photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán

photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán

photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán photo by Lina Vergara Huilcamán

In the middle of the Po Valley, outside Reggio Emilia, what is left of the SAN LAZZARO MENTAL HOSPITAL overlooks the Via Emilia. It was there for centuries, a small town devoted to the treatment of the insane. Formerly separated from the normal world by means of thick perimeter walls, it consisted of a group of buildings, pavilions that contained and treated various mental disorders.  Wide and fertile fields stretched behind it, cultivated by the insane themselves. Agriculture was only one of the many activities they carried out as a contribution to the support of the whole complex. In 1217 this institute was a leprosarium, then it became an alms-house until in 1536 it was officially turned into a mental hospital, an asylum for the insane, the mentally ill, the lunatic, but also the disabled, decrepit, lame, epileptic, deaf mute, blind, paralytic, all those people that damage both the decorum and the seemingly regular functioning of society.* In 1821, Francis IV, Duke of Modena, appointed Antonio Galloni as director of the “Stabilimento Generale delle Case de’ Pazzi degli Stati Estensi”, and charged him to reorganize the asylum and destine it exclusively to the treatment of the mentally ill.  The duke entirely funded this “great restauration”, which took thirty years to be completed and included: rationalizing spaces, separating genres and dividing patients according to their illness and social class.  Galloni started humanizing treatments and developed the moral therapy, a proper rehabilitation plan based on a strict discipline and a hard labour, a healthy diet, walks and expressive workshops. San Lazzaro became a small self-sufficient community, a modern institution and a vanguard research establishment that participated in national and international exhibitions. In 1900 it participated in the Exposition Universelle de Paris with a photographic exhibition that was awarded the golden medal. The pictures were later collected in a red album printed in gold letters. It is now preserved in the Carlo Livi Scientific Library in Reggio Emilia and can be consulted  upon request and authorization. Leafing through the album, you can see what the asylum looked like: the dormitories, the  first, second and third class living rooms, the schoolrooms, the drawing workshops, the labour in the fields, the butcher’s, the kitchen, the professors’ offices, the cranioteque.  A small huge world enclosed by those thick perimeter walls, the symbol of a seclusion that lasted for ages, until it was torn down in 1978, as the Law 180 ordered the closing down of psychiatric hospitals.
San Lazzaro was closed down in 1994, after all the patients were discharged.
*”Volti e corpi di ordinaria follia“, Sandro Parmeggiani – Il volto della follia, Skira.

It is the only pavilion in San Lazzaro Neuropsychiatric Institute that you are still allowed to visit, every Saturday at 4.30 pm. The restoration work has turned it into a fine exhibition of what a mental hospital looked like: a silent gallery of rooms where you can easily imagine how patients lived. Mute walls in quiet pastel colours and empty rooms that whisper incredible stories to anyone who will listen.  This pavilion hosted the criminally insane, the dangerous ones.
Even Antonio Ligabue, the painter, was confined here.

Cesare Lombroso (1835 – 1909)
Psychiatrist, anthropologist, university professor of legal medicine and public health, of psychiatry and psychiatric clinic, and of criminal anthropology. He attempted to find out a series of connections between individual anomalies, both physical and psychosomatic, and the moral degeneration of criminals. He classified criminals on a strict anthropologic basis and theorized that congenital hereditary defects are the main cause of crimes.

“… they told me to lie down on the bed, then they gave me the injection and then the shock…
it felt like dying…
I don’t know how many times I died… ”

“… You know, all these wards have a particular smell you can’t forget, a mixture of pee, mould and fermented saliva…
My bed is nailed to the floor, my mouth is fixed to the cot side by a soaked blanket.
From time to time they unfasten me to clean up the room and they keep me at a distance with a punch.
The mask on my mouth prevents me from spitting.
I couldn’t bite because I have no teeth… ”

“… Afterwards you can’t remember anything, you can’t recognize anybody…
who knows how many thoughts I left there… ”

L’esperienza di Reggio Emilia, Testimonianze di lotta popolare contro il manicomio.
 All the stories published herein have been recorded by Piero Colacicchi