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The Portal Places for madness gathers the results of the research project Mental Asylums in Italy from Nineteenth to Twentieth Century. Atlas of the architectural heritage in view of its knowledge and enhancement in the frame of the National Archival System (SAN), which has been funded by MIUR within the PRIN 2008 program and developed by scholars of the Second University of Naples (leading research unit), of the Polytechnics of Turin and Milan and of the Universities of Pisa, Camerino and Palermo. The research joins the results of a former census promoted by Benetton Foundation (1999) and, moreover, supplements the project Carte da Legare developed by the General Head Office for Archives (DGA) of the Mibac, Italian Ministry for Culture, by means of the Archival Supervisors at the regional level, aiming at the preservation of the archival heritage of former mental asylums after their closure.

The main topic of the research is the architecture of Italian mental asylums, which today have changed function and are mostly in bad conditions or exposed to the risk of radical transformations, which could alter or obliterate their original character.

The Portal opens to a wide and diversified public a complete framework of information concerning the architecture of Italian mental asylums, providing selected data of two types: historical data, resulting from systematic research within the abundant and mainly unexplored archival heritage – documental and iconographical – stored in various sources (state archives, ASL archives supervised by Archive Supervisors’ offices, private and professionals’ archives, historical libraries, etc.) and an analytical reconnaissance of Italian and international specialized publications (handbooks, reviews, etc.); contemporary data, resulting from direct investigations and illustrated through graphic and photographic surveys, concerning consistency, bonds, juridical and urban status and state of conservation of the architectural complexes.

The aim is to restore to collective memory a page of architectural and urban history (but, also, medical, social, institutional and mental history) which has been neglected until today, and to favour a process of innovative re-use based upon private venture and focused on preservation and enhancement. The aim is to give back to the public a considerable resource, which today is misused or abandoned.

The matter

The Portal carries a complete catalogue of public mental asylums and of their attached seats, built in the national territory. Quantity and variety of case studies met at a first-stage research has required the adoption of preliminary methodological decisions, mainly referred to the definition of an appropriate chronology for this typology of buildings. The adopted time spans - from Nineteenth Century until the disposal of asylums, including the following transformations – is mainly based on the history of mental asylums’ architecture which develops within exact dates, differently from other architectural typologies (as that of ‘specialized’ architecture).

Although in modern times there are examples of mental asylums for mad people and for other forms of chronic diseases and of social deviation, special buildings for the care of poor mad people were established only in the XIX Century (mostly after the Unification of the Italian Nation, when Provincial laws assign a specific role to mental asylums); at first existing convents and cloisters, abolished at that time, were adapted to this new use, then, more often, new specialized buildings were built.

Strongly influenced by European and International models, the design of modern mental asylums experiments various plan types – such as the ‘block’, either compact or articulated, and composed of connected or isolated pavilions, or the ‘scattered’ plan also called ‘village’ system – and different architectural styles according to the different architectural languages of the epoch.

Building construction, installations, technological detailing are sometimes very advanced and are finely detailed, specifically adapted to this kind of buildings, both in the finishes and in the interior design (furniture). The quality of the project is the result of an intense cooperation among technicians, alienist or psychiatrists, brought at different scales – from the orientation and disposition of the buildings (pavilions), to the architectural detailing, the interior distribution, and the detailing – especially due to the important role at first attributed to the organization and qualification of the spaces and the involvement of the mad people in handcraft occupations (occupational therapy).

During the research, many well known architects have been met (such as Francesco Palazzotto, Francesco Azzurri, Marcello Piacentini, Giuseppe Quaroni, Francesco d’Olivo, Daniele Calabi, Cesare Valle) and a number of qualified professionals and technicians. These were hired or employed in the Provinces’ offices and involved in designing and achieving new buildings, additions and modifications that became necessary to adjust former madhouses to the ever increasing number of hospitalized and to the development of psychiatry.

The aim to trace a complete and updated framework of the architecture of Italian mental asylums has finally suggested to extend the research beyond the chronological limit of the Basaglia Law (1978) and to investigate the transformations occurred thereafter and, in some case, today still ongoing.

The matter of the research is articulated and inclusive. The definition ‘mental asylum complexes’ does not only refer to a single building but to a system of complementary buildings and spaces which, in most cases, compose true micro-cities with precise and defined boundaries, traced by walls, enclosures and secured entrances. Apart from directors’ offices and residences, pavilions for different levels of illness and different pathologies, asylums also included a number of collective facilities (churches, libraries, movie theatres) and laboratories and workshops for occupational therapy (such as carpentry, shoemaking, tailoring, typography etc.) and green spaces, vegetable gardens or farms.

The sites chosen to place mental asylum, which were specifically characterized (extensive free space, proximity to urban centres, accessibility, solar orientation, water sources and quality of the air, view and so on) intertwine with the debate about urban planning ongoing between Nineteenth and Twentieth Century and have often influenced the contemporary urban development. Today, after their disposal, the preservation of mental asylums and their recovery in today’s urban tissue poses important topics and must deal with integrated preservation in full respect of historical and architectural values and of socio-economical convenience.


The Portal gathers data referred to more than 80 Italian mental asylum complexes, organized in five logically related sections: I. Identification Data (name, use, place, juridical status, bonds, essential chronology); II. Historical Data (pre-existing constructions, detachments, origins, building phases, designers, professionals/engineers); III. Architectural Data (extension, typology, state of conservation); IV. Iconography (cartography, historical views, drawings, photographs); V. Bibliography and bibliographical references.

In order to allow a deepening of the matter, beyond the synthetic information and a selection of images proposed by the main menu at the entry mental asylums complexes, there is an enclosed record in PDF format for each case study, displayed by one or more authors and labelled by an ISBN code. This develops in extenso historical data, iconographic inventory and bibliography, containing further documents, which illustrate specific information (archival or printed) useful for a more detailed knowledge of the property.


The organization of the site allows to ‘move’ amongst Italian mental asylum complexes, starting from the research section of the menu, opened by various keywords referred to sites, dates, protagonists. Immediate access may start from their territorial distribution, according to a geographical and administrative organization (region,  province,  municipality) related to a geo-referenced map.

A different research path, instead, may be related to chronological dating of the original construction or to its conversion in order to display the comparison of coeval structures and allow transversal synchronic reading of different properties within the Italian territory, in addition to a chronological reading of the building phases of each asylum.

Another research path may be started introducing the names of professionals involved in the design or in the achievement of the hospitals; this allows the implementation of the list of works by the mentioned architects and professionals and of their enclosed biography. In consideration of this, a privileged link to the Portal Carte da Legare has been set  (with same framework, general objectives and some of the topics). This allows the integration of historical information about the architectural heritage of the complexes with data concerning the history of medical institutions, and the portal Architecture. Both links are included in the SAN thematic organization.

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