Ospedali Grandi of Venice

Ospedali Grandi of Venice, were charitable hospices, providing social assistance for the sick and needy and renowned for music-making.

The four Great Hospitals were the Ospedale della Pietà, the Ospedale degl’Incurabili, the Ospedale di Santa Maria dei Derelitti and the Ospedale di San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti. 

They are most famously recognised for educating selected female pupils (called “figlie del coro”) to professional levels of musicianship; that attracted many European tourists to hear their all-female ensembles, perform religious services and special concerts throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

In fact, their associated churches became veritable concert halls; either being rebuilt or reconstructed to high acoustical standards. The musical training in the Ospedali Grandi, is often thought of as a precursor; to the training in European conservatories of the 19th century.


Ospedali Grandi of Venice – History

Venice had a long history of caring for its sick, homeless, poor and orphaned; long before the four Ospedali Grandi, became recognised as a group of musical institutions.

All emerged from hospices, that had been formed in Venice in the previous centuries: the Ospedale degl’Incurabili (1522), the Ospedale di Santa Maria dei Derelitti (1528), the Ospedale di San Lazzaro e dei Mendicanti (1595) and La Pieta (1346)

Each had catered to a different need at the time: the Incurabili took in all who contracted incurable diseases such as syphilis or the bubonic plague; the Derelitti provided a place of refuge for the homeless; the Mendicanti cared for beggars and orphans. However, La Pietà, was an orphanage and exclusively took in foundlings. Most orphans were taken in, at the age of six and at a suitable time, the boys learnt trades and attended mass (the two sexes did not attend services in the same place). Those girls who displayed special vocal or musical talent, were selected for the “cappella musicalae”.

Mid-16th century.The Ospedali Grandi’s all-female musical ensembles called “cori – originated in the middle of the 16th century. The cori, first performed music only for religious functions and all music was taught either by current residents of the institutions, who were already musically proficient, or by hired church musicians (nuns or priests). During this time, the training in music was only meant to strengthen the liturgical services. Additionally, the “figlie del coro” were always required to perform in raised galleries, which had gratings that hid the musicians, from the eyes of the audience.

Many of the “figlie del coro”, would stay at the Ospedali as performers, to the age of forty or more. Then they could either carry on as teachers, passing their musical knowledge and experience to younger residents; leave to get married, or take religious vows.

By mid-seventeenth century, however, the Ospedali governors realised the economic potential of the cori and they began to hire many professional external musicians and composers to teach performance practice, sight singing, ear training, music theory and instrumental techniques. The higher-quality musical training, yielded larger donations from patrons and visitors; that kept the hospitals funded.

In the 18th century, about 70% of Venetian noblemen, remained unmarried; to avoid any division of their family’s wealth. Perhaps this accounted for the large number of courtesans and the unrecognised offspring classed as “orphans”. Authorities in Venice recognised the important role of musical education and of other crafts, for these abandoned children; so that they could avoid a life of beggary for the boys and prostitution for the girls.

The Ospedali reached their pinnacle between 1720-80: the musical ensembles grew in number and the governors hired even more instrumental teachers and composers. By the middle of the 18th century, the Ospedali Grandi had mostly moved away from having older figlie del coro, teach students. Instead, they adopted the master and pupil system of education: master teachers, who already held successful reputations, composed for the Ospedali and trained the figlie.

Hiring the most famous composers, became essential to attracting larger and wealthier audiences. A few special visitors, also gained permission from the governors to view and listen to the women perform behind the grates.

However, due to the financial instability in Venice at the end of the 18th century, the Ospedali fell into bankruptcy. The Derelitti closed in 1791, followed by the Medicanti in 1795. After Napoleon’s invasion of Venice in 1797, all musical activities at the Ospedali were reduced. The Incurabili closed in 1805, leaving only the Pietà’s musical activity to survive Napoleon’s government takeover. The Pietà’s last known musical composition was performed in 1840.


Ospedali Grandi of Venice – The Four Churches


La Pieta (Santa Maria della Visitazion)

The church of La Pieta or Santa Maria della Visitazion in Castello, is on the Riva degli Schiavoni; a few minutes walk due east, from the Doge’s Palace. The present church (below right), was built from 1745-1760, next to the site of an earlier church and adjacent to the orphanage and hospital, the Ospedale della Pietà (below left).

Ospedali della Pieta. VeniceLa Pieta. VeniceThe hospice was originally founded in 1346, by a group of Venetian nuns, called the “Consorelle di Santa Maria dell’Umiltà”.

