The Carmelite world of Santa Maria della Scala in Trastevere

Santa Maria della Scala Church, in Trastevere, carries the same name of the square.  On it lies the legend of a miraculous healing that it is believed to be at its origin and which took place around the end of the Fifteenth century.


At first, it was only a votive image, above Casa Pia, a home for female redeemed sinners. It was a Madonna placed on top of a staircase (scala, in Italian), which explains the name. Then came the construction of the religious building that dominates the Trastevere with its beautiful Baroque façade by Ottavio Mascherino.


The story of a Caravaggio painting created for this Church, but was later rejected by the Carmelites who had commissioned it, seems to be tied to the sinners who resided in the building, as the image shown, according to tradition, was that of a dead woman in the Tiber. Ultimately, the painting ended somewhere else, but the legend remains, together with others tied to this convent.


The work is completed thanks to another jewel, the ancient spicery of Santa Maria della Scala, next to the Church, here would find place officinal plants and remedies belonging to a science located somewhere in between alchemy and medicine. To see it, one must get to the upper floor. You will then be able to enter the atmosphere, which mainly brings us back to a particularly experienced friar, Friar Basil, the great “chemist” and “pharmacist” of the Sixteenth century who is still mentioned by many.


Powders, ointments, remedies for big and small illnesses, at first, prepared by other friars, then, in the future, by doctors. Laboratory and shop were a sign of hope for the Romans during dark times and epidemics. It was also a place of prayer, praying for the medicine to work. Something religious and something secular together because faith and science touched each other. “L’Acqua della Scala” (The Water of the Scala) or “Carmelite Water” was the most sought after product.


The most fascinating instruments of those activities still remain, from the pestles to the presses, to the machines to make tablets, to the bends, to the mortars, to the ancient herbals, to the vases for the herbs and the salts, and the drawers with the labels that name the contents in Latin. An 1861 guide states:

The Church that a while back was restored, belongs to the Barefoot Carmelites who have linked the convent to it, together with an excellent public pharmacy.


It was still the Papal Rome, even if it had already known Italian times given that in 1849 a Republican hero had died there, Luciano Manara, as in this place there had been built a hospital for those who were wounded while defending Rome from the French invasion.


What place could have been better for it if not a convent with a spicery next to it? It was also called the Popes’ pharmacy, in it there are closets artistically painted with the ancient classical medicine geniuses, such as Hyppocrates, Galen and other great historical figures. Many of these were portraits from The Savoia Household, amongst them the Croce Rossa (Red Cross) heroin, the Duchess Elena of Savoia, wearing the white uniform of the national inspector. A painting represents the master, “Friar Basil” in the act of teaching other brothers the art of spicery.


Rome knows all the times of history and a tourist will be able to breathe the atmosphere of many protagonists that went through Trastevere and that square. To get there, if one leaves from Campo dei Fiori, should then head toward the River and cross Ponte Sisto.


Piazza Trilussa will be the first place to be found. The latter is a square dedicated to the most noble Roman dialect and Trastevere poet, who had visited the spicery. Then, heading west, passing through streets filled with bars, one will reach Via della Scala and eventually the widening that is the square. One will find the Convent and, at the corner, the modern pharmacy but an old marble plaque reminds us of the historical one that is on the upper floor.


One will notice that the Church dominates a cute area of shops and pavilions where some Roman or tourist might be sitting down. It is the Trastevere of life, of calmness, and irony that does not overwhelm but invites people to feel part of the city. At the bottom of it, then, after the visit, one will find again Via della Scala.


Then, proceeding from there, one will reach Piazza Sant’Egidio where one could see the Museo di Roma in Trastevere (The Museum of Rome in Trastevere), obtained in the ancient Convent of the Barefoot Carmelites. Here, one can find paintings, sculptures, photos, and, most of all, representations of life, Pinelli’s world and that of Trilussa and of a population that lived amongst the streets and the religious buildings that show to the visitors a very important history.



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