Day3 – Pistoia

The history of the Ospedale del Ceppo is long and fascinating. Ceppo means “stump” and some say the hospital’s name comes from the hollow tree stumps where donors left alms for the poor in the Middle Ages. Alternatively, legend says that both husband and wife of a rich merchant family dreamt that the Virgin Mary told them to build a hospital where they found a hollow tree stump flowering in mid-winter.
Founding of the hospital is generally dated to 1277, making it one of the oldest hospitals in the world. It was heavily used during the Black Plague and also served as a hospice for pilgrims. As the Pistoia Cathedral contains a relic of St. James, pilgrims on their way to or from Rome detoured to Pistoia to visit the relics. The hospital became very rich as families donated wealth and lands to the institution.
The frieze was created between 1526 and 1528 by Giovanni Della Robbia and his student Santiago Buglioni. The six panels of the frieze depict acts of mercy: Clothing the Naked; Sheltering the Pilgrims; Healing the Sick, Freeing the Captives; Feeding the Hungry; and Burying the Dead.
This section shows a doctor taking the pulse of a sick patient while another administers a treatment to a patient’s head. Students are shown taking notes, and the hospital beds are numbered with terra cotta labels. Florence ultimately took control of the hospital, and the administrator Bonafede, who is shown in the center of each section, commissioned the frieze.
Each figure, nearly life-size, is depicted in great detail. The frieze is the largest work of terra cotta created up to that time. Many of the colors are still vivid, despite 500 years of exposure to the elements. Restoration is underway to bring back and preserve this treasure, although researchers at the University of Urbino must first determine how to create certain effects.
Della Robbia died before the last section was finished, and due to the Black Plague, the work was not started again for sixty years. By that time, the technique for creating the variety of vivid colors had been lost, and the final section is not nearly as striking as the others.
Next we visit the anatomical theatre of the hospital, which was used by the hospital’s medical school to allow students to view surgical operations and dissections. The small theatre allowed only 12 or so students to sit around the central slab of marble which displayed the body

Finally we go underground beneath the Ospedale del Ceppo to visit the tunnels that run about 650 meters long under the hospital. The tunnels follow the flow of a stream that once ran through Pistoia and over which the hospital was built.

Copies of artifacts found during the excavation of this site are displayed in the tunnels.

This mill was powered by the stream water to run the frantoio or olive press that stood above. The hospital dumped water and refuse into the stream that was used by residents to wash clothes and irrigate fields. In the 19th century when more was known about the causes of disease, the tunnels were built to prevent use of the contaminated water.

The tunnels provide a unique glimpse into the history of Pistoia, with Roman bridges, dams, blacksmith tools, and other historical sites pointed out along the tunnel path.

We come topside to soak up the sun and visit the farmers market held each Saturday inthe historical center of Pistoia.

The fresh fruits and vegetables beckon, and we purchase some apricots for tomorrow’s breakfast.

We also can’t help but notice the funghi set out on a narrow street in front of an inviting shop.

The shop turns out to be a restaurant, and of course, we decide on lunch there. Who can resist those enormous loaves of bread?
What a great choice! It’s the Locanda del Capitano del Popolo. The owner, Ghecco Bugiani, serves Tuscan food from Pistoia in a rustic and down-home setting. He slices several pieces of coppa di testa, pigs head cheese, for the group at the next table and offers us each a slice‘s unbelievably delicious, especially with schiacciata, a crispy cracker seasoned with salt and olive oil.
Ghecco grates truffles over a plate of pasta. We make lunch our main meal for the day and savor the goodness.
We walk after lunch, back to the historic center where we visit the bell tower, the cathedral and the Palazzo di Podesta, which was built in the Middle Ages to serve as a center of law and communal administration. The vaulted ceiling and walls are painted with the coats of arms of administrators who have served over time in the building.

Back in Florence, we skip dinner, but I opt for a limone granita and Gail goes for a gelato. We could not leave Florence without these sweet treats.

Tomorrow we leave for Lucca at around Noon.

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