Naples’ Pharmacy of the Incurables: merging science, magic, and art

Naples’ Ospedale degli Incurabili is an old and still-functioning hospital in the centre of the southern Italian city that is linked to a wealth of interesting stories of early medicine, magic and alchemy, religious people and those recognised as saints for dedicating their lives to helping the poor and sick here.

Founded around 1520, it was quite unique for the fact that it was set up by a woman, the noble Catalan lady Maria Lorenza Longo. In October 2017, Longo herself was included among a list of people who Pope Francis recognised as having “heroic virtues”, a step on the path to sainthood.

According to some variations of her story, Longo founded the hospital after suffering and recovering from a paralysing illness. By combining her fortune with that of the Genoese philanthropist Ettore Vernazza, she was able to fund the construction of one of the city’s biggest hospital complexes, which came to include the splendid pharmacy and laboratories. Over time doctors and medical researchers from all around Europe would travel here to learn about the treatments they were developing.

Like other hospitals for “incurables” during this period, its initial main role was to help handle the spreading of syphilis and its related ailments, before the discovery of antibiotics. Private charity in the city revolved around the Incurables and the other large hospital, the Annunziata, and the two institutions also helped people from the surrounding area.

Gradually the scope of treatment of the Incurables broadened and under Longo’s guidance it became specialised in helping pregnant women. Many women and children’s lives were saved by the Caesarean techniques practiced here.

Princesses and noblewoman would come to the Incurables to give birth, but also many poor women were looked after by the nuns at the hospital, where Longo founded the religious order of the Capuchin Poor Clares.

A variety of homeopathic concoctions were developed to soothe patients in the medicinal garden, which can still be visited today. It was also known as a place where art and beauty were used to help treat sick people. Many paintings and works of art came to decorate the hospital buildings, in the belief that beauty could not cure you but could help make you feel better.

The related pharmacy of the hospital was developed during the sixteenth century, then enlarged and renovated in the mid-eighteenth century. It is an intriguing site and an artistic masterpiece, reflecting the idea of merging beauty and medical knowledge to treat illness. It is also one of few remaining examples of the hundreds of similar apothecaries that used to be spread across the city of Naples.

The pharmacy, along with the museum of sanitary arts, the medicinal garden and the cloister of the nearby Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie a Caponapoli, can be visited by booking tours at the museum or through the association Il Faro d’Ippocrate. It is approached by an impressive double stone staircase. In the middle of this you can see a bust of Maria Longo.

Above the entrance doors are sculptures highlighting the double nature of medicine: on one hand it can cure you, on the other hand it can become a poison.

Its style is baroque-rococo, designed with input from architects and engineers such as Domenico Antonio Vaccaro and Bartolomeo Vecchione. The first section is the “controspezieria,” where inventories of various products were stored and cures would be prepared from a variety of natural medication. There is an impressive 5 m-long walnut table in the centre of the room and the surrounding shelves are stacked with many blue and white majolica vases and jars decorated with biblical and allegorical scenes, that would have contained various ointments and syrups.

Within this initial room there are some walnut cabinets containing small vials and ampoules that used to hold elixirs and remedies, including bezoars, which were solid pieces of material found in animals’ digestive tracts that could be used to help when someone had been poisoned. This sort of magical remedy features in J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter series. These cabinets also contained products of mineral origin and teeth of marine animals, linking back to old alchemical and esoteric traditions.

The tour then leads you through to the great hall, which would have been used as a reception and assembly room for medical experts and authorities. Its walls are lined with yellow and blue majolica vases and jars, painted by Lorenzo Salandra and the Massa workshop who also handpainted the majolica floor in this room and the tiles for the pretty cloister of Santa Chiara in Naples.  The ceiling is dominated by a painting by Pietro Bardellino, showing scenes from the Trojan War related to medicine, in which Menelaus is being looked after by Machaon, a warrior skilled in medical arts. At opposite ends of the pharmacy there are two sculptures depicting a virginal womb, and a post-operative womb that has undergone a Caesarean, reflecting the Incurables’ focus on helping women through childbirth.

In the back rooms, artworks are stored including a painting of Mary that won a prize for the most beautiful portrayal of the Madonna. There is also an old urn sculpted by Crescenzio Trinchese that used to contain theriac, which was viewed as a treatment for all ailments and a cure for poisoning. It was widespread in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period, and its various ingredients included opium, myrrh, and viper’s flesh. The most famous versions of theriac were in Venice and in Naples, and it was prepared over several days in public ceremonies involving medical, civic and religious authorities.

