Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Despite the excellent medical services provided at the Valletta Sacra Infermeria during the period of the Knights of St. John in Malta, its wards were reserved exclusively for male patients, and since women in need of care had nowhere to go, for quite some time, the need for a number of hospital beds to care for sick women had been felt. This need was somewhat addressed in the first part of the 17th century when a certain Caterina Scappi was responsible for setting up the first local hospital dedicated exclusively to women. During this period of Malta’s history, the need for such a hospital had never been greater. The building of the new maritime city of Valletta had led to a huge increase in prostitution and in the spread of venereal disease. At the time, no cure existed for such diseases, which is why Scappi’s hospital was referred to as the "spedale delle donne incurabili" - the hospital for incurable women. Nonetheless, the hospital offered treatment to these unfortunate rejects of society who often had no one to turn to and nowhere to go.
Although Caterina Scappi would earn respect for her generous contributions, little is known about her, other than the fact that she was a wealthy businesswoman and a well-known benefactor of the Carmelite church in Valletta. Although we have no information about the date or place of her birth, she seems to have had a very strong connection with Siena, Italy, and was in fact sometimes referred to by her nickname, Caterina la Senese, even in official documents. She consorted mostly with Italian knights from the same city and even borrowed her coat-of-arms from the most renowned hospital in Siena - Santa Maria della Scala. Another clue is her name: most likely she was named after Siena’s patron saint - St. Catherine. While it is not known why and when she came to Malta, we know she lived at 74, Old Bakery Street, in Valletta, often referred to as Casa Scappi. It appears that she never got married, and neither does she seem to have had any children of her own, but records show that in 1632, she adopted a 6-year old girl, Maria, who had been abandoned at the Sacra Infermeria shortly after her birth.
Although Scappi was considerably wealthy, she did not live a life of luxury, preferring instead to donate most of her money to charity. In 1597, she donated a sum of money to the Convent of the Repentite - a place for former prostitutes who had repented and abandoned their lifestyle to become nuns instead. Her most significant contribution, however, was the setting up of the hospital for women. Initially, she seems to have offered treatment in her own private home. By the first years of the 17th century, however, female patients were being accepted at a house she had acquired for the purpose, and which she named Santa Maria della Scala, after the famous hospital in Siena. Later, when this was no longer deemed to be sufficient, Scappi bought a larger property situated near the cemetery of the Sacra Infermeria, officially known as Santa Maria della Pietà, although it was more commonly referred to as the ‘ospedaletto’, or the ‘casetta’.
Caterina Scappi died on 20th June 1643 and was buried in the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Valletta. In her last will, she bequeathed most of her fortunes towards the continued operation of the hospital, including her estate, which guaranteed an income of 400 scudi a year. She also decreed that her money should be used to buy a replacement house, should the current one become unable to continue in its operation as a hospital in the future. Within a few years of her death, however, the funding that she had provided was no longer deemed sufficient and had to be supplemented from other sources, before the hospital was closed down in 1655. Without it, however, there was no way of preventing the spread of venereal disease or treating it, so the hospital was reopened in 1659.
The Casetta was run by a Governess, who resided on the premises, and was responsible for the reception of the patients, the entrance of any visitors, and the closing of the hospital gates at night. She also looked after the use of the bed linen, and the cleanliness and comfort of the sick, as well as supervising the duties of the other members of staff. The Casetta also employed a midwife, and one of the wards was reserved for expectant mothers. Other members of staff included a barberotta, or barber-surgeon, as well as a spezialotta, or pharmacist, who would accompany the doctors and surgeons on their ward rounds to administer any medications that were prescribed. A spalmante, or spalmiatora, was responsible for mercurial inunctions, and the anointing or smearing of the skin with an ointment containing mercury - the recognised method of treatment for syphilis during this time. Another form of treatment for syphilis was for patients to sit in so-called "sweat wards". Patients would sit in a heated room, while the stufarola, or steam bath attendant, would tend to the heat source in the underlying chamber. The food for the women's hospital was usually cooked and prepared by the kitchen staff of the nearby Sacra Infermeria. Nonetheless, the donna della mancia was responsible for warming up the food and serving it after its arrival at the Casetta. A number of serve performed the dual role of carrying out nursing duties and domestic chores, such as making the beds and anything else that might be required to make the patients more comfortable.
The Casetta would continue to grow over time as it was expanded during the reigns of successive Grand Masters until it reached a capacity of almost 300 beds by the end of the 18th century. By this point, it had begun accepting mentally ill patients, as well as maternity cases, and eventually children. It would continue its operations until 1850 when its patients were transferred to the newly established Central Hospital in Floriana, and the Casetta started being used for both male and female patients suffering exclusively from venereal disease. Unfortunately, the building was completely destroyed by enemy bombing during World War Two, while an adjoining orphanage was converted into what is today known as Evans Building. Sadly, there is now nothing on-site to remind us of the extraordinary woman who dedicated such a large part of her life and her fortune to help ease the suffering of so many unfortunate and destitute women.
The latest development in the long history of the Sacra Infermeria came only last year, when a new virtual museum, titled ‘Reliving The Sacra Infermeria’, was inaugurated. The idea of a virtual museum, which brings together history and technology, was brought about by the need to satisfy visitors’ curiosity about the building’s former history without interrupting ongoing conferences or theatre performances that are regularly held here. Now, by downloading a mobile application that makes use of augmented reality, one can once more relive the building’s former days as a hospital.
Re-Living the Sacra Infermeria is a project co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund.
Bonello, G. (2015, August 23). Caterina Scappi and her revolutionary hospital for women who were incurable. The Sunday Times of Malta.
Bonello, G. (2015, August 30). Caterina Scappi, forgotten feminist benefactress. The Sunday Times of Malta.
Bonello, G. (2019, September 29). Caterina Scappi revisited. The Sunday Times of Malta.
Cassar, P. (1978). Female employees in the medical services of the Order of St. John in Malta. Melita Historica, 7(3), 225-233.