A majestic cycle of 15th-century frescoes in the ancient hospital of Siena
In the frescoes of Pilgrim’s Hall (Sala del Pellegrinaio), Santa Maria della Scala is depicted through anectdotes, images and faces. Located inside the wing of the ancient hospital in which pilgrims, wayfarers and the sick were housed, it’s one of the most prestigious testimonies to the evocative artistic journey of Santa Maria della Scala. It’s accessed through the Passeggio, a large vaulted room, completely renovated in the early 17th century, facing several exhibition spaces, including the San Pio room.
Clearly of French derivation (there are numerous examples of longitudinal spaces in Cistercian buildings from the 12th century onwards), Pilgrim’s Hall further emphasises the city‘s intense European contacts, privileged by its location on Via Francigena, as we have discovered visiting many other sites.
The construction of this scenic aisle is made unique by the light that floods it as it enters through the window on one of the two short sides; this part dates back to the third decade of the 14th century, although the final structural layout dates to around 1380.
This space was particularly important because it was at the centre of the complex and because of the special care shown to pilgrims passing through on their way to Rome or returning from the city. The Sienese were well aware that this very flow had triggered the city’s fortunes,allowing an extraordinary number of people (and therefore goods and capital) to pass through since the Via Cassia had been diverted in the early Middle Ages.
At the beginning of the 15th century, the dangerous wooden roof was replaced with the present six vaults and the original capitals were made, also clearly in a French style. In the second half of the 16th century, the last bay was finally added near the window overlooking the valley below of Fosso di Sant’Ansano.
What most captivates the eye in Pilgrim’s Hall is certainly the large pictorial cycle that adorns its walls.Around 1441, the hospital rector Giovanni di Francesco Buzzichelli called in two Sienese painters to carry out this work: Lorenzo Vecchietta and Domenico di Bartolo. They were joined by Priamo della Quercia for one of the stories.
The rector’s choice also marked a significant change in a strongly humanistic sense, with new compositions governed by a rigorous, revolutionary perspective at a time when such novelties were not fully assimilated even in Florence.
The fresco cycle is located on the four central bays of the Pillgrim’s Hall. In the first bay from the square, you can still glimpse some traces of frescoes probably from earlier paintings depicting the Stories of Tobias, also by Vecchietta, along with Luciano di Giovanni da Velletri.
The subject of the frescoes was the history and mission of the hospital, which didn’t use the model of the religious cycles depicted on several panels, but rather that of the profane compositions that predominantly illustrated cycles of chivalry or in any case ‘civil’ stories on the walls of the reception rooms of private residences or in the halls of public palaces. This revision in a Renaissance key was intended to detach the subjects of the frescoes from religious themes and focus on the illustration of the secular myths of the institution’s foundation or on the realistic depiction of the acts of piety that marked its daily life.
The very use of perspective, which creates imaginative yet realistic backdrops, was a highly innovative choice, ahead even of the Florentines. The latter had invented it some twenty-five years earlier but it struggled to take off despite the early pioneers.
On the other hand, the vaults were frescoed by the Bolognese Agostino di Marsilio with saints (in the arches) and prophets (in the sails) between 1440 and 1462. The vault of the last bay also dates back to the 16th century.
Of all the frescoes in the Pilgrim’s Hall, the The Care of the Sick is undoubtedly the best known and the one that perhaps best illustrates the activity carried out within the hospital. Critics have identified the two rooms that intersect at the centre of the scene as the current Passeggio and San Pio rooms.
Through a careful reading of this painting, scholars have been able to provide a precise reconstruction of some of the hospital’s rooms, meticulously documenting its daily life, punctuated from the beginning of the 14th century by strict statutory provisions.
In the centre are the rector, the hospital friars and, beside them, the surgeon. On the left, physical medicine is depicted with an assistant laying a sick person on a stretcher and two doctors consulting on the urine contained in the glass container. In the centre, lower down, a young man injured in the thigh is washed by an orderly before surgery. On the right, a patient is confessing to a monk, while two orderlies are carrying a stretcher.
If you want to immerse yourself in the Middle Ages and see a glimpse of the daily life of the ancient hospital and the life that went on around it, Pilgrim’s Hall is definitely the place to go.