When the old church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Valletta started being pulled down in 1958, many were the antique, artistic and historical objects in the old building that had to be sacrificed, and their destruction remains a major blow to Maltese cultural heritage.

From that havoc the friars chose to preserve two marble tombstones, old and forgotten, that for centuries covered the burials of two women. For different reasons, both had made a name for themselves. These two baroque polychrome memorials can today be seen cemented upright to the walls of the new church, to the left and to the right as you enter.

These were the slabs on the tombs of Caterina Scappi and Caterina Vitale (1566-1619). Today visitors pay little attention to these beautiful marbles, or know anything about them, as time has rolled by, and because history does not always tell the whole truth.

Neither was born Maltese, both were considerably rich and both were devout benefactors of the Carmelite church. That is where the similarity ends. One was a God-fearing creature, who genuinely dedicated her life to works of mercy. The other was a hard businesswoman, a higher-class prostitute renowned for her cruelty and vindictiveness.

We do not know enough about Scappi, but what little we are familiar with, stands her in good stead. Though she lived for long in Malta, she, or her family, were from Siena, and that accounts for the reason why everyone popularly called her ‘La Senese’.

The name Caterina reflects her place of origin, as St Catherine is the greatest female saint from Siena. So far we do not know when or why she came to live and die in Malta. She was a wealthy woman and remained well respected because she willed, and with her monies endowed, the very first hospital dedicated exclusively to women, the ospedaletto.

Scappi is hardly a common surname. It is quite possible that she was related to Bartolomeo Scappi, renowned as the cook of various popes, among others of Pope Pius V, and as the author of a famous 1570 cookery book. His rival, Domenico Romoli, almost as famous as Scappi, recommends as a choice delicacy a Maltese dish: eels from Malta with small green cabbages (Brussels sprouts?).

Bartolomeo’s sister was also Caterina Scappi, but older than the Malta one. It does not seem that she was from an aristocratic family, as the documents do not refer to her as nobildonna. A search conducted in the Siena archives confirms that the Scappis were not listed with the noble families of that city.

In Malta, Scappi is addressed as magnifica or signora. This shows that, although not of noble birth, she counted with women of respectable background or considerable means.

I did not find it proper that a woman with a truly extraordinary social conscience, as Scappi was, should be so forgotten; that drove me to undertake some research and to discover more about her. In this I benefitted from the priceless cooperation of Joan Abela in the Notarial Archives of Christopher Street, Valletta, which she, together with other volunteers, is saving and returning to the Maltese cultural heritage, with so much passion and competence.

Scappi drew up at least three wills between 1623 and 1643, all very long, and from which one may glean heaps of intriguing information. In her last will she appointed two knights from Siena, Fra Ottavio Bandinelli and Fra Giulio Cesare Accarigi, as her testamentary executors, and she asked the Grand Master to choose two other knights from Siena, when these passed away, to be the ‘protectors’ of the women’s hospital she had founded.

The Accarigi and the Bandinelli counted among the most noble families from Siena. Accarigi had joined the Order of Malta on May 18, 1612, and Bandinelli had professed on August 11, 1620. He enjoyed a notable career in the order, ending as Bailiff of Eagle and the Grand Master’s lieutenant.

Though she had left Siena a long time earlier, Scappi’s heart still harked to her city. The many knights she mentions in her wills are, without exception, all from Siena: Fra Giocondo Accarigi, Fra Pietro Maria Turamini, Fra Celio Piccolomini and Fra Marc’ Antonio Pertrucci.

The hospitals of the knights only admitted men, and the need for a refuge where women could repair to in case of illness had long been felt

I did not succeed in establishing the place of origin of Fra Ascanio Conti, who she also refers to. She chose Accarigi, Piccolomini and Turamini because, in her words, “they were the most senior of those who lived in Malta from Siena”.

