Charles VIII of France invaded Naples in the late 1490's. This attempt to take over southern Italy failed, and he was sent packing back to France. The kingdom of Naples then became part of the Spanish Empire for the next two centuries. The French left a small gift in Naples. It is called "the French disease" by Neapolitans. (Yes, I am aware that the French call it "the Neapolitan disease". At the time, the Neapolitans also called it the "Spanish disease"; Russians have called it the "Polish disease", and the Muslims have called it the "Christian disease".) Dispensing with jingoist slander, doctors call it treponema Pallidum, and thanks to a poem published in 1530 by Girolamo Fracastro about a poor shepherd with the disease, the rest of the world just calls it "syphilis".
The disease was so deadly that those who contracted it were considered beyond help and there arose almost simultaneously throughout Italy a number of institutions for those afflicted—the incurable. One of the first and best-known of these hospitals still stands today as a modern medical facility in Naples. It is the church/hospital complex of Santa Maria del Popolo degli Incurabili located one block into the old historic city from the Porta San Gennaro entrance at Piazza Cavour.
The "Incurabili" was built in 1521. The construction was the direct result of the work and influence of a Catalonian woman, Maria Longo, wife of one of the first Spanish viceroys in Naples. She was stricken with paralysis in the early 1500s; she was miraculously cured, and devoted the rest of her life to caring for the ill. The hospital grew as a church/hospital complex around a nucleus of small monastic communities all founded at the bidding of Maria Longo, who, herself, guided the work and administration of the "Incurabili" until shortly before her death in 1541.
The hospital was the first institution of its kind in an area of Naples that centuries later would become a modern hospital zone, the "Polyclinic" of Naples, housing a medical school, as well; many medieval buildings were razed to make room for the new medical facility, and, as well, some older buildings were converted to hospital use, chiefly the massive monastery of Sant'Andrea delle Dame at the very top of the hill above the "Incurabili". The "Incurabili" was originally larger than the hospital one sees today, having spread down the slope to the northern walls of the old city. That section was destroyed by bombardment in WW2, and in that breached section of wall now stands one of the ugliest buildings in Naples, the gigantic Salvator Rosa High School, a gray cement monolith so tall that from across the street at the National Museum, you'd never guess there was a hill behind it at all.
The "Incurabili" is
still a hospital and because of its religious origins it
houses a number of works of art by prominent artists of
the Neapolitan Baroque, such as Belisario Corenzio
(1568-1643). The facility also bears the signs of the
large-scale reconstruction of 1730, designed by Domenico Antonio Vaccaro, the
architect responsible for better known things in Naples,
such as the spectacular courtyard of Santa Chiara. On the
premises, as well, is a very interesting historical
pharmacy (photo, above), the result of construction done
in 1750. Of interest are the 400 unique jars and vases
used in the pharmacy in the 1700s, as well as the
majolica floor tiles. (As of this writing—August
2004—the pharmacy is being restored and is not open to
the public. )
There is a very
long list of notable doctors and humanitarians connected
with the "Incurabili" hospital. Worthy of note most
recently is Giuseppe
Moscati (1881-1927). He was an early
experimenter in the use of insulin to combat diabetes
(from which he, himself, suffered); he was a prominent
lecturer in medicine (a position that he gave up in
order to devote more of his time to direct contact with
patients); he was active in providing for victims of the
great 1906 eruption of Vesuvius as well as in caring for
the thousands of WW1 wounded sent to Naples for care.
His benevolence was proverbial. Moscati was beatified by
the Roman Catholic Church in 1975 and canonized in 1987.
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