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Ospedale del Ceppo – mysterious medieval underground tour

  • Ospedale del Ceppo – mysterious medieval underground tour

    North of Piazza del Duomo awaits the 13th-century Ospedale del Ceppo, a monumental medieval hospital. Founded in 1277, this former monastic foundation was on the St James of Compostella pilgrimage route. Rich patrons endowed it, ever since medieval times, and the hospital flourished.  So much so that the foundation functioned as a hospital until 2013, when the new Ospedale di San Jacopo opened in the south of the city. Unless you book the fascinating Pistoia Underground tour, you are restricted to admiring the glazed terracotta ceramic frieze that adorns the façade. Decorating the early 16th-century loggia is a vivid polychrome frieze by Giovanni della Robbia. The scenes depict the Seven Works of Mercy (Sette Opere di Misericordia): worthy citizens are handing out food to the poor, comforting prisoners, tending the sick and washing the feet of forlorn travellers. The figures are realistic, and sometimes even humorous, despite their plight.

    A curious tour takes you along an intriguing network of underground passages that represent the oldest part of Pistoia, set along the ancient river bed. The tour begins in the courtyard, with the area that once formed the ancient medical school. See old surgical instruments, such as scalpels, including the `Pistoia knife,’ invented here. Discover the `anatomy amphitheatre,’ founded in 1785. This domed dissection hall was where senior medical students would once sit to watch post-mortems. Then it’s time to head underground. Circuitous passageways follow the route carved out by former water channels, first the river and then the canal. En route you come across a 16th-century olive mill which was powered by water and produced olive oil for use in special medical potions and remedies.

    The medieval hospital incorporated a river in its structure in the belief that the flowing water would remove all waste and help prevent epidemics. The opposite was, of course, true as epidemics were commonplace, particularly when patients routinely shared beds. To tackle the epidemics, a new canal tunnel was created by diverting the course of the River Brana. You walk along the path of this former canal tunnel, known as the Gora di Scornio. En route you pass a forge where farm tools were made until as recently as 40 years ago. Notice the tiny window workers made use of to check the mill wheel was operating properly. You also pass signs of religious buildings, including a hallway that connected the hospital with a nunnery, the Convento delle Suore Oblate, until the end of the 19th century. The lowest chamber lies under Piazza San Lorenzo, the site of the public wash-houses, and marks the end of the tour. A secret stairway leads upto the square and back to what passes for modern life in Pistoia.

    Address: Piazza Giovanni XIII, 51100 Pistoia
    Pistoia Sotterranea (Pistoia Underground tour)
    Tel: 0573 368023

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