Rome’s Via Bartolomea Capitanio is a dead-end that leads to the old orphanage, and this seems to be the road’s sole function in this tucked-away part of the Italian capital. Saint Bartolomea Capitanio is supposed to have been a devout woman who spent her short life (1807-1833) taking care of the needy – notably, uncared for and orphaned young women.
The forsaken place, many of whose walls have crumbled into nothing, is still commonly called “Manicomio della Marcigliana” – the lunatic asylum of Marcigliana. It’s a name that’s stuck, although its validity has not been verified. Marcigliana, incidentally, is Rome’s municipal area No. III, to be found in the city’s northeast and reachable via Settebagni railway station.
One of the first features that’s so striking about the “Manicomio” today is that it’s been so stripped of anything that could have been useful to anyone: all the furniture has either gone, been wrecked, or seems to have disintegrated of its own accord.
Anything wooden appears to have been taken, even the doors. Still, after some 35 years of neglect and decay, such signs of decline of are hardly surprising. Pretty much all that’s left is bricks, dust and rubble – and lots of it.
Although claims have been made that this building was a mental hospital, they’ve never actually been proven; they just make for a good story. It’s much more likely that the now-derelict shell housed an orphanage from 1933 to the early 1970s – a theory corroborated by the account of an elderly lady in a local newspaper who claims to have stayed at the orphanage when she was a little girl.
The old elevator shaft, going nowhere fast today.
For a short span from 1973 to its abandonment in the late ’70s, the building is said to have housed a geriatric institute, but no one seem to know for sure. Though the orphanage itself may have been a perfectly well run place with happy children growing up within its walls, looking at the derelict chambers we can’t shake a haunted feeling. Indeed, scenes from the 2002 movie The Magdalene Sisters – which portrayed the brutal lives of “fallen” girls in Irish homes – keep creeping into our consciousness. Not pleasant, to say the least.
Yet, in stark contrast to such harrowing ideas of abuse, Senora Bruna, the former occupant, recalls: “[The orphanage] had a beautiful living room with arched windows out to the courtyard where we played. The entrance had a magnificent main staircase with a beautiful acacia grove behind.” Reality is not always as we may have imagined.
The building’s former glory is pretty hard to imagine now that everything has been brought to ruin and the walls are covered with graffiti. The acacias have been replaced by creepers that are only too willing to enter and take the place by force. And today it’s airsoft players who appreciate the place as a creepy venue for their mock-military combat, while occasionally artists come by to use the decrepit building as an unusual backdrop for photo and probably film shoots.
Looking at this picture, we can see why the place has such an allure. There’s a certain charm as well as fascination about the place – though we wouldn’t ever dream of coming after dark, let alone of staying the night! Picking up on the place’s reputation as being atmospheric, it has featured in at least two Italian films: in police movie La Banda del Gobbo, the orphanage was turned into “Santa Maria della Pietà” – a former mental asylum in Rome but one located in a totally different part of the city.
And in the episode “Come Una Regina” from the series I Nuovi Mostri, famous Italian actor Alberto Sordi brought his old mother to a facility for the elderly – a location provided by the old orphanage, of course. If you want to see the building’s starring roles for yourself, check them out here at 3’00” or here at 4’50”.
Nowadays, the unofficial caretaker who lives on and ‘guards’ the premises has even found a means to make a quick buck off visitors to the ruined location: a homeless guy, he taxes airsoft players 20 Euros each to use the premises and others, such as photographers, 40 Euros. It sounds a steep price to pay for a spot of urbex, and of course Caesar, as he’s known, is not authorized to charge anything.
The purpose of the circular structure shown here – and the exterior of which was shown in the previous picture – is something of a mystery. What we do know is that it is located on the roof of the main building, as wide shots of it reveal. Though quite pleasant from the inside, indicating its former splendor, the barred windows of the rounded room seem to tell a different story.
The orphanage was apparently run by some sort of religious personnel – nuns, perhaps – and in keeping with this it was home to a small chapel. Here we can see the remains of the altar – stripped of everything but the bricks. Pietromassimo Pasqui, the photographer who took these pictures and investigated the place further, explains: “Obviously, some people wrote on the chapel wall several satanic symbols – 666, the pentagram and so on; the usual stuff. You can see that all these symbols have been deleted with black paint.”
And, sending out a message to those who might have engaged in some kind of black mass, other visitors, perhaps with an ironic sensibility, have left the message, “To Satan, f*** you!”
The place is full of graffiti and other writings on the walls, and even if they might not be genuine, they’re quite haunting all the same: the drawings of happy families holding hands, for example, or the scribble that reads, “Mama, where are you,” dated November 1970. Pietro Pasqui reckons this last one is a fake, written by urban explorers or other visitors to the place most likely, but we can’t be sure.
Although there are the usual vandalistic scrawls common to many abandoned places, some of the graffiti pieces here are really quite creative and, in some of the rooms, have been painted on quite a large scale.
Officially, according to Pasqui, the building belongs to the local sanitation department, but it doesn’t seem to be on anyone’s agenda at the moment. A few years ago, restoration plans seemed like they might be on the horizon, but apart from a brand new fire escape, nothing else concrete appears to have been achieved.
It looks like only some deep digging in municipal archives might answer the many questions about this place. How many children were kept here? What were their stories? Their ages? What happened to them once they left? And were they neglected in the way the gloomy rooms in which they stayed now are? We hope not.
Another scary shaft…
Pietro Pasqui, who has visited the place twice already and whose perception is heightened by his ever-present camera, may have summed it up best. He says: “The idea that an orphanage could have been built in a place so isolated from the world (a place which remains so today, let alone in 1933) speaks volumes about the need for control, indoctrination and defense from the world that was dictated by educational lines back then.”
As we exit, take a look at this scrawling, apparently written by someone in a rush but with a somehow appropriate meaning. It reads “nulla ti fa e tutto ti distrugge” – “nothing created you but everything destroys you”.