The Island of San Servolo
Once housing a monastery of Benedictine monks and later an asylum for the insane; the island of San Servolo is now home to a museum, Venice International University and the prestigious International College of Ca’ Foscari University.
It is a quiet and peaceful island, with an architectural complex surrounded by lush parkland and is now also one of the most important conference centres of Venice and its surroundings.
The island of San Servolo is about 5 ha in size and located around 2 kilometres southeast of Piazza San Marco, Venice and about 500 metres off the Lido.
Above: Isola di San Servolo, sits a few hundred metres in front of the Lido
Take the vaporetto Line no 20, from San Zaccaria, just south of Piazza San Marco. Journey time is about 10 minutes. . Check all details for your visit and return journey, especially because of possible Covid-19 restrictions.
Be aware that the museum is actually rather small and most of the buildings are occupied by Venice University and a hotel. You’ll need to visit the hotel’s reception (opposite the ferry point) to buy a ticket to the museum. Unless you have booked onto a tour; they only open at 10:45 am and 2 pm.
The Island of San Servolo – HISTORY
The history of the island is closely linked to the monasteries and hospitals, which were located here.
It is probable that from the early 9th century, the island has been home to Benedictine monks. Their first chapel was dedicated to San Servilio, hence the name San Servolo, a martyr from Trieste.
It was built by the “Fianco” and “Galbaio” family, well known because they had provided two doges to the Republic. Their origins were from an ancient castle in Koper, the main port of Slovenia and very close to Trieste.
They were joined later by nuns escaping from the convents of Saints Leone and Basso, on the island of Malamocco; which had been destroyed by a seaquake.
At the beginning of the 15th century the nuns departed, but they were soon replaced by a few dozen other nuns; who were fleeing the Turkish invasion of Crete.
However, by the beginning of the 18th century, only a few remained and soon thereafter, the Senate of the Republic of Venice; designated San Servolo as the site of a new military hospital, needed due to the continuing war against the Turks.
Medical services were provided by the Padri Ospedalieri di San Giovanni di Dio, now known as “Fatebenefratelli”. The Fathers developed a small garden, where they cultivated medicinal herbs.
From that time on, the island’s history became closely linked with the authorities’ attitude toward disabling illnesses in general and mental illness in particular.
From 1725, the island was used as a psychiatric hospital, or as then known, an “insane asylum”. Before this time, mental problems were not considered a disease or something which could be cured.
Only men were attended to at the hospital on San Servolo.
In first instance, only the nobility and wealthy class were diagnosed with mental health issue; primarily because only they could afford the treatment. In 1797, the Napoleonic government also sent poor mental patients to the island; drawn from the entire Veneto region.
A small team comprising a director, a primario, 4 or 5 doctors and nurses; took care of around 700 patients.
During the 19th century, many patients suffered from pellagra, a disease which is characterised by mental confusion. It is caused by a monotonous diet of polenta, one of the only foods that the poor could afford and hence led to a nutrient deficiency. Other reasons for admission were epilepsy and alcohol abuse.
Female mental patients were treated at the hospital on the San Clemente island, which is now a luxury hotel. This had a capacity of around 1,200 patients. Children with a mental disease were also hospitalised here, as the first hospital in Italy dedicated to children; was only built at the end of the 19th century. As from 1935, both hospitals were run as one organisation with one administration.
In 1978 the “Basaglia” law was passed, which eventually resulted in the closure of psychiatric hospitals.
The Province of Venezia, now known as the Metropolitan City of Venice; retained ownership of the island. In the 1990’s, it began an architectural recovery programme to protect and promote it through its in-house company, San Servolo – Servizi Metropolitani di Venezia.
In 2006, a museum was set up to house items and documentation that belonged to the psychiatric hospital, that was operated on the island until 1978.
The presence of a place of worship on the island has been documented, as far back as the 9th century.
Its structure and decorations have been transformed several times over the centuries, until 1752; when the Fatebenefratelli monks called on master builder Gaetano Brunello, to rebuild the church. The first stone of the new buildings was laid on 9 March 1759 and the outer walls of the church were completed in 1761.
In October and November of the same year, Jacopo Marieschi painted the ceiling of the nave and the chancel, with “The glory of Saint John of God before the Virgin” and “The three theological virtues”, respectively. From 1733-66 the current church and convent buildings were built, to designs by Giovanni Scalfarotto, with the church being the work of his master, Tommaso Temanza.
The church was renovated again in the early 1800’s, with the addition of a loggia beneath the facade, with its large window topped by a gable flanked by the church’s two bell towers – something totally new in Venetian architecture.
Inside, there is an altar dedicated to Saint John, the founder of the order of the Fatebenefratelli and a beautiful organ of Nacchini. probably acquired from the suppressed church of Santa Maria del Pianto.
The complex and challenging restoration of the Island of San Servolo, undertaken by the Metropolitan City of Venice; was significant, in terms of the assets being protected, the intended use and the financial commitment. Fortunately, substantial resources were provided, primarily from funds allocated under the ‘Special Law for Venice’.
Their goals were:
>> Restoration of the island to its former splendour, through a long and complex, conservational restoration.
