  This hospital has been caring for Florentines and visitors to the city since the late 13th century.

It all started with one man, and one woman.  But before we get to them, let's take a brief look at exactly what a hospital was, and wasn't, in that distant time and place.

First, it was not necessarily a place where people went to receive medical care.  Rather, it served one or both of two functions (with perhaps some overlap):  hospitality for travelers, and succor for the poor and infirm.  In addition to providing for its resident clientele, hospitals often set up soup kitchens and gave alms to the needy of the neighborhood.

Of the hospitals and hospices that were already in operation in Florence at the time Santa Maria Nuova came into being, several were administered by religious orders by and for their own members (the same would soon be true of lay confraternities and artisan guilds).  Many were small, with just a few beds.  They tended to be located outside the city walls (the better to serve the needs of travelers, perhaps).

The people who worked in them were often lay religious:  penitents, in some but not all cases bound by vows of poverty and chastity, probably clothed in a simple habit, and acting out of religiously-inspired charity (and sometimes as a sort of insurance policy - widows and single women, for example, sought these positions in order to have a roof over their heads and food to eat as they grew older). 

Ancient facade of the Ospedale, by Fabio Borbottoni

By the time Santa Maria Nuova was founded in the late 1280s, hospitals were beginning to put more emphasis on nursing the sick.  Santa Maria Nuova was to become something of a pioneering institution in this effort, offering medical care at a time when some older hospitals still concentrated mainly on hospitality and poverty relief.

Santa Maria Nuova, which grew up around the ancient church of Sant'Egidio,  began with a  generous bequest by a man named Folco Portinari, in his last will and testament written in 1288.  Patronage of the rapidly-growing institution stayed in the hands of the (male) members of his family for many generations, including the right to elect the hospital administrator (spedalingo).  And the nucleus of the corps of nurses was the lay religious order established by Portinari's servingwoman, monna Tessa.

Consecration of Sant'Egidio by Pope Martin V, Bicci di Lorenzo

Sant'Egidio today

Folco Portinari

Folco di Ricovero Portinari is perhaps best known to history as the father of Dante's inspiration and beloved, Beatrice.  But he was more than that:  banker, elected city official on several occasions, philanthropist, usurer (by the standards of his day), and, in Dante's words, "a man of great goodness" as well as a man of great wealth.

Folco made his fortune in banking.  Thus, inevitably he practiced what the church then called usury, for he lent money at interest and collected the profits.  According to the strict definition of usury, money should not create wealth - only the work a person does should create wealth.  And yet, then as now, people went into business with the intent to better their situation, and they made investments, and they gave and took out loans.  This uneasy tension was often resolved by a deathbed charitable bequest meant to cancel out any sinfully usurious behavior in the decedent's professional life.

In addition to the hospital, Folco was wealthy enough to dower his four unmarried daughters generously, leave bequests to the families of his two married daughters (one of them was Beatrice), and to provide well for his wife, his natural sister, and his five sons, as well as to make donations to many charitable institutions, including other pre-existing hospitals.  Folco and his son Manetto, who was a friend of Dante's, and his grandson Accerito were all buried in the chapel of the male ward of Santa Maria Nuova.

Stemma of the Portinari
 Monna Tessa

Monna Tessa was Folco Portinari's servant, said to have been the nurse/educator of his children.  She was born to a humble family and married a saddlemaker named Ture.  Tradition says it was this pious woman who persuaded Folco to found a hospital to serve the poor and the elderly and infirm.

In 1288, coincident with Folco's bequest to the hospital, monna Tessa founded the Order of the Oblates, a lay order of Franciscan tertiaries, women who pledged themselves to a life of poverty and service to the poor.  Although the Order ran the hospital without a written rule for years, in 1301 a rule was established, formalizing the organization.  Among the women who followed Tessa's lead were several of noble families, including Margherita dei Caponsacchi, a relative of Folco Portinari's wife Celia Caponsacchi.  Monna Tessa died in 1327, and she was buried in the church of the hospital she had helped to found.

Monna Tessa

What was it like, this new hospital?  It seems likely that for a few years monna Tessa had already been caring for the sick on a small scale - perhaps half a dozen beds, with two patients to a bed, in some of the city houses owned by Folco Portinari, but the will took everything to a new level.

