San Servolo: from a place of marginalization and segregation to the environmental sustainability

10 August 2021

Venice, 9th August 2021 – Someone may remember the threat “If you don’t behave, I’ll send you to San Servolo”, although luckily, this phrase has disappeared, carrying away with it what this island represented for centuries. San Servolo is an example of how public money helped to rebuild an island that risked being abandoned or sold to private investors. San Servolo is the island where the best educational services are based. San Servolo is the island of peace, thanks to the enormous park and the view that extends over Venice, rendering it the perfect location for an array of different events. San Servolo can also be considered as the island of restlessness and suffering; of the hundred and thousands of medical charts; of periods of stay within the clinic (which could be long or short) and of a disease - often mortal-, generally caused by malnutrition. 

San Servolo is the island of madness, in which not so long ago a huge asylum was placed, although in 1978 every existent psychiatric institute was closed, as a consequence to the Basaglia Law. 

The island - explains the administrator Andrea Berro - owns 175 rooms and can host roughly 300 people. As a matter of fact, San Servolo hosts between 120 to 150 events - weddings, company parties, exhibitions, and conferences- every year. In order to prove the story of the island, the Museum of madness can also be visited. Indeed, it records at least 6 thousand visitors - with a growing tendency -every year. 

“San Servolo is among the most beautiful little islands of Venice and for sure, the only example of public recovery. Originally, it used to be a Benedictine monastery - first for monks and later for nuns. Consequently, it was reclaimed over time and after a thousand years became a military hospital while later – until 1978- an all-male asylum for the city – Berro explains. Afterwards, the island undertook a period of abandonment until the end of the 90s. Eventually, the Città Metropolitana, then the province of Venice, initiated a project of restructuration for the island by means of public funding in order to transform it into a conference centre. At the beginning, the activity was mainly addressed to the academic world while later, with the establishment of the Venice International University, it opened to other institutions and to the organization of events”

San Servolo guards, proves – because the memory of the 1600 years of Venice must be remembered- but at the same time looks beyond. Where marginalization and segregation used to be practiced, today we can hear children's voices for summer camps, we can see the olives picking, people getting married, company parties, exhibitions opening or just students, scholars or visitors passing by. The future and the matter of sustainability are also great concerns for the island, in which a project for modernizing the structures and the island functions – that will be developed respectfully of the environment – has already been planned. 

The island - that since 2004 has been managed by the San Servolo Company – the Servizi Metropolitani di Venezia -  back in 1700 hosted several injured of the Repubblica Serenissima who came back to Venice from the battlefield against the Turks, and were cured by San Giovanni di Dio priests, today known as FatebenefratelliAs Luigi Armiato,  the Museum manager-  explains, among the remaining testimonies we have the 18th century apothecary – originally a pharmacy – with shelves and more than 200 original jars marked with the image of the lion of St. Mark’s in yellow,  a gift by the Repubblica Serenissima as a sign of recognition for the great quality of the medicines produced. Consequently, the island was transformed into an asylum in which in 1725 the first “mad” was admitted by order of the Council of Ten while later, the place began to host nobles and wealthy people who could afford the price for the stay. On the contrary, for poor “mad” the fusta was used, a dilapidated ship where hundreds of people – mad, criminals and ills - were placed. It was only in 1797 that San Servolo was open to people from any social class background.

Of great interest is the reconstruction of the anatomical room (which, with respect to the original location, was moved close to the church that dates back to the 1700s), where original artifacts are shown, including several brains preserved using the plastination method.

“The museum guards at least seventy thousand medical charts, which were recorded from the 1840s until the closure of the institute – Armiato explains – although we have also recovered medical charts coming from San Clemente - which was the all-female asylum- Marocco and Mogliano Veneto – little villages located in the mainland-.  

San Servolo tells stories: the one of Lorenzo Stefani, a wealthy man who, thanks to his social class background could avoid being hospitalized within the fusta, a prison in which mad people and criminals were locked, indistinctly. He was 32 when admitted and 69 when came out. It also tells the story of Matteo Lovat from Casal di Zoldo, who once in Venice self-crucified himself in a calle and after one year died in San Servolo. Not to mention the story of the “young” Alessandro Bravin, who was locked in the island for a punishment that lasted one year. Last but not least, it tells the story of people’s faces, by means of a comparative collection of photos of men and women before their internment and after their release from the asylum. This collection shows how they were before and how they became later. It must be underlined that often, the pellagra – a disease caused by malnutrition – was the main cause of many psychological disorders and so, eating better and more regularly was enough to heal them. Nevertheless, within the museum we can also find proof of the specific treatments applied at the time – such as hydrotherapy or electroshock -  tools used for restraint and several proofs of the medical work done on every patient among the 700 for which cures had to be provided on a daily basis. 

“San Servolo is a winning pattern – concludes Berro – because not only it proves the past, but it also means a lot for the future and new projects to come”