In 1703, Antonio Vivaldi was appointed violin teacher at the Ospedale della Pieta; a charitable institution for orphaned and illegitimate girls. He was also known as “il prete rosso”, the red priest; a name recalling his flame red hair and red coat. He wrote many pieces for them to perform at services; building up his reputation. Whilst retaining his links with La Pieta, fame took him further afield; until his death in Vienna in 1741.

Today it is both a religious building and concert hall.  The present church with its fine neoclassical facade was designed by Giorgio Massari and built from 1745-60; with the facade being finally completed in 1906. It was purpose built with an oval form to maximise its acoustical qualities. (Note, Vivaldi died before the new church was finished, although many call it the Vivaldi’s church!)


Ospedale degli Incurabili.

The site of the Ospedale and its demolished church (which stood behind the building frontage), is located on the Fondamenta della Zattere; just to the east of the Zattere waterbus stop, in the Dorsoduro district. (Below left: today and right: 18th century engraving).







The Ospedale degli Incurabili, dates from the early 16th century; the first documented mention of it is from 1522. It was established by Gaetano da Thiene, with money donated by two noblewomen; Maria Grimani and Maria Malipiero.

It was at first, intended to accommodate those with incurable diseases such as syphilis; but later, just like several other Venetian institutions, became an orphanage.

From about 1565, (when a request for funds was made to the Senate), until his death in 1597; Antonio da Ponte was responsible for the construction of the substantial building. It had a large porticoed courtyard, in which stood a church dedicated to San Salvatore; probably built to a design by Jacopo Sansovino. It has been suggested, that he was also responsible for the layout of the hospital building; which others attribute to Antonio Zentani.

In 1807, after the suppression of religious orders which followed the fall of the Republic of Venice; the Incurabili became first a civil hospital and then, in 1819, a military barracks. The church of San Salvatore was stripped of its contents, which included the altars, marble statuary, and paintings by L’Aliense, Giorgione, Sante Peranda, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese and was closed. In 1831 it was demolished.

As in the other three Ospedali Grandi, the young women of the Gli Incurabili, received extensive musical education and gave musical performances; which by the eighteenth century had acquired international renown. Among those who gave accounts of such performances were Charles Burney, Goethe, Johann Joachim Quantz and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  The first documented oratorio performance at the Incurabili was in 1677.

The church at Gli Incurabili, was the first to adopt the oval form, that propagated sound waves in a regular manner; inspired by resonance chamber of stringed instruments. The wooden roof was designed in the shape of an inverted lute; also for acoustical reasons. Within the present day cloister, the stonework of the floor, is marked out in a form; that indicates out the area of the original church.

Today the building is occupied by the Academy of Fine Arts


San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti.

The church associated with the Ospedale, stands facing the Rio di Mendicanti; to the north of Santi Giovanni e Paolo and Venice’s main civic hospital, in the district of Castello (photo and engraving below). The nearest waterbus stop is the Ospedale, on the Fondamenta Nuove. It now serves as the chapel of the Civic Hospital of Venice.

In 1601, the Mendicant Friars commissioned building of this church from the architect Vincenzo Scamozzi. When the church of the San Lazzaro e dei Mendicanti, was consecrated in 1636, it was said to be Venice’s most splendid ospedale.  The nave has no flanking aisles, but does have choir galleries. The interior of the church displays artworks by Tintoretto, Guardi, and Canaletto; some of these taken from the Incurabili, before it was demolished. As at the Pietà, the choir galleries are still covered in metal grills.The church also contains several ornate funeral monuments. One was completed by Sardi and dedicated to the condottiero Tommaso Alvise Mocenigo; represented as the admiral, who died defending the then Venetian Candia (Crete) from the Ottomans in 1654; during the Cretan War (1645–1669).

The “coro” at the Mendicanti was established decades after those of the other three ospedali. Its first mass was celebrated in 1602 and its earliest external musician, Marieta Giusti, was hired in 1612 from the coro of the Pieta. The Mendicanti, were also known to have an impressive collection of instruments.

Historically, it is the oldest and longest running of the four ospedali. Its origins date back to 1182, when it was established as a leper colony on the Isle of San Lazaro, receiving its name from St. Lazarus, the patron saint of lepers. In 1262, it was taken over by the Brothers and Sisters of the Mendicant order and in 1474, the state appointed a lay board to manage; what was now known as a home for beggars. It was relocated next to the Church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, on the other side of which, would later stand the Dereletti. In 1494, it was enlarged to include orphans and other inmates. After the Council of Trent in 1590, the Mendicanti was established as an all-encompassing charitable centre and by 1600, governors were making daily searches for new clients. Divided by age into children, adolescents and adults and able to accommodate a capacity of about 400 adults and 100 children; the Mendicanti housed beggars and their families, fatherless children (male and female), retired working class men and women, the sick, and elderly patricians .