Folco supplied "seventeen beds furnished with straw mattresses, blankets, sheets, covers, feather pillows and bedsteads, which have already been put in place in the said hospital for the use of the poor."  Originally these beds must have been situated in houses privately owned by Folco, but it wasn't long before circumstances made it possible to begin work on a new hospital complex.

Land became available just outside the 12th century walls surrounding the city, when the construction of new walls, needed to encompass much more area for the growing city, meant that the old walls were torn down, in part to provide construction materials.  This cleared enough space to begin building the hospital, which is located on a street called via delle Pappe, after the bread soup the hospital once served to the poor and the sick, and it parallels a street that today is named after Folco Portinari.

The other factor making the hospital site available was that the monastery running the church of Sant'Egidio had been suppressed by Pope Gregory X in 1274, which had allowed Folco to purchase a lot of the adjacent land.

The first hospital ward housed male patients.  A few more years would have to pass before the women got their own new wing, which was begun in the first decade of the 14th century and completed some 70 years later.  (Presumably, in the interim female patients were cared for much as before, in privately owned houses.)

By 1334, the men's ward - an open ward design, with beds along two facing walls - attained an extension at right angles to the earlier construction, a step toward its later cruciform shape.  At the angle of the two wards, hospital personnel had all their charges in their line of sight.  Equally important, when daily mass was conducted in this spot, at the altar of St. Luke, all the patients could see the elevation of the host.

The hospital was to grow apace, adding many more beds, laundry facilities, expanded kitchen facilities, and much more of the services needed to care for a growing patient population.  At first, hospital personnel shopped for medicines and medical supplies at an apothecary shop in town, just as people caring for the sick at home did.

The local pharmacy

But eventually, the hospital even added its own pharmacy on site, the better to serve its patients. 

Maiolica jar used in the pharmacy of Santa Maria Nuova

The process of "medicalization" moved along rapidly for the first fifty years of Santa Maria Nuova's existence.  Its 1330 statutes stipulate that its function was "the good service of the poor sick" - no longer just the poor.  Significantly, the statues dictated that no person who was not sick could remain in the hospital for more than three consecutive days without the knowledge (and, presumably, the permission) of the patrons.  And those, of course, would have been the Portinari.

With medicalization comes a need for trained medical personnel.  From 1325 to 1331 the hospital employed seven medical specialists, including maestro Silvestro, who had a regular salary and was referred to as "nostro medico."  Others served as consultants:  ser Cione, who treated wounds and other lesions, and maestro Filippo, who treated eyes (probably by removing cataracts).  Other doctors were paid for various "medicines and syrups."

A hundred years into Santa Maria Nuova's history, it had three junior doctors in residence and several more senior doctors who visited daily, prescribing treatments and medicines which were administered by the nurses under the supervision of the junior doctors.  The visiting physicians received 24 florins a year, the barber-surgeons 14, and the resident doctors served in exchange for room and board and the chance to gain clinical experience.

Women patients were seen by women "well skilled in surgery."

As for the hospital's other employees, monna Tessa's oblates probably managed without much additional help in the early days, but as the institution grew, so did its need for workers.  Nurses and administrators alike were typically without medical training.  They often lived on the premises, in dormitory-style accommodations, and ate communally.

The ceremony for accepting a new employee - a penitent, committed to the care of patients - was not unlike the entry into a religious order.  There was an investiture ceremony held in the presence of the spedalingo (head administrator) in the hospital chapel, in which "girl novices" knelt, asked "God's mercy and that of His most holy mother Virgin Mary and your honest and good company."  Priests sang psalms, and the girls exchanged their clothing for the simple gray habits they would wear from that time on.  Each worker had the hospital's seal, a crutch cut from red or green cloth, attached to the shoulder of his or her habit.

In addition to nursing, the hospital needed people to cook, clean, garden (growing and harvesting medicinal herbs), and do laundry.  The hospital was known for its chicken soup, apparently thought to be restorative even then.  They served the most seriously ill patients a soup of pureed chicken - no thin broth, this - and an appropriate wine of good quality:  white, red, smooth, sweet, or dry, according to the patient's diagnosis.  In the early 16th century the hospital was purchasing 40,000 chickens and 80,000 eggs annually.

