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Luciana Macaluso

Future memories. The former psychiatric hospital in Palermo

Francesco Paolo Palazzotto, New Asylum of Palermo, Bird's eye view, 1884 (Palazzotto Archive) in: web site edited by research group PRIN 2008 Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli - Cettina Lenza (Scientific Coordinator) - Università degli Studi di Palermo, Cesare Airoldi (Scientific Responsible of Unit of Palermo)  - ZOOM

Francesco Paolo Palazzotto, New Asylum of Palermo, Bird's eye view, 1884 (Palazzotto Archive) in: web site edited by research group PRIN 2008 Seconda Università degli Studi di Napoli - Cettina Lenza (Scientific Coordinator) - Università degli Studi di Palermo, Cesare Airoldi (Scientific Responsible of Unit of Palermo)


The memory of the former asylum in Palermo has a future. The reuse of the complex can reveal to the urban community the everyday life of who was called "mad" but also of the monuments, underground paradises, other historical traces, and a new permeability of the urban paths. The project for the Vignicella Palace, elaborated, among others, in a PRIN research (Program of Research of National Interest) is, rather than a solution, an exploration of the potential of the complex and a contribution to the knowledge of its architectural principles.

The town within the town

In Palermo, Pietro Pisani founded the first "Royal House of the Mad" in 1824. It was outside the western city walls, not far from the Royal Palace and Porta Nuova, in the former novitiate of the order Teresiani Scalzi which is located in the ‘Porrazzi’-plane (1). During the nineteenth century psychiatry progressed and the admissions increased. As a result, in 1885, Francesco Paolo Palazzotto was commissioned to design a "New Asylum" in an area of 25 hectares about a kilometre away from the previous site and at a “safe distance” from the historical core, according to the typical isolation of these structures (2).

That asylum appears like a town: it is surrounded by walls (3); it has an autonomous and recognizable forma urbis (4); a tree-lined main axis mediates the relationship between the buildings; it stands on a territory with historical and agricultural traces: the Vignicella palace (XVI century), a baroque church, the qanat (Arab hydraulic pipes), Scibene medieval Palace and Park; it was characterized by a dialectic between town and countryside, at least at the beginning; it has an assorted vegetation (5); it is a closed core around which the urban fabric grew, especially from the fifties; the overlap of “the town above the other town” produced an unresolved duality full of contradictions. A unitary experience has to be made allowing the planned re-use of the former asylum.

Current condition, between memory and forecasts

Following the approval of the law of 13 May 1978 n. 180 that imposed the closure of the asylum due to regulating compulsory health care by the institution of public mental hygiene services, the pavilions were gradually abandoned. Some of them that are sited near via La Loggia and via Pindemonte are still used as a health centre. The Palace of La Vignicella was vacated and partially restored; since May 2007 it can be visited upon reservation. The memories of its last use remain alive in the oven where the patients made bread, in the historical medical instrumentation exposed and in various photographs and material collected and ordered there. Speleologists and visitors of the qanat (Arab aqueduct) occasionally inhabited the ground floor of the building and the square in front of it. More intense is the use of sports facilities near Vignicella. Adjacent to the former convent, the Greek cross church dedicated to Santa Maria dell’Uscibene, later was titled to Santa Rosalia and restored, in the 90's of the twentieth century. On the west side of the ecclesiastical complex was the so-called "farm colony" of the asylum, recently granted by the Provincial Health Authority of Palermo to the Social Solidarity Cooperative. A nursery of fat plants has been created; it is a meeting point that proves the urban community’s desire to appropriate of the complex.

The segregation of the former mental hospital is strongest in its central part and along via Altarello, where the urban influence is weak. The northern margin is bordered by the Pitrè Public Housing designed by Luigi Epifanio and built since 1949 to 1951 between via Pitrè and via Altarello. Among other housing interventions, this was part of a first phase of urban expansion that reached its peak during the Sixties and Seventies of the last century. The urban plan for Palermo of 1962 included the idea of a beltway, planned just before, that confirmed, making it stronger, the west limit of the asylum’s lot. This street acted a dual role. It was parallel to the coast, thus, on the one hand, it cut the historic tracks with a sea-mountains direction that connected Palermo to the villages out of the walls: the beltway definitively divided the agricultural area around the Vignicella from the Scibene park which before was almost continuous to Boccadifalco; rural areas were saturated with constructions and sports facilities; via Altarello (historical link between Palermo, Altarello and Baida) lost its role in the territory. On the other side, the beltway became the generating element of a new town that in a few years absorbed the street itself changing it from a high speed road to a "urban boulevard", "third axis of foundation"(6). Therefore, an “extraneous” urban fabric surrounded the hospital complex that, like the public housing "Pitré", turned to it the backs.

