The ancient hospital of Saint John of God in Florence

This hospital, on the street of Borgo Ognissanti dates back to the 14th century. In 1382, its founder Simone Vespucci dedicated the hospital. Its name, Santa Maria dell'Umiltà (of Humility), probably comes from the nearby convent of the same name. Vespucci, a merchant and silkmaker was also the first administrator and patron of the hospital, along with being the great uncle of the more famous Amerigo.

Antico Ospedale di San Giovanni di Dio

In 1400, the hospital passed from the Vespucci to the captains of Bigallo; the latter had been given charge of the supervision and management of small hospitals in the city and surrounding countryside. The Hospitaller Order of Saint John of God's involvement in this hospital's activity began on February 4th 1588 when Grand Duke Ferdinand I accorded possession of the hospital buildings and grounds to the brothers of Saint John of God.

This event coincided with a serious and widespread climate of pauperism which was the result of repeated famines and epidemics which had particularly struck the inhabitants of the surrounding countryside. The famine provoked a literal invasion of the city led mostly by peasants, who were forced there by the need to find food and work. What further complicated the work of the new occupants of the hospital was that it was left to them bare of materials and in a sorry state.

Even at this early date, the city of Florence's health-care system was already quite advanced and specialised. The hospitals were therefore not prepared to deal with this problem which had little to do with health-care and everything to do with charity on a large scale.

The simple activity of accepting the infirm which distinguishes Florence in the entire XVII century is owed to the daily commitment which was practised principally in temporary treatments, medications, tooth extractions, bleedings etc. of the area's residents and especially practised on the poor and vagrant beggars who found themselves in this same street and in the area surrounding Santa Maria Novella.

It was in the XVIII Century that the hospital assumed a civil nature, regarding both the building and the services rendered. The role of the hospital, managed by the faithful already known as "Fatebenefratelli" (by the invitation to passers-by to donate funds) and also known as "brothers of the basket" due to the big basket used by them in their daily "searches" according to the teachings of the founder. In the 1700's in fact, the brothers obtained a yearly subsidy of approximately 800 scudos from the Medicean government to help cure the sick and improve the conditions of the local people.

Among these works, we find Carlo Marcellini, the author of the Church's facade and a new organisation of the hospital complex. To this day the facade is still buried under the later facade of Pier Antonio Tosi of the late 1700's and under that of Ignazio Villa in the second half of the 19th Century.

At the end of the century and still more in the next, the recognition of the works of the Brothers of Saint John of God was witnessed by the legacy which, finally, came to constitute a considerable patrimony equal to the other grand Florentine institutions and principally consisting of the two farms of Ruballa and Santa Gonda, in large part coming from the bequest of Laura Salviati d'Atri.

Just after the Unification of Italy in 1866, the restriction of religious orders by the new Italian government, the Order's management of the hospital came to an end. Though they remained in the hospital as doctors and nurses, they had to turn the administration of the hospital over to an administrative commission. 1890 was another date of legislative upheaval for the medical profession, and finally at the beginning of the 20th century, management was handed over to an administrative council.

Made beautiful throughout the years by distinguished works, such as sculptor Carlo Marcellini's beautiful facade of the hospital's church and the splendid staircase of the Ticciati, the ancient hospital of Saint John of God in Borgo Ognissanti ceased to exist in 1982. Its plant and equipment became the property of the city of Florence.

The Church of Santa Maria dell'Umiltà

In 1635, on the right of the hospital of San Giovanni di Dio the Church of Santa Maria dell'Umiltà (from the name of the old Vespucci hospital) was built. At the beginning of the 18th century, after the canonisation of Giovanni di Dio, restoration of the entire hospital complex was begun by the architect Carlo Marcellini. His not so easy task was exchanging the floorplan of the church with that of the hospital. The layout of the buildings had already been changed more than once by the hospital workers of San Giovanni di Dio (see the first view of the ancient hospital, sketched on the margin of the genealogical tree of the Vespucci).

Construction of a new church was begun on November 22, 1701. The foundation was laid for the apse where the stall had been located. The dome which covered it was frescoed first by Alessandro Gherardini and then completed by the late seventeenth century Hungarian painter Giuseppe Dorffmeister. The perimeter walls of the infirmary became those of the nave and the altars and gravestones of the ancient church were recovered and incorporated into the seventeenth century furnishings.

Funding for the restoration and construction came from contributions collected by the brothers and from a doctor of the royal court, Tommaso Puccini.

The erection of the Church's facade was begun in 1707 together with the restoration of the entire hospital in large part by funding and solidarity of the Brothers in the Roman province. The work of the church's facade involved notable technical difficulties due to the limited space available but the result achieved by Marcellini exceeded every expectation.

The interior is a single nave and along the walls, two to each side, are four altars. There is also a beautiful Madonna and Child with Saint Anne painted by Alessandro Gherardini. Recently the bells was restored, as shown in this movie .

The Church of San Salvatore and the convent of Ognissanti

Just up the street of Borgo Ognissanti is the Church of San Salvatore di Ognissanti, founded by the religious Order of the Umiliati between 1251 and 1260, together with the convent of the same name. When the Order of the Umiliati was dissolved, both the convent and the church passed into the hands of the Franciscans in 1571 who began restoration work. On the occasion of the church's consecration in 1582, the title 'San Salvatore' was added.

In 1627 the Franciscans, under the architect Sebastiano Pettirossi, resumed restoration and in 1637 Matteo Nigetti also tried his hand on the facade. It was redone again in travertine in 1872 and this time completed. The fourteenth century belltower is original and remains intact.

Inside the church is the chapel of the Vespucci family whose home was in Borgo Ognissanti. A fresco of Ghirlandaio depicts the entire family including the young Amerigo, born in 1453.

The tomb of Sandro Botticelli (Sandro Filipepi) is located in the church as well. He was the son of a leather worker who worked on the same street and brother of "Botticello" from whom he took his artist's name.

The convent had two cloisters - one large and the other somewhat smaller. The larger cloister, frescoed in 1600, gave off to the chapter-house, apothecary and refectory. The refectory's back wall depicts a Last Supper by Domenico Ghirlandaio and nearby, a Saint Augustine of Botticelli.

In 1602, medallions with Franciscan saints and others were painted above the doors of the cells in the smaller cloister, possibly the work of Tommaso Pavietti.

In 1634 the paving of both cloister floors was provided for but the larger one was not completed until 1772. This lasted until 1966 when the flood of that year damaged the flooring and the ancient gravestones.

(Last updated: Tuesday 26 September 1995)
Copyright © 1995 by Associazione San Giovanni di Dio