The Valletta Sacra Infermeria
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
One of the major landmarks located towards the tip of the Valletta peninsula is the Mediterranean Conference Centre. This 16th-century structure, enjoying magnificent views across the Grand Harbour, today offers state-of-the-art conference facilities, as well as serving as an important venue for exhibitions, product launches, banquets, theatrical performances and numerous other events. Originally, however, the building was designed for a totally different function: known as the Sacra Infermeria, at one point in time it rose to fame as one of the best hospitals in the world.
The Knights Hospitaller
The Sacra Infermeria is part of the legacy of the Knights of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller to reflect their original founding purpose and mission back during the time of the Crusades. In fact, the Knights can trace their origins to the early 12th century, when a group of individuals founded a hospital in Jerusalem in order to provide care for sick and injured pilgrims visiting the Holy Land. Although in time the organisation also became a military as well as a religious order, what distinguished it from other similar chivalric institutions was its continued hospitaller character and mission. And they took this vocation very seriously, setting up hospitals wherever they went, providing nursing and medical care to the needy. Indeed, the modern version of the Order of St. John still does this work all over the globe to this very day.
A Revolution in the Local Medical Scene
As soon as the Knights came to Malta in 1530, they completely revolutionised the local medical scene. They built a new hospital in Birgu, brought with them foreign doctors, and introduced new medical concepts that had developed in Renaissance Europe. When in 1571 they officially relocated to Valletta, the decision was taken to build a new hospital there. It was to be located near the sea so as to offer the patients fresh air that would aid in their recovery, as well as being away from the noise of the main part of the city. Construction began in 1574 during the reign of Grand Master Jean de la Cassière, most likely under the direction of the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, although the building we know today is the product of several later enlargements and remodelling over the centuries.
The Sacra Infermeria
Within a few years, the Sacra Infermeria would achieve fame as one of the foremost hospitals of the period in Europe, with several visitors to Malta praising its excellence in records they kept of their time here. The Infirmary took in male patients of every class, whether members of the Order, civilians, or slaves, and irrespective of their nationality or faith. Once admitted, they were medically examined by well-trained physicians, before being washed, dressed, and put in a bed, which, unlike in most other contemporaneous hospitals in Europe, they did not have to share with anybody else. The bedding was cleaned and changed on a regular basis, while twice daily, patients were given well-prepared food, which they ate using utensils made from silver, a material known for its antibacterial qualities. One of the things that impressed visitors the most, however, was that the knights themselves took turns caring for the patients since this was part of their vows. This included the Grand Master himself, who visited every Friday, offering the patients food from his own hands, whilst chatting with them and offering words of comfort and consolation.
The Long Ward
The hospital was divided into a number of separate wards, mostly in an attempt to classify the sick according to their type of illness, although social and religious considerations were also a factor: there were specific spaces for knights, convicts, galley-slaves, and even non-Christians amongst others. The most impressive ward was undoubtedly the Sala Grande, or Long Ward, which was reserved for members of the Order and free men. Measuring 155 metres in length, 10.5 metres in width and over 11 metres in height, it was at that time one of the largest halls in Europe. Its floor was paved with stone slabs, while its wooden ceiling was considered "a magnificent example of 16th-century timber construction". The beds, draped with curtains in winter and mosquito nets in summer, lined the sides of the ward, although, in emergencies, hospital capacity could be dramatically increased by placing extra beds in the middle, along the length of the entire ward. Each patient had access to his own privy, located in recesses along the wall beside each bed. A row of windows on one side provided light and air, while the huge bare walls were covered with tapestries in winter. In summer, these were replaced by a set of Mattia Preti paintings depicting episodes from the Order’s glorious history.
The Great Magazine Ward
Located in the basement level directly underneath the Sala Grande, the Great Magazine Ward was reserved for galley-rowers, convicts, and the island’s considerable slave population. Slaves - both Muslim and Christian-converts - were nursed here with the same level of care and medical attention provided to the patients in the main hall above, with some minor differences: pewter utensils were used instead of silver, and the food was of inferior quality but was still relatively good and plentiful. Privately-owned slaves were also treated here, although in such cases, the cost of their treatment, and that of the food they consumed during their stay here, would be covered by their owner: it would have been in his best interests to keep his slaves healthy, if necessary even spending money in order to nurse them back to good health.