>> The Metropolitan City of Venice, the owner of the asset, wished to entrust to the future a historic, architectural and cultural asset of undisputed valu; returning the island to the international community and making it an active and dynamic part of Venetian life.
>> Its primary vocational aim, is to support international dialogue and comparisons between different cultures for the economic and cultural benefit of the Venetian area.
>> This asset has been made accessible and functional, by directing the use of the entire island’s facilities, as a study and residence centre.
In line with the Metropolitan City of Venice’s institutional objectives, the following bodies have their offices on the Island of San Servolo:
- San Servolo – Metropolitan Services of Venice, in-house company of the Metropolitan City of Venice.
- Venice International University.
- Accademia delle Belle Arti di Venezia – separate campus.
- Collegio Internazionale dell’Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia.
The park has been developed over the centuries to become one of the largest in Venice. It is an integral part of the Island of San Servolo and it is unique for the presence of some very old trees. In addition to the Canary Island date palms, which visitors see when they first arrive on the island; there are also large American aloe plants, lindens, hackberries (known as “splitting stones”), hybrid plane trees, Japanese pagoda trees, tall Alep pines, the centuries old olive trees and ailanthus, interspersed with large butter-brush shrubs.
MUSEUM OF THE INSANE ASYLUM
The Insane Asylum Museum of San Servolo (Museo del Manicomio), not only give you an insight in the procedures and daily life at the psychiatric hospital; but also in its aspect of marginalisation and segregation.
The museum was inaugurated on 20 May 2006 and houses items that belonged to the psychiatric hospital, that operated on the island until 1978. The Museum’s scientific aspects were curated by professors Diego Fontanari and Mario Galzigna. It was set up by architect Barbara Accordi.
It is divided into sections: laboratory, clinic, workshops, patients and therapies, restraints, items made by patients, lodgings, anatomic room and photographic collection.
You will see chains, handcuffs and straitjackets, used to contain the mentally ill in the 19th century and also instruments used to cure mental illnesses, such as electroshock machines. Music therapy, was tried for the first time at San Servolo by Cesare Vigna, the director of the psychiatric hospital and also a close friend of the composer Giuseppe Verdi.
The Historical Archive owns a huge collection of more than 50,000 clinical patient records from 1842 until 1978. The first documents even date from 1716. Take time to look at some in detail, because it is very impressive. You will notice that they took a picture of the patient when he arrived and after his stay; to show that his condition had improved. The information on the personal files was also very detailed. The archive has a database with the names of all the patients, but the handwritten notes are not digitised. The information is now used to research the history of soldiers and the evolution of mental health over time. The research team also regularly gets questions from relatives to obtain medical records.
An intriguing part of the visit is the insight in the evolution of medical science. The marble surgery table in the anatomical room and the 19th century medical instruments for instance; clearly demonstrate the transformation in the medical profession over time. You can see also the piano, which was used for music therapy. Mental therapy in the 19th century, mainly consisted of baths and activities such as working outside or painting. In the 20th century, they tried to cure the patients with insulin shocks and fever fits. Electroshocks were only applied in some private hospitals. The hospital also used the first lie detector, developed by Doctor Patrizi.
Left: One of the three therapies used to treat the insane – bathing, electro-convulsive shock and music.
Finally, there are also skulls that have been preserved using the plastination technique. The brains were sent to the Padova medical university.
The museum has limited opening hours, so you need to carefully plan your visit. It can be visited from Monday to Thursday at 10.45 am and 2.00 pm. During summer (from May until mid September), it is also open on Friday from 3.30 pm to 6.30 pm and on Saturday and Sunday from 11.30 am to 6.30 pm. Alternatively, you can book a private guided tour, outside the official opening hours. Check all details due to any existing Covid-19 restrictions as well as your return vaporetto times.
Link here for website: Insane Asylum Museum
THE OLD APOTHECARY
The Museum visit starts at the impressive pharmacy.
In 1716, the year the Padri ospedalieri di San Giovanni di Dio settled here; San Servolo was home to a small convent and an improvised hospital with no apothecary.
The Fathers, better known as Fatebenefratelli, were at the time expert pharmacists, physicians and surgeons and were put in charge of managing the military hospital.
They had a small garden where they cultivated medicinal herbs. Starting from this small plot, Milanese Alberto Sacchetti created an apothecary that was of such high quality that in three years, the hospital of San Servolo was recognised by the government of the Serenissima.
In 1719, the San Servolo apothecary was officially assigned to provide medicines for the militia. The good quality and perfect composition of the medicinals produced at San Servolo, were even certified by the Collegio dei Filosofi e Medici di Padova (College of Philosophers and Physicians of Padua) and by the surgeon of the Serenissima naval division.
The apothecary continued to operate through the hospital’s conversion to a psychiatric hospital and until the hospital’s closure in 1978.
In 1809, San Servolo’s apothecary became responsible for preparing all the medications for the poor of the city’s thirty fraternities. The pharmacy continued to operate until the psychiatric hospital closed in 1978.
The Museum visit starts at the impressive pharmacy with more than 200 apothecary jars from the 18th and 19th century; stored in beautiful walnut bookcases. The jars decorated with the San Marco lion, were gifts by the Republic of Venice; in recognition of the work of the hospital.
Please see my other posts in the series: Islands of the Lagoon