"As soon as the patient passes the internment wall, he enters a new dimension of emotional emptiness ([...])" — Franco Basaglia (Italian psychiatrist, 1924-1980).
It seems strange to me to write that, but mental illness has been with me all my life. I grew up in Haar, a Munich suburb. A tranquil and beautiful place yet one that accommodates one of the largest psychiatric institutions in Germany. A beautiful area with old Art Nouveau buildings but also with a cruel dark past, because in World War II euthanasia was practiced here.
Having this in mind, my curiosity for the background of psychiatric institutions was awakened. When I visited one of these former institutions in Italy for the first time in 2013 and learned more about the sometimes cruel conditions, I realized that I wanted to photograph these places.
There are many stains on the white straitjacket in the history of psychiatry. Italy and its Manicomio was, unfortunately, a prime example here in the last century.
The law of 1904 allowed the police forces to obtain an urgent request for a briefing. So there were not only the mentally ill but also "unwanted" people such as the homeless, petty criminals, etc. who were instructed and denounced without a diagnosis. The church also had the power to determine who was mentally ill. The physicians and the respective other parties were in this under the same blanket, so the doctors often confirmed a disease even though there was no illness.
One More Light
Later, at a time when fascism prevailed in Italy, political opponents, disabled persons, and other groups of people who did not fit into the regime's model of society were barred to prison on the pretext of "social danger." So it went from 1926 to 1941, and the number grew from 62,000 to almost 100,000 inmates. Often, people were incapacitated and simply locked up until their death.
The living conditions in the asylums were mostly unworthy of human beings and the treatment methods were questionable and cruel: insulin treatments, restraint systems, and especially the later introduced electroshock therapy had devastating effects. The worst-off inmates experienced nothing but the lack of care and the robbery of human identity.
A New Dawn
Here is an excerpt from the medical file of Vicenzo M. who was admitted at the age of 17 and who was "held" for the following 27 years in the same ward:
"10.5.47: Electric shock
10.7.47: Feverishly occupied tongue
10.11.47: Nothing new
12.4.48: Always apathetic, stupid, deprived of all initiative. He expresses no wishes; smiles blandly, eats voluntarily, does not seem to hallucinate.
10.11.61: (After 13 years) severe mental confusion, apathetic, inactive, indifferent.
Quiet in 1964, not aggressive, idle
Unchanged in 1967
1970: Unresponsive, dirty, apathetic indifferent. " [Source]
The boy was only in the asylum for being a case of a "madman". Previously, he was a normal schoolboy.
The Last Walk
The end of this dark period came only 74 years later. when Legge 180, or otherwise known as the Basaglia Law, was issued on May 13, 1978. The Manicomi in their old form were closed. Franco Basaglia took over the management of the Psychiatric Clinic of Gorizia in 1961, having resigned as a psychiatry professor at the University of Padua since the theories taught there were wrong and had nothing to do with the condition of the persons in psychiatric hospitals. He was the first in the world to claim that one had to close and regulate psychiatric institutions because captivity, fixation, electroshock, and psychotropic drugs had no therapeutic value.
Today, many of these old, partly architecturally exciting buildings have been empty for many decades. They are memorials of ignorance and intolerance and they are monuments to thousands of terrible fates of innocent, sick and simply unfortunate people. Accordingly, I also felt an intense melancholy and oppressive mood when I visited these places. High, monastery-like corridors, high-security tracts, and dormitories that were often designed for 100 people or more.
Also, some of the legacies left there gave me goosebumps. Bathtubs that had electricity, old surgical chairs, children's chairs with ankle cuffs, straitjackets and old morgue tables.
Today, the old Manicomios disappear increasingly. Some were partially renovated or demolished because of the extreme danger of collapse. The vandalism has also increased in many of these places, helping it to become history.
Although our society has still not quite accepted that mental illness is a normal disease, it is shocking to see the dominant preconceptions until the mid-1970s. In any case, in comparison with conventional medicine, it was a scientific and moral Stone Age.
Next To You
Over the years, many photographs have been accumulated and I possibly have the opportunity to publish a book about it because the topic offers interesting content and so many facets. But for now, you can visit my website where I published also the first report about one of the asylums.
Over the years, many photographs have been accumulated and I possibly have the opportunity to publish a book about it because the topic offers interesting content and so many facets.
But for now, you can visit my website where I published also the first report about one of the asylums.
The Way Into The Uncertain
Fixation (Kids Edition)
The madhouse is a giant Soundbox,
and the delirium: echo,
the namelessness: measure
The madhouse is the enchanted one
Mount Zion on which you
the tablets of a law receive
that people do not know.
(Alda Merini, poet, over 20 years inmate at the Manicomio)