The current General Plan envisages “public spaces and facilities of general interest”, especially, hospitals and health places, and a museum with cultural and exhibition equipment, in some ways connected with an urban park extending to west of the ring road and being “public green” near the Scibene Palace.

Beyond the pair “form and function”

In the nineteenth century the encyclopaedic organization of the knowledge, the development of manuals, the industrialization, the progress of technology, the hygienism and the construction of middle-class cities are among the reasons that led to specific pairs, apparently unique, of shapes and functions. The cemetery, the prison, the slaughterhouse, the theatre, the mental hospital buildings are designed for specific functions. However, in some cases even the cemeteries became gardens or places of art, like the monumental ones, or even, in extreme conditions such as in Navotas, in the Philippines, due to poverty and lack of space, these are actually inhabited (7). «In all the towns» Aldo Rossi wrote «there are large blocks or building complexes that are pieces of towns and whose function changed during the time. Palazzo della Ragione in Padua [...] surprises us for the plurality of functions that this type of building can have. These functions are independent of the shape that affects us remaining impressed in our minds. We live the shape as the structure of the town» (8). The shape rests like physical material and like a memory of previous experiences, uses, roles that the building took in the imagination of every citizen. In Palermo, “You belong to Vignicedda!”, “Vatinni' (Go) to Vignicedda!” or the allusion to via Pindemonte mean exhortations to who is showing signs of folly or extravagance. The asylum has a particular position in the topographic and semantic map of social representations (9) and the conversion into public use should take that into account. The survey of the current state of the place will include the metrics quantities expressed in centimetres or meters and, at the same time, their "qualitative changes" imprinted by memories and prejudices.

Two studies in architectural design carried out at the University of Palermo

The heterogeneity of the issues, such as the transformation of the historical villages and the urban beltway (10), brought the former psychiatric hospital of Palermo to the attention of some researches of the Faculty of Architecture (then Department of Architecture) (11). Pasquale Culotta and Cesare Ajroldi were respectively responsible for the scientific unit of the University of Palermo in two Programs of National Interest (PRIN) funded in 2002 and 2008 (12).

Pasquale Culotta invited thirty-four Italian and foreign groups to develop “probe-projects”(13). This method considers the project like a process of acquisitions, errors and synthesis able to offer an interpretive key. Therefore the proposals collected for the “Coordination and documentation centre” between the Vignicella and the beltway are future memories for possible actions, they indicate «various approaches [...] that we can use for the road (uniqueness, fragmentation, linearity, overpasses…) and in the new urban connections (multiplicity of open spaces, integration of public spaces…» (14).

In a different way, Cesare Ajroldi grafted a design experiment into a historical atlas of Italian asylums (15). Ajroldi organized a workshop involving teams from Milan, Naples and Reggio Calabria, and doctors of the PhD course in Architectural Design that worked on Restoration of the Modern Architecture (16).

The Vignicella like an urban hinge

In the workshop, Cesare Ajroldi proposed the theme "Monument, project, geometry". Within this topic, a new entrance to Vignicella Palace has been designed (17). In 1560 the Vignicella (small vineyard) was called “The Villa”. This toponymy variation suggests that over time the building lost some of its monumentality. However, its eastern side preserves the ancient rigor where the windows are symmetrical, the vertical dimension prevails and the volume rises isolated and compact without any later additions. From a farer point of view, the main role of this element is clear; it is almost in the axis of the psychiatric hospital. From above, the beltway seems the only interruption; the land planted or sometimes uncultivated, stretches up to the slopes of Monte Cuccio on the Boccadifalco plane. From this bird's eye view the vegetation swamps the buildings; it appears like a continuous park that really does not exist at the ground level, also because of the orographic condition.

