Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital Rome

The Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital is one of the oldest hospitals in Europe and is located in the Borgo district of Rome, a short distance from the Vatican City. The building also hosts a small museum.

Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital Rome


Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital Rome
Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital

The Ospedale di Santo Spirito in Saxia was commissioned by Pope Innocenzo III (who held the office from 1198 to 1216). An angel had told him in a dream to build a hospital for the elderly and for young abandoned girls and women, who, according to the winged one, might otherwise drown their unwanted children in the river. The hospital was to be built on the banks of the Tiber. The Pope did not built the hospital from scratch, but expanded the already existing one founded by the Schola Saxonum.

To the left of the monumental gate, the foundling hatch can still be seen where unwanted children could be left anonymously. These children then received a double cross on their left foot and were placed in the “wheel of the innocent” (ruota degli innocenti) for people who might want to adopt them. They were registered as filius m. ignotae, or “child of unknown m(other).” However, everyone read it as filius mignotae, and thus the Roman word mignotta, or “prostitute,” was born.

History Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital Rome

Construction began in 1198. It was done on land belonging to the British Schola Saxonum. As a result, permission had to be sought first from the English King John Lackland.

The architect was Marchionne d’Arezzo.

To manage the institute, Pope Innocenzo III enlisted the help of Guido di Montpellier. The latter had founded the religious Santo Spirito fraternity in southern France to help the sick. Originally called Santa Maria in Saxia, it soon became Santo Spirito in Saxia, after the associated church next-door.

Starting in 1204, the hospital received income from the London Writtle church by order of John Lackland.

By the end of the Middle Ages, it was able to nurse 300 sick people and provide medical care to another 700.

In 1414, the hospital ran out of money and it was not until 1475, under Sixtus IV, that it was restored. The old buildings were demolished and the architects Baccio Pontelli, Giovanni de’ Gherarducci and Andrea Bregno were commissioned to build a new hospital.

The most striking feature is the octagonal drum, which divided the so-called Ala Sistina (“Sistine Wing”) into two corridors. The drum was designed by Giovanni Pietro Ghirarducci. The interior is decorated with shell-shaped niches containing statues of the apostles. The altar in the center was the work of Palladio.

The beds, arranged in rows along the wall, resembled thrones. In cases of epidemics, additional beds called cariolas were added.

The walls are decorated with some 50 paintings illustrating the early history of the hospital, plus important events in the life of Pope Sixtus IV. Antoniazzo Romano contributed some of the paintings.

In the 17th century, Alexander VII had a second wing added and the facade was also renovated.

A third wing, designed by Ferdinando Fuga at the behest of Benedict XIV, followed in 1742. This was pulled down toward the end of the 19th century to make way for the massive building on the riverfront.

A final renovation in 1926 restored the 15th-century facade.

The entire complex

Museo dell’Arte Sanitaria

The Museo Nazionale dell’Arte Sanitaria is a museum attached to the hospital and founded in 1933. The collection consists mainly of surgical instruments in use between the 15th and 19th centuries.

Other highlights are the first carriage used by the Red Cross, and reconstructions of an ancient pharmacy and an alchemical laboratory.

There is also a skull from the Boscoreale Archaeological site (near Pompei).

Visiting the museum

Reservations: +39 06 6833262 of 06 6893051. Opening hours: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 08:30 till 12:30.

Palazzo del Commendatore

The building on the Borgo di Santo Spirito, 3 is the Palazzo del Commendatore. It was built between 1567 and 1571 by Nanni di Baccio Bigi. This was done on the ruins of an earlier construction that had been destroyed in the 14th century during the Sack of Rome.

Santo Spirito in Sassia Church

The complex also includes a church, called the Santo Spirito in Sassia Church.

Santo Spirito in Saxia Hospital, Rome