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Report on the status of former psychiatric hospitals in Italy

Voices from former mental asylums

by Angela D'Agostino

Since the moment the confinement wall is crossed, the patient steps in a new dimension of emotional vacuum … i.e. he is introduced into a space that, though originally conceived both to make him harmless and to take care of him, turns out to be a place that looks paradoxically built for the complete annihilation of his individuality, the place of his total objectification. (Basaglia 1964)

This monographic issue, dealing with former psychiatric hospitals, depicts, through the interweaving of gazes and different territorial realities and destinies, a picture of the remains of one of the most important foucauldian institutions in Italy and somewhere abroad. Dealing with the remains implies the idea that oblivion shall not prevail. Probably, owing to what psychiatric hospitals have been, what really matters is being aware that so many stories of human beings, so many lives that were spent, will not be forgotten.
In this case, memory plays the role of a warning: it is important remembering because no more architecture for confinement must ever be built. Actually, once psychiatric hospitals have been decommissioned, the main focus has been drawn onto people, in order to retrieve all the traces of those who had intentionally been forgotten, excluded, confined. The main heritage to be retrieved and preserved has been the papers, medical records and all sorts of documents.The heritage we must cope with is though complex and various. In compliance with the Law Basaglia in 1980, in Italy psychiatric hospitals, which were spread through large and small towns and along the borders of urban centres all over the Country, were gradually decommissioned. Thus, besides the papers, some large architectural heritage is left. Real gated citadels, psychiatric complexes, which are composed of wards, pavilions, facilities, medical offices, workshops, paths, gardens, courtyards, have become potentially available to be opened to the cities and to be re-used.
This monographic issue tells about this, about what has happened to these large medical complexes since they were decommissioned as psychiatric hospitals. It reveals how six Italian and three European former hospitals, which were selected on the basis of their differences as well as of their being emblematic, are today.
Although all of them are recognizable as psychiatric hospitals, owing to the structure of their urban layout and to voids and building typology, former madhouses are some heritage that shows peculiar features in each different context. Even the recent fortunes of those large hospital complexes are differing, some of them were quickly reconverted, especially abroad, some others were partially (or seldom totally) reused following to redemption processes that were already started before their decommission (in very few Italian cases), yet abandonment is the most usual destiny.
Likewise the mad was forgotten in the cities that were built for them, those cities have often been the object of a damnatio memoriae.
Trieste is definitely an emblematic case in Italy, as says Peppe Dell’Acqua, the psychiatrist who supported first Franco Basaglia and then Franco Rotelli in accomplishing the process of drafting legislation on the necessity of closing psychiatric hospitals, and now is working inside and outside the San Giovanni’s complex in compliance with his belief that a new urban dimension of the places for the accommodation of the ill is necessary. In Trieste the experimentation of a brand new way to live the madhouse has been started, and this experimentation has been the link between through time, before and after the decommission; cooperatives and workshops were created and are still working; new ways to manage time and space have been experimented. And while all this keeps going on, new university, municipal, helpful and educational facilities have been settled in the former wards, and the whole area has become known under the name of San Giovanni’s cultural park, with its endless and various green richness, which spreads from organic agriculture to the recently bedded out magnificent rose garden. The park is open to the city and is crossed by a public transport line; according to Dell’Acqua “it is not, as you could imagine, a place of memory and absolutely not a memorial, on the contrary it is a daily challenge to imagine the future, to joy for the absence of walls and for a real condition of co-living”. In Trieste the main target was the preservation of the historical identity of the site and the change of way of living and inhabiting it.
Also at Paolo Pini’s in Milan, around the 1980s, a series of actions was started and some transformations were made to include new uses; a kind of ‘spontaneous re-functionalization’, so called by Pierfranco Galliani, was started even before the Law Basaglia had been approved and the psychiatric hospitals decommissioned. Yet, the peculiarity of the Milanese case is the presence of the art museum Paolo Pini. Artworks made by artists and patients are exhibited in the open spaces and the wards have become the surface for the painting of large murals. Art has marked the recent history of the former hospital in compliance with the idea of museum that is active rather then commemorative. Galliani, who has carried out a research project in the frame of the Research Programme of National Interest [PRIN] I complessi manicomiali in Italia tra Otto e Novecento [Psychiatric hospitals in Italy from 19th to 20th Century] states that “it is from this core, where art is a ‘social service’, that a research about the ever denied centrality of the old psychiatric hospital can start, also in a physical sense”.
