Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© Jeff Matthews   entry Oct 2004  update June 2014

1. The Hospital for the Incurable    2.  Public Health & Hospitals under the Bourbons

pharmacy in the
                  "Incurabili"Charles VIII of France invaded Naples in the late 1490's. This attempt to take over southern Italy failed, and he was sent packing back to France. The kingdom of Naples then became part of the Spanish Empire for the next two centuries. The French left a small gift in Naples. It is called "the French disease" by Neapolitans. (Yes, I am aware that the French call it "the Neapolitan disease". At the time, the Neapolitans also called it the "Spanish disease"; Russians have called it the "Polish disease", and the Muslims have called it the "Christian disease".) Dispensing with jingoist slander, doctors call it treponema Pallidum, and thanks to a poem published in 1530 by Girolamo Fracastro about a poor shepherd with the disease, the rest of the world just calls it "syphilis".

The disease was so deadly that those who contracted it were considered beyond help and there arose almost simultaneously throughout Italy a number of institutions for those afflicted—the incurable. One of the first and best-known of these hospitals still stands today as a modern medical facility in Naples. It is the church/hospital complex of Santa Maria del Popolo degli Incurabili located one block into the old historic city from the Porta San Gennaro entrance at Piazza Cavour.

The "Incurabili" was built in 1521. The construction was the direct result of the work and influence of a Catalonian woman, Maria Longo, wife of one of the first Spanish viceroys in Naples. She was stricken with paralysis in the early 1500s; she was miraculously cured, and devoted the rest of her life to caring for the ill. The hospital grew as a church/hospital complex around a nucleus of small monastic communities all founded at the bidding of Maria Longo, who, herself, guided the work and administration of the "Incurabili" until shortly before her death in 1541.

The hospital was the first institution of its kind in an area of Naples that centuries later would become a modern hospital zone, the "Polyclinic" of Naples, housing a medical school, as well; many medieval buildings were razed to make room for the new medical facility, and, as well, some older buildings were converted to hospital use, chiefly the massive monastery of Sant'Andrea delle Dame at the very top of the hill above the "Incurabili". The "Incurabili" was originally larger than the hospital one sees today, having spread down the slope to the northern walls of the old city. That section was destroyed by bombardment in WW2, and in that breached section of wall now stands one of the ugliest buildings in Naples, the gigantic Salvator Rosa High School, a gray cement monolith so tall that from across the street at the National Museum, you'd never guess there was a hill behind it at all.

The "Incurabili" is still a hospital and because of its religious origins it houses a number of works of art by prominent artists of the Neapolitan Baroque, such as Belisario Corenzio (1568-1643). The facility also bears the signs of the large-scale reconstruction of 1730, designed by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, the architect responsible for better known things in Naples, such as the spectacular courtyard of Santa Chiara. On the premises, as well, is a very interesting historical pharmacy (photo, above), the result of construction done in 1750. Of interest are the 400 unique jars and vases used in the pharmacy in the 1700s, as well as the majolica floor tiles. (As of this writing—August 2004—the pharmacy is being restored and is not open to the public. )

There is a very long list of notable doctors and humanitarians connected with the "Incurabili" hospital. Worthy of note most recently is Giuseppe Moscati (1881-1927). He was an early experimenter in the use of insulin to combat diabetes (from which he, himself, suffered); he was a prominent lecturer in medicine (a position that he gave up in order to devote more of his time to direct contact with patients); he was active in providing for victims of the great 1906 eruption of Vesuvius as well as in caring for the thousands of WW1 wounded sent to Naples for care. His benevolence was proverbial. Moscati was beatified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1975 and canonized in 1987.

update: June 2014                          It will help to read the item above this one

2. Public Health and Hospitals under the Bourbons
    A portable pharmacy on display at the exhibit   
That was the title of an essay by Gigi Di Fiore that appeared in April in the pages of the Neapolitan daily, Il Mattino. It calls attention to a fine exhibit of that same name running through mid-July on the premises of the Incurabili, the hospital described in item #1, above. The exhibit displays period medical instruments, documents and books on the state of public health during the Bourbon period (1735-1860). The exhibit is the brainchild of prof. Gennaro Rispoli, who has dedicated himself to rediscovering the history of the medical profession in Naples and in southern Italy in general.

Di Fiore makes the point that the idea of public health and hospitals was born with donations, primarily from religious sources, benevolent acts from noble families who "thus hoped to gain a piece of Paradise." That is why many of these sanitary structures had their beginnings on the premises of ancient monasteries and convents. In Naples these early hospitals were in the center of the old city and go back to the times of the Spanish vice-realm (1500-1700). Many of them still exist as working hospitals and may be visited, such as Incurabili, Pellegrini, Hospital della Pace, Ascalesi and Elena d'Aosta.  Further, "Naples was a city of doctors who were innovative and experimenters in their fields: Domenico Cotugno, Domenico Cirillo, Antonio Sementini, Michele Sarcone, and, later, Camillo De Meis, Pietro Ramaglia, Francesco Semmola, Vincenzo Lanza, and Ferdinando Palasciano. "They brought with them the culture of the Enlightenment, had the support of the royal court and were open to new ideas." The exhibit at the Incurabili puts particular emphasis on that hospital. Colleagues came from elsewhere in Europe to see how the Incurabili handled obstetrics and urology. Here is where they used the first catheters, experimented with electrical analysis equipment and did pioneering work in forensic medicine and autopsies.

Ferdinand IV of Bourbon (king of Naples from 1759-1825) was among the first to tout the benefit of vaccination against small-pox. He and his queen consort, Maria Carolina, set the example for their subjects by getting vaccinated in order to convince them that there was no danger. In 18 years in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, there were two million such vaccinations. Central hospitals in the kingdom grew in number to 80. At the Incurabili,  there were three clinics: Obstetrics, Surgery and Ophthalmology plus the large and sumptuous Pharmacy (photo in the above entry). The Incurabili, as well, functioned as a mental hospital until 1812 when a special facility was built in Aversa . There were 23 doctors and 10 surgeons at the Incurabili making daily rounds. They were hired by examination after getting a degree in medicine, attested to by a certificate signed by the king. Upon the unification of Italy, those doctors were required to be re-certified through another exam. The new conqueror kingdom and unifier of the nation, the northern house of Savoy, demanded it of the defeated south. "Humiliating," says Di Fiore. Indeed.

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