Spotlight: Hospital Art from Late Medieval Florence

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By | Early Medicine

John the Baptist. Image credit: Elma Brenner.

Painting of John the Baptist on the cover of Western MS.275. Image credit: Elma Brenner.

The Library’s Western MS.275 is a remarkable volume. Produced in Florence, it contains inventories in Italian of the possessions of the hospital of San Giovanni Battista Decollato from 1387 to the mid-fifteenth century. The text is bound in wooden boards with a fine painting of Saint John the Baptist on the upper cover. The manuscript was purchased for the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome in December 1910 for £36.

San Giovanni Battista Decollato, also known as the Spedale dei Portatori, was founded in 1297 to provide for sick and poor porters. It was one of a large number of hospitals in medieval Florence, which catered for the acutely sick, foundlings, pilgrims, lepers and other needy groups. While Florence is well-known for having large-scale hospitals with a professional medical staff, it also had many smaller institutions that offered a more basic form of hospitality and shelter. San Giovanni Battista Decollato, which had 14 beds, falls into the latter category. It functioned until 1542, meaning that these inventories mark its possessions while it was in regular use. The inventories reveal the kinds of objects required in a modestly sized hospital, from beds, to cooking implements, to chapel ornaments.

Although there are no illustrations within the manuscript, the painting on the binding suggests that this volume was a prized possession in the hospital, and also testifies to the importance of the patron saint to the hospital community. The figure of Saint John the Baptist holds a scroll that recites a prayer to the Lord and Omnipotent Father.

In addition, the painted binding reflects the importance of artistic patronage in late medieval Florentine hospitals. Many of the larger hospitals, such as Santa Maria Nuova, were famed for their architectural fineness, which was linked to Renaissance ideas about the role of beauty within the city. While San Giovanni Battista Decollato was a small and relatively humble institution, art still clearly featured in life at the hospital, as this manuscript reveals to us.

Author: Dr Elma Brenner is Specialist, Medieval and Early Modern Medicine at the Wellcome Library.

Elma Brenner

Elma Brenner

Dr Elma Brenner is the Wellcome Library’s subject specialist in medieval and early modern medicine. Her research examines the medical and religious culture of medieval France and England, especially the region of Normandy. She is also interested in the materiality of early books and manuscripts, and the digital humanities. For her publications, see She can be found on Twitter @elmabrenner.

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