During the period of the Knights of Saint John, the Sacra Infermeria was known for its excellent medical services. Nevertheless, its wards were reserved only for male patients, hence women who needed medical care had nowhere to go. It was quite evident that a hospital for women was needed. This need was addressed during the first part of the 17th century, when Caterina Scappi founded the first local hospital for women. The hospital was referred to as the “spedale delle donne incurabili” – the hospital for incurable women. However, the hospital still offered treatment to those who were rejected from society and often had nowhere to go.
The First Hospital for Women
Even though Caterina Scappi earned respect for her generous contributions, the only known things about her are that she was a wealthy businesswoman and a well-known benefactor of the Carmelite church in Valletta. Nothing is known about her birth place or date, however, she had a strong connection with Siena, Italy and she is sometimes referred to as Caterina la Senese, even in official documents. She was also mainly associated with Italian Knights, from the same city. Furthermore, she borrowed the coat of arms of a known hospital in Siena, Santa Maria della Scala. It is also more likely that she was named after the patron Saint of Siena, Saint Catherine. It is not known why and when she came to Malta, however, she resided in Valletta at 74, Old Bakery Street, also known as Casa Scappi. Caterina Scappi never got married and it does not seem that she had any children of her own, however, in 1632 she adopted Maria, a six-year-old who was previously abandoned at the Sacra Infermeria.
Scappi was quite wealthy, however she did not live a luxurious life and she preferred to donate her money to charity. She also donated a sum of money in 1597, to the Convent of the Repentite. This was a place for former prostitutes who had abandoned their previous lives and became nuns. Nevertheless, she was mostly known for setting up the Women’s hospital. Initially, she seems to have offered treatment in her own private home. However, by the 17th century, female patients were being accepted at a house acquired for this purpose, named Santa Maria della Scala. Later when the house was no longer efficient, Scappi bought a larger property that was situated near the Sacra Infermeria’ s Cemetery, officially known as Santa Maria della Pietà, also commonly known 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 will she passed on most of her fortunes to the operations of the hospital, including her estate, which guaranteed an income of 400 scudi a year. She also stated that her money should be used to buy a replacement house should the current one become unable to continue operating as a hospital in the future. However, a few years after her death, the funds were no longer sufficient and the hospital was closed in 1655. However, without the hospital there was no way to prevent the spread of venereal disease or a way of treating it, so the hospital had to reopen in 1659.
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.