The bars across the window in this decaying room tell a story.
Outside the deserted building, darkened branches reach out like claws, making the already spooky scene even more ominous. And inside, it’s worse still. There are cracks in the walls, and the paint is peeling all down the long, creepy corridors; steel bed frames are stripped of all bedding except a few moldering pillows; and broken windowpanes reflect strange shadows. In one room, a bathtub full of mysterious burnt remains lies abandoned.
This derelict institution is a grim place with a grim past. According to Italian photographer Romina Diaz, it once housed prisoners deemed criminally insane.
Are you sure you want to look inside?
When Diaz and her friend explore the Tuscan countryside, they’re not looking for quaint villas or idyllic landscapes. They’re after eerie abandoned institutions, like this one. “We search for ruins that are not of Roman times,” says Diaz. “Where traces of memory can still be found, where paint chips from all sides as if unmasking a face that should have been looked at long ago. Where testimonies are still written on walls.”
This long spooky corridor looks like something straight out of a horror movie.
“Finding a place like this is like reading a book filled with painful poetry,” continues Diaz. “Stories no one cared to listen to, where you know that hope was last to go. Where the sane became insane, because people who thought they knew everything deemed them crazy.” It’s a depressing idea, but then these photographs don’t really impart many happy vibes.
We don’t want to know what was burnt in this bathtub.
Diaz doesn’t want to disclose the exact name or location of this particular mental health institute because, like many urban explorers, she didn’t exactly have authorized access to the site. Yet regardless of human restrictions, an atmosphere of despair still clings to these empty rooms and desolate hallways.
A watery reflection of decay
Of course, we don’t know precisely what went on here, but even if the inmates were treated humanely – and historically they weren’t – they were still prisoners in an institutional environment. Moreover, this was not the kind of place people checked into by choice.
The graffiti would have come later, but perhaps the inmates here had fantasies of flying away.
The term “criminally insane” is considered outdated in some parts and is no longer recognized by UK legal or medical professions. Even so, it is still used by the media and general public all over the world. While people with psychiatric illnesses are often stigmatized by society, those labeled “criminally insane” by the media are regarded with especially large doses of suspicion and fear.
Even the surrounding trees are sinister looking.
In Italy, the first specialized facility to incarcerate the criminally insane was opened in 1876 as part of an already existing asylum in Aversa. Criminal anthropologists at the time saw crime itself as a disease and believed it could be cured by treatment.
Bold graffiti artists have left their mark on the abandoned building.
Two infamous 20th-century treatments used on those considered criminally insane were electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomies. ECT was invented in 1938 by Italian neuropsychiatrists Ugo Cerletti and Lucio Bini – an achievement that saw them nominated for the Nobel Prize (although they didn’t win). Cerletti observed that the therapy made his aggressive patients more docile and easier to control. So it’s not surprising that ECT soon became the treatment of ‘choice’ for those diagnosed as criminally insane.
This melancholic piece of graffiti makes a creepy room even creepier.
Brain damage and loss of memory are two negative side effects of ECT, which is still used today – albeit in a safer, more controlled way. Another damaging treatment, now considered barbaric, was metrazol-induced seizures. During this procedure, patients were administered metrazol, a drug that brought on convulsions so violent that they resulted in fractures of the spine in as many as 42 percent of cases.
Large chips of paint have fallen off the walls.
In 1935, Portuguese physician and neurologist António Egas Moniz pioneered a new, radical treatment, initially known as a leucotomy, which involved removing part of a patient’s brain. The procedure is also known as bilateral prefrontal lobotomy.
In 1937, Italian psychiatrist Amarro Fiamberti performed the first transorbital lobotomy, which involved reaching the frontal lobe of the brain through the eye sockets. However, it was an American, Walter Freeman, who, inspired by Fiamberti, perfected the technique – originally using ice picks, before he refined his methods.
An old rotting mattress covered in paint chips and water; just imagine the smell.
We recommend you skip this paragraph if you’re squeamish! The transorbital lobotomy performed by Freeman involved sliding a surgical instrument up under the top eyelid towards the brain. A mallet was then used to drive the instrument through the bone and into the soft tissue, where several movements severed the prefrontal cortex from the thalamus. This was repeated through both eyes. As with ECT, lobotomies were performed on those deemed criminally insane in an attempt to make their behavior more submissive. The procedure had mixed results, to say the least.
A gory touch has been added to this old bathtub.
These treatments may have been cruel and sometimes worse than ineffective, but the aim, at least, was to help patients. That said, you’d have difficulty believing this to be true after listening to some accounts. From 1906 to 1917, Italian psychiatrist Giuseppe Paravicini performed ‘dissections’ in which he hacked off parts of his patients’ bodies, including their ears, arms, and even their heads! He also mummified patients – sometimes, allegedly, while they were still alive! While this is obviously not a common occurrence in Italy, or anywhere else for that matter, it illustrates the complete control doctors were sometimes given over their patients.
In these surroundings, even a table and chair become sinister.
These days, many Italians may tell you that there aren’t any asylums for criminals with psychiatric illnesses left in Italy. However, in actual fact, five – unlike the asylum in these images – remain open around the country (and there’s a section for the criminally insane in another facility). The thing is, the only time these asylums get much media attention is when the suicide rates go up dramatically and a visiting member of parliament points out the inadequate living conditions.
A narrow bed sits in a forgotten room.
“Most of the people jailed in such institutions are not considered dangerous any more, but there are no structures to host them and help them to be introduced back into society,” says Valentina Quintano, a photographer who visited one of these operational institutions. “So they are just left there. In many cases until they leave in a black bag. The legal situation is very complex.”
At least there were windows, even if they were barred.
Although conditions are much better today, life is still not easy for the inmates of these asylums. Quintano describes the facility she visited as having tiny rooms with no personalization and no links to the real world. She also says that many inmates spend their days either sedated or in a state of depression.
Another look through some tangled branches
Quintano furthermore says that the food in the criminal asylum she visited was substandard, the building was overcrowded, and the general hygiene level was poor. She claims that the police staff weren’t properly trained to cope with mentally ill inmates – which can lead to abusive treatment and a lack of compassion and understanding. Quintano doesn’t paint a pretty picture, and considering the fact that this goes on in more enlightened times, we can only imagine what it must have been like for early inmates.
We’re not sure if the cheerful graffiti makes the asylum seem happier or more gloomy.
Obviously, there’s a reason institutions such as these exist – in Italy and other parts of the world. Mental disorders can cause those afflicted to harm themselves and others. So essentially, the idea that these people (and the general public) are protected is a good one. However, inmates should never be treated as subhuman and be forced to endure neglect, abuse and generally inhumane treatment.