Even though San Servolo is only 10 minutes by vaporetto from Venice, not many visitors take the opportunity to visit this island. It’s however perfect if you like to dig into medical history, if you want to make a walk in a park or have a great view on Venice across the lagoon. You can also attend one of the events or conferences which regularly take place here.
In this post, I will tell you more about the island itself, its history and the Insane Asylum Museum.
The San Servolo island
San Servolo is a small island in the Venetian lagoon, on the southeast of Giudecca. It measures approx. 5 ha, so you won’t get lost or feel tired with walking. Vaporetto line 20 takes 10 min from San Marco – San Zaccaria as you can see in this video. At this point, you might think that the island has nothing more to offer than this main building with the large palm tree and the panda statues.
INSIDER TIP: Make sure to check the timetable of the vaporetto as there are only a limited number of rides per day. You don’t want to miss the last one.
However, when you walk to the right, you enter one of the largest parks of Venice. The plants which were originally cultivated for the island’s pharmacy and the very old trees make it a unique environment. You can for instance see cypresses, olive trees, hackberries, lime trees but also oleanders and apple trees. There are also several art sculptures spread across the park. If you want to explore other gardens in Venice, you can find inspiration in my post ‘Wander through the hidden gardens in Venice’.
At the back of the island, you will notice several smaller buildings and sports fields. Some of these are used by the International University of Venice which hosts cultural events and international conferences. This includes accomodation for students or congress visitors, which you can also book individually via the Centro Soggiorno e Studi. Moreover, there are several locations on the island which can be rented for private events or weddings. I wasn’t aware of this when I organized my wedding (more info in my post ‘How to organize your destination wedding in Venice’), but it’s certainly a stunning location.
There is a small bar in the main building, so you can have a drink inside or on the terrace and enjoy the peace and quiet.
DID YOU KNOW? San Servolo is visited by approx. 20,000 visitors per year. This is peanuts compared to the millions visitors in Venice, so you will certainly avoid the crowds.
The history of the island is closely linked to the monasteries and hospitals which were located here. The first church was dedicated to San Servilio, hence the name San Servolo, a martyr from Trieste. Since the 9th century, the island has been the home of Benedictine monks. The current church dates from the 18th century and was built by master builder Gaetano Brunello. Inside, there is an altar dedicated to Saint John, the founder of the order of the Fatebenefratelli, and a beautiful organ of Nacchini.
In 1716, during the war against the Turks, the monastery was transformed into a military hospital by the Fatebenefratelli. This special order of monks is also known as the Padri Ospedalieri di San Giovanni di Dio. The military hospital was closed in 1808. In 1809, the Hospital of the 60 Wounded opened. It was established by noblewoman Anna Vendramin Loredan for the care of 60 poor people wandering the city. This hospital was closed in 1874.
From 1725, the island was used as an insane asylum. Before this time, mental problems were not considered a disease or something which could be cured. In first instance, mainly rich people were diagnozed with mental health issues as they could afford the treatment. In 1797, the Napoleonic government also sent poor mental patients to the island. During the 19th century, many patients had pellagra, a disease which is characterized by mental confusion. It is caused by a monotone diet of polenta, the only food the poor could afford, and hence nutrient deficiency. Other reasons for admission were alcohol abuse and epilepsy.
Only men were attended to at the hospital on San Servolo. A small team of a director, a primario, 4 or 5 doctors and nurses took care of approx. 700 patients, who came from the entire Veneto region. Female mental patients were treated at the hospital on the San Clemente island, which is now a luxury hotel. This had a capacity of approx. 1,200 patients. Children with a mental disease were also hospitalized 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 organization with one administration.
The hospital on San Servolo was closed in 1978 and the one on San Clemente in 1982. This was due to a reform of the Italian legislation on psychiatric hospitals.
The Metropolitan City of Venice now owns the island of San Servolo, including the real estate and cultural assets. In the 1980s, a foundation was created to preserve the history and restore the island to its former splendour. The Società San Servolo – Servizi Metropolitani di Venezia srl manages the development and promotion, both from a historical and a touristic point of view.
Museo del Manicomio
The Insane Asylum Museum of San Servolo does not only give you an insight in the procedures and daily life at the psychiatric hospital, but also in its marginalising and segregating aspect.
The 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 which are decorated with the San Marco lion were gifts by the Republic of Venice in recognition of the work of the hospital. The Fatebenefratelli were expert pharmacists, physicians and surgeons. They cultivated medicinal herbs in their small garden. Thanks to the perfect composition and high quality of their medicinals, the apothecary became the main pharmacy of Venice. They were officially recognised by the government of the Serenissima to provide medicines for the militia and forts. The medicines were even certified by the Collegio dei Filosofi e Medici di Padova and by the surgeon of the Serenissima naval division. 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 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 your time to look at some in detail because it’s 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 aren’t digitized. 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 a piano which was used for music therapy. Mental therapy in the 19th century mainly consisted of baths and activities such as working on the field or painting. In the 20th century, they tried to cure the patients with insuline shocks and fever fits. Electroshocks were only applied in some private hospitals. The hospital also used the first lie detector of doctor Patrizi. Finally, there are also skulls that have been plastinated using a special technique. The brains were sent to the Padova medical university to be plastinated.
INSIDER TIP: 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.
Enjoy your visit!
(The picture in the banner is the art installation ‘Back to Light’ of Anne-Karin Furunes at San Servolo.)
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