The Vignicella palace can have a decisive role in the transformation of this satellite virtual image into a real and human experience. The first step is the strengthening of the monumentality of "The Villa". Therefore, the original volume has to be restored through the elimination of the recent additions. Hence the architecture will clearly emerge from the ground and the west elevation will regain a dimensional relation between height and width adapted to its urban role. Moreover in this proposal, a walkway crosses over the beltway connecting the first floor of Vignicella palace with a parking lot (18). At this level there is the entrance hall to the museum that is the functional program forecasted in the general plan. Stairs and elevators inside of "The Villa" should link the parking lot, the foyer, the park and the qanat (19). The east entrance takes on a vital role for the correlation of the different levels. The existing staircase is replaced with a new compact basement that enhances the façade and overlooks a hollowed vestibule. The calcareous stone of the walls anticipates the physical character of the underground. A new staircase connects the square level, where the church stands, to the patio below. The lapping of the water flowing on the wall opposite the staircase accompanied the descent. The highest part of the fountain is a water mirror. It gives a special atmosphere to the patio and it is necessary to make superfluous a railing on the square that would fragment the image of the new basement. From the patio, two accesses led to the ticket office for the qanat visit, where the light comes down.

The project aims to enhance the memory of the former hospital transmitting the shape of "The Villa"; it works in an architectural scale, but it is the start of a broader urban change (20). The spread of this action can solve the duality of the “town within the town”, leading to a renewed confidence into the project, in its various dimensions.


1 About the “Real Casa dei Matti” (Royal House of Fools) and Pietro Pisani, see: P. Pisani, Istruzioni per la novella Real casa dei matti, Palermo 1827; B. Serio, Biografia di Pietro Pisani, Palermo 1839; A. Barbato, G. Agnetti, La Real Casa dei Matti di Palermo: trattamento morale e politica istituzionale nei primi decenni dell’Ottocento, in A. De Bernardi (edited by), Follia, psichiatria e società, Franco Angeli, Milan 1982, pp.211-246; A. Barbato, G. Agnetti, Il Barone Pisani e la Real Casa dei Matti, Sellerio, Palermo 1987.

2 For a description of this architecture see: Francesco Paolo Palazzotto, Cenni sul progetto del nuovo manicomio di Palermo, in «Il Pisani, appendice», 1898, pp.2-3 and the essays by Maria Teresa Marsala, Un percorso storico nella “Città dei matti” di Palermo: dalla Real Casa (1824) al Nuovo manicomio (1885), in Il Manicomio di Palermo. L’istituzione, il vissuto, la svolta, Medina, Palermo 1999, pp.17-69; L’ospedale psichiatrico (1885-1937) di Palermo: “un’architettura dimenticata” da recuperare, in Pasquale Culotta, Andrea Sciascia, Archivi dell’architettura del XX secolo in Sicilia. Il centro di coordinamento e documentazione, L’Epos, Palermo 2006, p.29 and ff.; Nuovo manicomio Pietro Pisani di Palermo, in Cesare Ajroldi, Maria Antonietta Crippa, Gerardo Doti, Laura Guardamagna, Cettina Lenza, Maria Luisa Neri (a cura di), I complessi manicomiali in Italia tra Otto e Novecento, Electa, Milan 2013, p.322 and ff..

3 The walls are along the streets: Pindemonte, Gaetano La Loggia, Altarello and viale Regione Siciliana (the beltway of Palermo). In the first project of the complex «the perimeter fence was not continuous. Then it has been organized following the implant alignments», M.T. Marsala, op. cit., Milan 2013, p.322. The walls are currently interrupted only at the administration building and near the neurological clinic, which are a spatial and functional connection with the city; these are also the only buildings with an urban facade.

4 In the first version by Palazzotto, the exedra was double and symmetrical on the west and east sides.

5 Francesco Maria Raimondo, Il patrimonio vegetale del parco dell’ospedale psichiatrico “P. Pisani”, in op. cit., Medina, Palermo 1999, p.239 and ff..

6 Pasquale Culotta, Vincenzo Melluso, Un viale urbano di 120 km, Medina, Palermo 1998; AA.VV., Palermo. Il terzo asse di fondazione, L'Epos, Palermo 2005.