In the national collection there is a portrait in oils of Caterina Scappi, today hung in a private office of the Health Department in Valletta. It is dated 1642, the year before the benefactress passed away, and it should thus show a good likeness of the sitter. She is wearing the simplest of clothes, far from extravagant, with what could be a choker in black stones that may perhaps have been worn in periods of mourning.

The portrait is not signed and we do not know who executed it, but, as she was a close friend of the family of the obscure artist Francesco Doneo, who will be mentioned later, it may, quite possibly, have been painted by him. Whoever did it was anything but a virtuoso portrait painter.

Casa Scappi at 74, Old Bakery Street, Valletta, where Scappi lived. Up to recently it housed the Johann Strauss School of Music. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiCasa Scappi at 74, Old Bakery Street, Valletta, where Scappi lived. Up to recently it housed the Johann Strauss School of Music. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

There are indications that Scappi was not married, as the documents refer to her as mulier solute, and it appears she died without issue, though it is said that she left a niece who wanted to run her aunt’s hospital after Scappi’s death, but faced the strong opposition of the Grand Hospitaller. The spacious house, 74, Old Bakery Street, in Valletta has, since time immemorial, been known as Casa Scappi, and is almost certainly the home where Scappi resided during her lifetime.

Till relatively recently it housed the School of Music. It is one of the buildings in Valletta whose original facade, or at least part of it, still survives, the same one that Scappi saw daily 400 years ago. This tenement has, however, been defaced by the building of a nondescript extra floor, by the tearing down of part of the facade to accommodate the post office and by the removal of the original balcony.

We do not know when Scappi came to live in Malta, or, for that matter, whether she was actually born here. The first time I find her mentioned in the records is on May 5, 1597, in connection with a bequest of monies in favour of the convent of the Repentite – a religious institute for prostitutes who wanted to change their life.

Very curious is the fact that Scappi declared, in unequivocal terms, that should she later want to join that convent of repentant prostitutes, the sum she had bequeathed had to be considered as her pre-paid dowry. A disturbing statement.

Very likely this bequest is the beginning of another story found in a separate register of the Order of St John. This states that on October 26, 1598, the Council of the Order threatened the knight Fra Antonio Lagnosco from Pavia that, should he fail to return to the convent of the Repentite, what mulier Catherina de Scappi had left in their favour by virtue of a private writing, his whole estate would be liable to seizure.

The first contract I found in Scappi’s name is dated 1604, when she must have been over 20 years of age to sign a legal agreement. In none of her contracts or wills is there any mention where and when she was born, or who her mother and father were, and this is a sinister silence.

In contemporary wills the testator almost invariably left a sum of money to be used in prayers for the repose of the soul of the testator’s parents. Scappi left nothing for her parents, who she never ever even mentions.

These facts, together with the heartfelt empathy for the sufferings of prostitutes, coupled with the payment of a dowry on her own behalf to secure a place in the convent of the converted prostitutes, all point to something deeper and hidden. Was she the secret love-child of some knight from Siena? How had her career and her wealth started when she was younger?

In 1632, Scappi ‘adopted’ a girl, Maria, who was a six-year-old foundling abandoned at birth on the doorstep of the Sacra Infermeria. The contract of adoption refers to her only as Caterina la Senese, without even mentioning her surname. She bound herself to take Maria to help her in her housework, keep the girl with her, feed her and clothe her for 14 years (no mention of educating her).

Plan of the gound floor of Scappi’s Hospital for Incurable Women – La Casetta – in Valletta. Courtesy of the National LibraryPlan of the gound floor of Scappi’s Hospital for Incurable Women – La Casetta – in Valletta. Courtesy of the National Library

Once Maria reached the age of 20, Scappi undertook to pay her a sum of money. If Maria left the household before, out of her own choice or Scappi’s, then the girl would be entitled to a payment pro rata for the time she had served Scappi. After this ‘adoption’, the child would have been known as Maria Scappi or de Scappi. In her last will, Scappi left Maria, then 17 years old, 200 scudi as dowry pro maritaggio.