The term “Mendicanti” is probably derived from the Mendicant Friars, or possibly from a shelter for beggars (“mendicanti”), as well as lepers.


Santa Maria dei Derelitti.

The church commonly known as the church of the “Ospedaletto”, has a striking facade (Photo below left. Right, an engraving by Martin Engelbrech).

Named Ospedaletto, because it was the smallest of the four hospices; it was created to care for the sick and then extended to include orphans, the homeless poor, the elderly and even pilgrims. It is situated in the Calle della Barbaria delle Tole, in the district of Castello and a short distance to the east of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the Scuola Grande di San Marco and today’s main Civic Hospital. The nearest waterbus stop is the Ospedale, on the Fondamenta Nuove.











Founded by a lay congregation in 1528, work on the current church began in 1575; replacing an existing small chapel.  Also, other original timber buildings were replaced by stone structures.  The original plan was by Palladio, but due to a lack of funds, work progressed slowly until around1662, when a large bequest was made by the wealthy merchant, Bartolomeo Cargnoni. Work progressed at a greater pace and buildings were enlarged. Antonio Sardi and his son worked on the hospice building, until they were dismissed after two years,;following an unresolvable dispute. Below however, is a photo of Sardi’s magnificent staircase and one of the wonderful frescoes, by Jacopo Guarana and Agostino Mengozzi Colonna.

Baldassare Longhena, was brought in to complete the works in 1666 and his contribution included the extravagant Baroque facade, the reworking of the high altar by Antonio and Giuseppe Sardi and the enlargement of the choir; with the creation of a balcony opening in the upper part of the high altar. He also was responsible for the “Courtyard of the Four Seasons” (1667), a solution intended to provide the putte’s lodgings, with a view onto an open space.

From that time, up to the early twenty-first century, donations from generous benefactors provided the Ospedale dei Derelitti, with funds for its many additions and modifications. The church was furnished with lavish decorations, altars, statues, paintings and frescoes, by famous artists such as Gian Battista Tiepolo, Johann Carl Loth, Pietro Liberi, Antonio Molinari, Andrea Celesti and sculptor Tommaso Ruer. Painter Giuseppe Cherubini in 1905, decorated the church ceiling with a style blending eighteenth-century tradition and belle-époque taste.

In 1537, governors voted to establish a “coro” at the Derelitti and the first statutes were drawn. They first employed a prioress and then later brought in distinguished teachers; to complete the girls musical education. The first public vespers of the ospedali occurred in 1550, beginning the tradition of public concerts on weekends and Holy Days, to encourage donations.

The Ospedaletto’s musical activities, benefitted from the addition of a new space besides its church; with an excellent acoustic to be used on official occasions. Built between 1776–1777, in the area occupied by the outer wings of the Ospedale, beyond the Four Seasons courtyard; the hall was located on the first floor, where the kitchens had once been. Decorated with great elegance and sobriety, this small room is characterised by an elliptic plan, a casket-shape volume rounded at the corners, faux doors, and a discreet off-centre entrance. These were all solutions adopted, to surprise the viewer and create the optical illusion of a larger space.

The frescoes are by Jacopo Guarana and Agostino Mengozzi Colonna, the two last representatives of a pictorial tradition, that with Giovan Battista Tiepolo; had reached its highpoint in the eighteenth century.












The Derelitti followed a similar decline in the late 18th century as its sister organisations, the Incurabili and Mendicanti; the final oratorio performed at the Derelitti, being a setting of Gioas by Joseph Schuster in 1803.

The complex, became an old-people’s home in 1807 and is now owned by IRE – a public body running homes for the elderly and single mothers, whose offices are next door. Since 2016, the church is now used for concerts.



Other related posts, in the category of History and Architecture

Try my post on Venice’s most famous composer and musician associated with La Pieta:   Antonio Vivaldi – Life and Legacy 

You might like to learn about the Italian art and craft of stringed instrument-making; that has contributed to the greatness of Italian culture:    Museo della Musica


Here are the links to my top 10 favourite churches:

St Mark’s Basilica

Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari

Santa Maria della Salute

Santa Maria dei Miracoli

San Francesco della Vigna

Madonna dell’Orto

San Zaccaria

Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Santa Maria Formosa

San Pantalon


Ospedali Grandi of Venice    Ospedali Grandi of Venice     Ospedali Grandi of Venice    Ospedali Grandi of Venice

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