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Exploring San Servolo Asylum: Venice's island of madness


Throughout history, society has grappled with an enduring question: How do we live alongside those we don’t understand? From the Bimaristans of the Islamic world to the lunatic asylums of early modern Europe, we have often sought to segregate ourselves from those we deem to be mad, casting them adrift from mainstream society. One particularly striking example of this tendency can be found on the island of San Servolo, a floating asylum just outside the slowing sinking city of Venice, Italy.

Just a ten-minute boat ride from Piazza San Marco, the island of San Servolo was once the seat of the Venetian Calbana family, who established a Benedictine monestry on the island in 810. The cyclical rhythms of monastic life remained unbroken until the mid-18th century when, along with its vineyards and books and hymn, the monastery was closed down and became a hospital for Venetian nobles suffering from afflictions of the mind.

Run by San Giovanni di Dio, a religious order that took care of the mentally ill, the asylum opened its doors in 1725. By 1797, Napolean had conquered almost all of Italy in the name of the French revolution. He decreed that all people, regardless of class or gender, should be shipped to the island if they revealed symptoms of mental illness. Over the next 200 years, San Servolo became Venice’s island of madness, a dark secret lying just beyond the perimeter of one of the most romantic cities in Europe. It played host to over 200,000 patients, most of whom died there, unable to return to their homes just beyond the water. Conditions would not have been good, and many of the patients would have been submitted to long spells of isolation, as well as leucotomy and electro-shock therapy.

In the 1970s things started to change. Since the ’50s, a movement to deinstitutionalise the treatment of the mentally ill had slowly been gaining momentum. In 1978 the Basaglia law was passed, resulting in the closure of asylums such as San Servolo. That same year the Italian government created the “Istituto per le Ricerche e gli Studi sull´Emarginazione Sociale e Culturale” (the Institute for the Study of Social and Cultural Marginalization). This meant that the documents related to the hospital’s history were preserved, many of which are included in the exhibits at the ‘Museum of Madness’, established on the renovated island in 2006.

Divided into nine sections, the museum houses the Laboratory, the Ambulatory, Didactic Products, Sickness Therapies, Straightjackets, the Sick, Lodgings, Pharmacy, and Anatomical Theater. It also features many of the instruments used to treat and restrain the mentally ill, including electro-shock machines and handcuffs. However, the exhibits also feature examples of treatments we still use today, including examples of music therapy, which was attempted for the first time at San Servolo by hospital director Cesare Vigna, a close friend of Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi. In a letter to Vigna, Verdi wrote: “Although I am not a physiologist, I nevertheless see the utmost importance of your studies and the interest they can bring to our art, not only as regards medicine, but also as regards aesthetics and criticism, which certainly need a better and more rational direction.”

The museum also holds photo albums of San Servolo patients from 1874 through to the 20th century. The library, meanwhile, features a collection of psychiatric, scientific and religious works stretching back to the 1500s. That’s not to mention the extensive botanical garden packed with rare plants that were once relied upon to supply the pharmacy with medicine.

Venice is currently hosting the annual Biennale, an international contemporary art exhibition that brings hordes of tourists during the summer season. If you happen to be in the city and fancy taking a break from the crowds, you can visit San Servolo by taking the number 20 ferry from San Zaccaria. You might even want to combine your trip with a visit to another former asylum onPoveglia, which was a plague quarantine island during the medieval era.