Theriac was used in the Incurables pharmacy up to the nineteenth century, approved even by the physician Domenico Cotugno (1736-1822). It was a standard part of medical practice but was used mainly by the rich, while poor people had to make do with more basic herbal remedies such as garlic.

You can then walk through the hospital to the medicinal garden, where you can see a huge camphor tree and other medicinal plants that went in to the pharmacy’s preparations. Camphor was often used to ease pain and to reduce itching. The garden has been regenerated in recent years by the members of Il Faro d’Ippocrate after falling into abandonment.

Nearby is the cloister of the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie a Caponapoli, which was originally looked after by the hermits of the order created by Pietro da Pisa, and is adjacent to the eponymous church dating back to the sixteenth century. The cloister is also known as the Cloister of Maternity. Its ceilings were painted in the seventeenth century by Flemish artists, and include grotesque patterns.


In 1611 the Neapolitan literary humanist group the“Academy of the Idle” was founded in the cloister. The name may confuse, but they were a lively group interested in all the latest literary trends, and many of their illustrious members would often meet up in the pleasant surroundings of the cloister.

In those years there was a flourishing debate about the location of the tomb of the mythical siren Parthenope, founder of Naples, and at the end of the seventeenth century some scholars said her burial point was in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Parthenope was a siren in Greek mythology, who flung herself into the sea when her singing failed to lure the hero Odysseus. Her body washed ashore at Naples, on the island of Megaride, where the Castel dell’Ovo is now located. Having been buried in Naples (though there is a lot of discussion about the actual site) her spirit is believed to haves infused the whole city.

The potential presence of her burial place here had strong significance for the “Academy of the Idle”, and they adopted the image of the siren as their association’s symbol.

If you walk around the arcades of the cloister, at the far end you will see a plaque inscribed with a mission statement of Longo’s, reflecting her dedication to helping women through pregnancies. Later in her life she would also set up a home for prostitutes. The plaque reads:

“Any woman, rich or poor, noble or plebeian, indigenous or foreign, whilst pregnant, knock, and the door will be opened.”

A sense of religion and religious duty walked hand in hand with medical science here, and many of the hospital’s staff have been made saints by the Catholic Church. These include St. Cajetan (Gaetano Thiene 1480-1547) who founded and worked in several hospitals for incurables around Italy. He spent some time at the Incurables hospital in Naples, and he set up an institutional pawnbroker (Mount of Piety) to help the poor, so they did not have to turn to usurers. This later turned into one of Italy’s oldest banks, Banco di Napoli. A statue of him can be seen outside the Basilica of San Paolo Maggiore in Naples, close to the street where they sell presepi (crib scenes), Via San Gregorio Armeno. I remember noticing this statue on one of my first trips to Naples as I walked up the Via dei Tribunali into town. It stuck in my mind although at the time I did not know who it was.

Picture credit: The Gannet

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the recourse to saints for help when ill flourished in Southern Italy, with many believing in their healing powers through miraculous intercession or the use of relics.

Many diseases had their own patron saints, such as St. Roch for helping against the plague. There was a thriving trade in relics, which church authorities tried to control.  Cults also sprang up around holy men and women as they were alive, and they became seen as “living saints”, and a source of sacred power. While for many people these living saints helped them achieve ecstasies and miraculous healing, the Church was often mistrustful, concerned that this was related to diabolical methods, and some of these living saints were pursued during the Inquisition.

Once you have toured the complex, you can visit the museum and learn about the history of the sanitary arts in Naples. Outside you can see a well, which is nicknamed the “well of the mad”. The Incurables looked after hundreds of mentally ill and unstable people, dividing them into categories such as maniacs and melancholics. There are various local stories linked to the well being used in therapy and punishment of the mentally ill, which range from them turning a wheel to draw water out of it, to being lowered into the well themselves.

Inside the museum there are many interesting old medical tools to see and history about Italian research into various conditions and treatments, including the initial Italian discoveries on the road to the development of antibiotics, and information about the life of the physician and botanist Domenico Cirillo (1739-1799), a doctor at the Incurables who was a leading figure of the Enlightenment.

A final element I liked in the museum was a display of crib scenes, a popular Naples tradition, depicting various characters in apothecaries and people handling medical treatment, illness and healing. According to Neapolitan historical records, St. Cajetan helped develop the city’s tradition of crib scenes, building them in an oratory at the Incurables hospital.

For more information and to find out about guided tours, see Museo delle Arte Sanitarie and the cultural association that manages the tours Il Faro d’Ippocrate


David Gentilcore, Healers and Healing in Early Modern Italy

Valerio Ceva Grimaldi and Maria Franchini, Secret Naples

Museo delle Arte Sanitarie


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