Ospedale dei Derelitti: welfare and social rehabilitation during the Venetian Republic

9 August 2021

Venice, 29th July 2021 – In order to see the elliptical stair that seems to challenge gravity laws we have to go to the Ospedale dei Derelitti, commonly known to the inhabitants of Venice as the Ospedaletto. It is a massive building, which includes the church in Barbaria de le Tole, where a nursing home was located until ten years ago, in continuity with the model of assistance to the poor and needy pursued by the Venetian Republic. A 1600-year-long birthday, the one that this year celebrates Venice, a city that has always demonstrated to be a modern and efficient organisation model for the assistance of poor and needy people, of orphans and widows through the creation of Ospedaletti or hospitals.

“The Ospedaletto was built between 1527 and 1528 to receive beggars, invalids and orphans – explains Agata Brusegan, curator of the artistic heritage of the Fondazione Venezia Servizi alla Persona, which manages the five monumental sites owned by the Ire (including the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, the Penitenti, the Zitelle and the Oratorio dei Crociferi) – we have inherited what can be defined as the welfare, meaning the social policies system built by the Republic, which was essential in order to ensure a good standard of living to all the population living on the island”.

Wanted by the Doge Pietro Orseolo I and located at the bottom of the bell tower of San Marco, the first institution dates back to 975-978; fast-forwarding to the sixteenth century, four were the hospitals already built in Venice: the Ospedale dei Derelitti, the Incurabili, the Pietà and the Mendicanti. Such institutions not only provided shelter, but they also taught people trades and exalted their talents: from the musical point of view there was, for example, the putte da coro, whose exhibitions were admired all around the world. As Brusegan states, the hospitals acted as theatrical producers, since the musical activity was a flourishing business.

The putte da coro were distinguished from the putte de comun, as the latter had other jobs inside the institution, like lacemaking or teaching. “Everyone had to work – continues Brusegan – and the girls were paid with the tasca, namely the minimal labour that was to be executed by the end of the day and contributed to one’s dowry. The future of these girls was to get married, to become a nun or to remain in the institution”. And it was in the very own church choir of the hospital that a young Giambattista Tiepolo, while painting some details, fell in love with the putta da coro Cecilia Guardi, sister of painters Gianantonio and Francesco Guardi and who would later become his wife.

“During the Middle Ages, those who did charity work did so in order to save their souls. However, such a thing changed with the Catholic Reform at the beginning of the sixteenth century: no more for the sake of oneself, charity then aimed at building a better world and focused on young people, orphans and underprivileged youth. Coinciding with a contextual secularism, a sort of ante litteram Enlightenment – explains the curator – these hospitals were established and managed by private citizens and aristocratic benefactors; those who found shelter here were far luckier than those who had to always scrape for food. As far as men were concerned, they did not do any musical activity: they left the institution with a job, they had their apprenticeship paid and had a direct connection to the Arsenale. The hospital also had an emergency room for those who were feverish, as well as one of the first anatomical rooms in Venice. Therefore, these hospitals were sort of little villages where different realities could be found: sick people, young people, putte da coro, lacemaking women. Such diversity disappeared with the advent of the Napoleonic reforms, when health and social policies were separated, a distinction that still holds true today”.

The elliptical stairs of the architect Giuseppe Sardi, the courtyard of Baldassarre Longhena and the only music room left in Venice are few more reasons to visit this interesting building. “The music room is the last that was built and the only one left in Venice: with perfect acoustics, it was rebuilt in 1776 thanks to what could be described as an early form of crowdfunding that involved famous singers that had stayed in the Ospedaletto – concludes Brusegan – it acted not only as a rehearsal room and chamber concert room, but also as a business place and as a parlour for external relations. Such a room lasted for a brief period of time, as with the fall of the Venetian Republic it was abandoned and the hospital itself changed its purpose”.