7 Death in the city: what happens when all our cemeteries are full?, «theguardian», 21.01.2015.

8 Aldo Rossi, L’architettura della città, Città Studi, Milan 1995, pp.21-22, (Ist edit. Venice 1966).

9 Vincenzo Sanfilippo, Rosangela Magazzù, La riconversione dell’ospedale psichiatrico di Palermo. Risorse e strumenti per una progettazione partecipata, in op. cit., Medina, Palermo 1999, p.147.

10 Cesare Ajroldi (edited by), Le borgate di Palermo, Sciascia editore, Caltanissetta-Rome 1984; AA.VV., op. cit., L'Epos, Palermo 2005.

11 See the study “Le città die Matti“: un percorso cognitivo per il riuso die manicomi (MURST 60%, 1997, Dipartimento di Città e territorio) in which Maria Teresa Marsala was involved.

12 PRIN 2002 “Gli archivi del progetto di urbanistica, architettura e design; spazi, organizzazione e gestione”, National Coordinator Antonio Piva, Politecnico di Milano, Scientific leader of the Unity of Palermo Pasquale Culotta. In: Pasquale Culotta, Andrea Sciascia, op. cit., Palermo 2006.

PRIN 2008 “I complessi manicomiali in Italia fra Otto e Novecento. Atlante del patrimonio storico-architettonico ai fini della conoscenza e della volorizzazione”, National Coordinator Cettina Lenza, Seconda Università di Napoli, Scientific leader of the Unity of Palermo Cesare Ajroldi. In: Cesare Ajroldi, Maria Antonietta Crippa, Gerardo Doti, Laura Guardamagna, Cettina Lenza, Maria Luisa Neri (edited by), op. cit., Milan 2013.

13 Pasquale Culotta, La sonda del progetto per un Centro di coordinamento e documentazione degli archivi dell’architettura del XX secolo in Sicilia, in Pasquale Culotta, Andrea Sciascia, op. cit., Palermo 2006, p.11-15.

14 Ivi, p.14.

15 Cesare Ajroldi, Progetto e restauro: workshop a Palermo, in Cesare Ajroldi, Maria Antonietta Crippa, Gerardo Doti, Laura Guardamagna, Cettina Lenza, Maria Luisa Neri (edited by), op. cit., Milan 2013, p. 347.

16 See the PhD books edited by Emanuele Palazzotto, Esperienze nel restauro del Moderno, Franco Angeli, Milan 2013; Il restauro del Moderno in Italia e in Europa, Franco Angeli, Milan 2011; Il progetto nel Restauro del Moderno, L’Epos, Palermo 2007.

17 The project Nuovo ingresso alla Vignicella (A new entrance to Vignicella) has been processed by Tomaso Garigliano and Luciana Macaluso.

18 Both the pedestrian crossing the beltway and the parking are provided by General Regulation Plan.

19 In this context, the qanat, Arab channels, can be visited. Their section allows you to walk inside. The tunnel is about 12 meters deep and averagely 80 centimetres height. At the end of the path, from the top an eye illuminates a wide circular room. The hole, on the outside, is one of the necessary openings of aqueduct. The canals brought the water into surface intercepting the ground water level of the earth.

20 Cesare Ajroldi, op. cit., Milan 2013, p.352.

Luciana Macaluso

University of Palermo

Architect, she studied at Palermo (UniPa) and Barcelona (ETSAB). In 2011 she was PhD in Architectural Design at the University of Palermo. In 2014 she was post-PhD researcher at Leibniz University of Hannover. She taught at the University of Palermo and at the University of Parma; she currently works at the Department of Architecture of Palermo. Among her publications: La Chiesa Madre di Gibellina (Officina, Rome 2013); Rural-urban Intersections (MUP, Parma 2016); Concilio Vaticano II e progetto urbano. Le chiese di San Raffaele Arcangelo e San Giovanni Evangelista a Palermo, (in Architettura cultuale nel Mediterraneo, Franco Angeli, Milan 2015).

Project of Piazza della Vignicella and base of Vignicella

Project of Piazza della Vignicella and base of Vignicella