The Sacra Infermeria in Valletta was renowned for its efficiency, and was also known as one of the best hospitals in Europe. However, the Infermeria only received men, leaving women who needed care with nowhere to go. This was up until the 17th Century, when Caterina Scappi erected the hospital for women, commonly known as the Casetta.
The Location of the Casetta
The Casetta was managed by a governess who lived on the property and was in charge of welcoming patients, admitting guests, and locking the hospital gates at night. Along with overseeing the responsibilities of the other staff members, she also took care of the sick patients’ comfort and hygiene. One of the wards of the Casetta was designated for pregnant women, hence, a midwife was usually employed. Other employees included a barberotta, or barber-surgeon, and a spezialotta, or pharmacist. They would accompany the medical professionals on their rounds at the hospital to provide any recommended medication. A spalmante or spalmiatora, was in charge of performing mercury inunctions and anointing or smearing the skin with a mercury-containing ointment, which was then accepted as the standard therapy for syphilis. Sitting in “sweat wards” was also considered as a treatment for syphilis. While the steam bath attendant, or stufarola, attended to the heat source in the chamber below, patients would sit in a heated room.
Typically, the culinary workers of the adjoining Sacra Infermeria prepared and cooked the food for the women’s hospital. Nevertheless, once the food was delivered to the Casetta it used to be re heated before being served, this was mainly the responsibility of the donna della mancia. Several employees served in dual roles, performing both domestic and nursing tasks, including changing beds and any other tasks that would be necessary to make patients more comfortable.
By the end of the 18th century, the Casetta had about 300 beds available. Over the years, it continued to expand under the rule of successive Grand Masters. By this time, the Casetta was also admitting patients who were mentally ill as well as pregnant women and then finally children. It continued to run until 1850, when its patients were moved to Floriana’s newly built Central Hospital. The Casetta began to be utilised for only males and females suffering from venereal disease.
Unfortunately, enemy bombardment during World War Two resulted in the building’s total destruction. The adjacent orphanage was transformed into what is now known as the Evans Building. Sadly, there is nothing left on the property to serve as a reminder of the wonderful woman who devoted a significant portion of her life and her riches to alleviating the suffering of countless unfortunate and destitute women.
The Evans Building
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.