For many centuries, the hospitals of the knights only admitted men, and the need for a refuge where women could repair to in case of illness had long been felt, but nothing much seems to have been done about it. It was in these circumstances that the goodness of Scappi was put to the test, and with her money she founded the very first hospital in Malta dedicated exclusively to women – a radically revolutionary step.

The heartfelt empathy for the sufferings of prostitutes points to something deeper and hidden. Was she the secret love-child of some knight from Siena?

It seems that at first she used to tend ‘incurable’ women in her own private home, but, in the first years of the 17th century (the date is uncertain, but surely before 1625) the Scappi hospital had already started accepting women in a house called Santa Maria della Scala, which took its name from the most renowned hospital in Siena, today turned into a museum.

On the marble tombstone fixed on Scappi’s burial place there is a mysterious coat of arms that shows a ladder surmounted by a cross – the ancient badge of the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena.

Portrait of Caterina Scappi dated 1643. Courtesy of Heritage Malta and the Ministry of Health. Photo: Matthew MirabelliPortrait of Caterina Scappi dated 1643. Courtesy of Heritage Malta and the Ministry of Health. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Later, Scappi acquired a larger house from the Fondazzione Nibbia near the Sacra Infermeria (the latter is today the Mediterranean Conference Centre) in Valletta, that soon came to be known as the casetta or ospedaletto, but was officially named Santa Maria della Pietà – this too a name of some leading hospitals in Italy, as it is of the convent of the Augustinians between Floriana and Msida, which gave the name Pietà to that area.

She willed that if, for any reason, that house could not in the future go on serving as a hospital for diseased women, her wealth had to be used to buy another house to become a women’s hospital. By her will made in 1643 she bequeathed the bulk of her fortunes to this hospital.

Most patients of the casetta were prostitutes who often got infected with venereal diseases, a nasty and then incurable ailment. That is why Scappi’s hospital was popularly known as the spedale delle donne incurabili. They used to be treated but few if any were cured.

Unpublished image of the west facade of Scappi’s hospital, destroyed during World War II. Courtesy the National LibraryUnpublished image of the west facade of Scappi’s hospital, destroyed during World War II. Courtesy the National Library

Sexually transmitted disease, principally syphilis and gonorrhoea, had been one of the major scourges of post-Columbus Europe. They spared no one, from kings to servants, from Grand Masters to seamen, from bishops to maids – all were liable to the then incurable infections. Because of their promiscuous lifestyle, prostitutes were the hardest hit, and few escaped the contagion in the long run. They then often ended left to their own devices.

Before the discovery of sulpha drugs and antibiotics, only palliative treatment was available, in the shape of inunction with a mercury unguent, mercury pills (cinnabar ore) or calomel, empirical remedies for skin diseases inherited from the ancient wisdom of saracen science.

Patients were placed in an over-heated room (with fires lit in the basement underneath) and their wounds rubbed, usually by convicts or slaves, with a mercury salve; they were made to breathe mercury fumes or have mercury pills, while being covered with thick double blankets and hot water bottles, for several days. At intervals other miracle cures made their appearance, like guaiacum wood, or sarsaparilla, believed to have superior healing powers – but mercury remained the standard treatment for centuries.

The place where patients with venereal disease, whether male or female, were received for the mercury routine came to be known locally as the falanga – and in Malta it was about the busiest section in hospitals, and the word itself used as a derogatory affront. Some patients died of tertiary syphilis, others of mercury poisoning. Grand Master Ramon Perellos is reputed to have succumbed to over-treatment with mercury.

Scappi faced a daunting task in Malta – the island had an international reputation of being the most infected with venereal disease anywhere: “There is no place in the whole world where venereal disease attacks faster and spreads easier than in Malta, for here it is a compound of all the poxes in the world.” This is the challenge that faced Scappi, and she took it on with total dedication, determination and Christian love.

(To be concluded)

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