The former psychiatric hospital in Gorizia, which Basaglia had led before being appointed director of the San Giovanni’s in Trieste, has had different fortunes. As Scavuzzo underlines, the loud voice of Basaglia’s reports had paradoxically favoured the damnatio memoriae of a site that was not only a madhouse but also the Italian-Jugoslavian border: a double boundary, a double impassable limit was set in Gorizia, where the work for redemption was only recently begun. A new educational programme as well as an archive is supposed to be added to the new mental health centre and to the facilities for Italian and foreign citizens that were made in the park. The archive is meant to “collect and enhance all materials found in the former hospital, the interest of which is not only psychiatric, but also historical with peculiar reference to one of the few, if not the only one, revolutions that has ever been accomplished in Italy”. The voice of Gorizia is then the voice of the students, who through teaching experiences faced the strenuous task to “give shape to the recovering of the identity of the park and of its memory”, in order not to reduce the former psychiatric hospital to a ‘memorial of sorrow’.
The Roman voice of the responsible staff of the Mental Lab Museum Educational Service, Local Health Autorithy of Rome 1, deals with the topic of memory. Vera Fusco, Francesca Gollo and Marco Salustri tell us about Santa Maria della Pietà’s pavilion re-used as a museum for narration, as it was defined by Studio Azzurro who designed it. In a psychiatric hospital, where there are medical and municipal facilities and houses, as well as associations and some abandoned space, the Lab Museum, embedded in the museum network in region Lazio, has become a documentary and information centre, serving an outstanding number of visitors, especially school classes.
Luciana Macaluso, who deals with the former psychiatric hospital in Palermo, has provided a different interpretation of the issue of memory. “The memory of the former madhouse in Palermo has a future” begins Macaluso, who, through a research by design project developed in the frame of the above-mentioned PRIN research programme, tells us about what is closed in the Sicilian abandoned former hospital, not only about human lives, but also about monuments, hypogene and non hypogene architecture, green space, and path that, once opened, could ‘change’ the urban structure of a part of Palermo.
In the last Italian case study, dealt with by myself, memory is referred to as something necessary with respect to the problematic legacy of the former psychiatric hospital in Napoli. The former Leonardo Bianchi’s is completely abandoned, motionless since it was closed, with objects, furniture and medical equipment that would seem to have been left just now if time had not left its marks of decay. In this case the advantage that delay brings could suggest hypothesis of transformation, rehabilitation and re-use, not bound to some precedent dating back to the time of closure, and therefore capable to completely shake up architecture, space and meanings. On the contrary, it is here underlined that the shift from the city for healthcare to the care of the city must focus on the idea that former psychiatric hospitals are a problematic and assorted legacy. In the case of former madhouses, by now urban ghosts, huge black holes in contemporary urban continuum, although we must catch the positive chance to freely face contemporary conditions, we mustn’t surrender to oblivion, neither to abandon nor to obliteration. The general reflections about the former psychiatric hospital in Napoli are flanked by one further voice, Maria Pia Amore’s, who reports a thesis project in architectural design that has faced the issues of cultural heritage and memory proposing hypothesis about new relationships between the Leonardo Bianchi’s and the city.
In conclusion, it is particularly interesting the comparison between the different fortunes of Italian psychiatric hospitals and those of some European institutions. The formers, although differing in their architectural and urban layouts as well as in their locations and times of transformation, are all remarkably featured and recognizable as former madhouses, even in the smallest detail. The latters are dealt with by Cettina Lenza, the principal investigator of the above-mentioned PRIN research programme, who tells us sbout the former hospitals in Oxford, Illenau and Lyon.
Also for them there are different layouts and different fortunes: Lyon has kept the use of taking care of the mental ill, Oxford was transformed into a housing complex, and Illenau host different functions, such as residence, public uses, and leisure, and has become a real neighbourhood. Intangible memory is carefully preserved; all papers are kept in archives. The original typology of architecture is still recognizable, but it is fully embedded in the contemporary town. The traces of the past are to be found in elements and fragments, such as plaques of the former wards, portals reassembled in open spaces, and even gadgets, which are intentionally reassembled and/or re-placed in order to remind.

Angela D'Agostino

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