As for the laundry, freshly laundered linens were stretched out to dry on the upper terraces of the hospital buildings.  In 1454, the linen at another Florentine hospital (San Matteo) consisted of 150 pairs of sheets, 50 pillows and cushions, 200 napkins, 189 bedshirts (some new and some old), and 150 used aprons.  It must have been quite a chore.

By the time the plague struck Florence in 1348, Santa Maria Nuova could care for 220 patients.  It did take in plague victims, then and during later outbreaks; by 1464 Florence's government had realized the risk of spreading infection by this practice, but there wasn't much of an alternative in place, and so the hospital continued to manage as best it could. 

One outcome of the huge population loss caused by the plague, which wiped out entire branches of families, was that hospitals and other charitable institutions profited greatly from charitable bequests, as frightened people strove to save their souls, or simply had no living family left to receive an inheritance.

Chronicler Matteo Villani, speaking of this windfall of bequests, said, "The bequests to the hospital are well made, because the hospital gives much alms and is always full of sick men and women, who are cared for and treated with great diligence and abundance of food and medicines, and is administered by men and women of holy life."

Others thought well of Santa Maria Nuova, too, both elsewhere in Italy and in the rest of Europe.  When Henry VII of England wanted to set up the Savoy Hospital in London, he requested a copy of the "Ordinamenti" of Santa Maria Nuova, a document which was presented to him by Francesco Portinari, then a papal legate to the English court.

Henry VII

Martin Luther, who may have been resident in Santa Maria Nuova for a time, praised "the finest food and drink, attentive service, very learned physicians and clean beds."  Of course, it is true that nobles and churchmen in need of a hospital's services may have received Cadillac service compared to the paupers, but it does appear that Santa Maria Nuova maintained high standards for its time, throughout its long history.

Martin Luther

I'd like to mention one other prominent Tuscan, from Prato, a near neighbor to Florence.  This man, a wealthy merchant, had his own special connections to Santa Maria Nuova.

Francesco Datini

 "The Merchant of Prato," as he is known, lived from 1335-1410.  Although his main residence was in Prato, he did a lot of business in Florence and often stayed there for extended periods.  His personal relationship with Santa Maria Nuova began in 1392, when his slave Lucia gave birth to his daughter, Ginevra.  The child, apparently not welcomed by Datini's wife Margherita, was given into the care of Santa Maria Nuova, which, in addition to all its other functions, accepted and placed unwanted children. Santa Maria Nuova arranged for a wet-nurse and a foster family for little Ginevra.  In 1398, when the child was six, Francesco and Margherita, otherwise childless, welcomed her back to their home.  There is every evidence that both of them doted on the girl, and eventually they dowered her lavishly and married her to someone close to the family.

Francesco, mindful of what Santa Maria Nuova had done for his daughter, left the institution a large bequest to set up a foundling hospital.  The silk guild (Por Santa Maria, which had been Folco Portinari's guild) took over the project in 1419, and the eventual result was the Ospedale degli Innocenti.

The "baby hatch," where foundlings were left at the Ospedale degli Innocenti

Francesco Datini
Francesco Datini's close friend, the notary ser Lapo Mazzei, was employed as Santa Maria Nuova's notary for nearly 20 years.  For his salary of 10 florins a month, he administered at least 50 properties, visiting fields and vineyards and supervising farm workers.  He distributed alms to the poor, including "monies and gowns and dowries."  He ordered supplies, sometimes from his wealthy friend:  for example, 300 blankets for the hospital beds.

It was a job he loved.  He wrote, "I know no man who has greater freedom than I.  I am fettered neither by relations nor friends nor sects.  Yet I keep a yoke upon my neck, for it is this that I desire to be."  That yoke was his service to Santa Maria Nuova.

Images in this post include our own photo of the statue of Francesco Datini; twelve public domain images; and the following images by Sailko, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 license, via Wikimedia Commons:  Ospedale, Sant'Egidio, Portinari arms, monna Tessa,  and maiolica jar .