The fascinating museum of Santa Maria della Scala boasts vivid frescoes, underground tunnels, Etruscan and Roman relics. Welcome to a place that allows you to get up close to Siena’s past.

This building, right opposite Siena Cathedral, was one of the first recorded hospitals in Europe, founded around the year 1000. Today the museum is home to an eclectic mix of religious artefacts and ancient relics in a setting that gives you a fascinating glimpse into the history of Siena.

Thanks to funds and donations, the institution of Santa Maria della Scala grew in wealth and importance. It acted at one time as hospital, pilgrim’s hostel, poorhouse and orphanage. Today the museum complex isn’t the most organised (there are few explanations in English) or easy to navigate, but it’s an experience nevertheless, if only for the atmosphere. It’s one of the most unusual and interesting sights in Siena.

santa maria della scala museum siena

Highlights of Santa Maria della Scala Museum:

The Pilgrim’s Hall is an impressive example of Medieval hospital architecture and contains a colourful series of 15th century frescos that depict daily scenes from the hospital and records the activities run in these rooms.

In the unusual frescoes by Domenico di Bartolo, there are scenes of a monk hearing a dying man’s confession and a surgeon cleaning the infected wounds of a young pilgrim. The works are secular and realistic, and give an honest look at everyday hospital life in the 15th century.

In the cellars is the dark and eerie Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte, where St. Catherine supposedly passed her nights in prayer. It’s atmospheric and a little spooky. Catherine decided to dedicate her life to God as a child, and worked right in this hospital. Other places to learn more about the life (and death) of Saint Catherine are the Church of San Domenico and her former house.

The Old Sacristy – This is the first room that you find on the right of the long entrance corridor. The frescoes here are painted by Lorenzo Vecchietta and Domenico di Bartolo.

The 14th century section of the edifice was originally used to shelter the numerous travellers who arrived in Siena for the Holy Year of 1300. Today it houses Jacopo della Quercia’s original work for the Fonte Gaia fountain that you’ve seen in Piazza del Campo.

The vast Archaeological Museum occupies the underground rooms, which were used as warehouses. It hosts collections and materials from across the Sienese territory. There are Roman and Etruscan objects, and an interesting collection of funerary urns.

=> See the 7 Top Museums to visit in Siena