What happened when an artist walked down the corridors of a conventional, rather undistinguished fifty-year-old hospital that was neither ancient nor famous and looked for beauty?
He found it.
For beauty is everywhere and everybody needs it. It is in the eye of the beholder, a truism now more likely to be learnt from a movie (such as Elegy) or television program (The Twilight Zone’s Eye of the Beholder comes to mind) than at school.
In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare wrote that “beauty is bought by judgment of the eye.” Walking with a camera, musician and filmmaker Gilberto Richiero found beauty in the shadows on the blue floor of our hospital’s main corridor, in the crooks of walking sticks waiting on a shelf over a lilac radiator, in the red leather covers of our students’ theses, in the contrast between a wall and a fire extinguisher, and in the hospital windows bathed in great, clean light (Figure 1).
The importance of beauty in healing is as old as medicine itself. Egle (or Aglaea), the youngest daughter of Asclepius, is one of the goddesses of healing, sister of Hygeia (goddess of cleanliness and health), of Iaso and Aceso (goddesses of recuperation and healing), and of Panacea (goddess of universal remedy). She is the goddess of splendor, of glory, and of magnificence. She shares these attributes with the other mythological Egles: a byname of the moon; a playful nymph; a daughter of the sun; one of the blissful Hesperides. Egle is beauty.
Beauty as essential to hope and healing has been a leitmotif throughout the history of medicine. Our hospital, San Luigi Gonzaga-Orbassano in Torino, is not a classical example of beauty but has charm as shadows merge in the postmodern blue floor of the corridor.
In the twelfth century, Trotula de Ruggiero, probably the most famous of the Mulieres Salernitanae (the women physicians of the Scola Sanitaria Salernitana), and thought to be the author of “De passionibus mulierum ante, in, et post partum” (“On women’s diseases before, during, and after childbirth,” also called Trotula Maior), wrote a book on cosmetics and women’s beauty that deals with beauty, health, and hygiene as part of an analysis of herbs and remedies (De ornatu mulierum or Trotula Minor).
The Italian Renaissance saw the founding of hospitals in which attention to hygiene and beauty were guiding principles. Beauty often triumphed over functionality, such as in the infants in Andrea della Robbia’s marvelous tondos set between the delicate columns of the Ospedale degli Innocenti in Filippo Brunelleschi’s masterpiece. Hospitals were opportunities for artists to share beauty and for “the innocents” to experience it. The gorgeous frescos in the 15th century Pellegrinaio ofSanta Maria della Scala in Siena tell us that the desire for beauty is deeply rooted in healing and suffering.
Almost five centuries later, beauty shaped the social and artistic vision of the great Catalan architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner. His outstanding achievement is the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau (the Hospital of the Holy Cross and of Saint Paul), a UNESCO world heritage site. It is one of the pearls of Catalan modernism, a philosophical as well as artistic movement that combines devotion to beauty with a search for functionality and the desire to offer patients a social network of care. Built between 1900 and 1930 the hospital consists of several enamel-roofed pavilions, each decorated with a different naturalistic design related to the illness or its treatment. Here pure beauty prevails, as in the angels and the gargoyles on the balcony of the surgery pavilion, and we feel the joy of the artist overwhelmed by the desire to merge symbols with a comprehensive social vision of life.
The soul needs color, it needs a home; and once we recognize that in the depth of our soul there is a home for beauty, we must treat our hospitals with the same love for beauty that we seek for our homes.
GIORGINA BARBARA PICCOLI, MD, studied medicine and nephrology at the University of Torino, Italy. Since 1999 she has been a university researcher and since December 2007, she has been head of the nephrology unit and teacher in charge of the nephrology course (Aggregate Professor) in the San Luigi Hospital, University of Torino. Her clinical activities are mainly dedicated to fragile patients (diabetic and elderly patients, pregnancy, and rare diseases). The research activity (which includes over 180 indexed publications) consists of studies on clinical, quality of life, and ethical aspects of nephrology. She is section editor of BMC Nephrology and art consultant for Nephrology Dialysis and Transplantation.
GILBERTO RICHIERO is a musician and filmmaker, working outside the commercial networks, dedicating most of his activity to a private “search for beauty and simplicity of the soul.” His long lasting and strong friendship with Giorgina Piccoli has produced a large collection of interviews of the European pioneers of nephrology. The opening ceremony of the EDTA-ERA in Paris 2012 offers an idea of his composite artistic language.