The Crumbling Remains of Tuscany’s Creepy Abandoned Mental Asylum

This corridor looks to have been damaged by the recent fire.

Paint peels off the walls and debris crunches underfoot as the darkened passageways reveal their secrets. All around are reminders of the history of this sprawling building complex, collectively known as Villa Sbertoli, which was once used as an asylum. In one room, a broken-down piano sits under magnificent painted frescoes. In another, a metal examination bed slowly rusts in a forgotten room.

Do we want to know what is around the corner?

According to the account of one recent urban explorer, the grounds of the Villa, perched on the hills of Pistoia in Tuscany, are as creepy and neglected s the building itself. He compares the surrounding area to Dante’s ‘dark wood’, with “grass as tall as a person, trees with branches totally out of control. And then brambles everywhere.” Enough to discourage casual visitors, you would think.

Down into the basement, perhaps?

According to some sources, the main villa was once the property of rich businessman Augustine Sbertoli. His son, it is said, was disabled or mentally ill, which prompted Sbertoli to turn the house into a hospital.


A tub – used for some ‘bath therapy’, perhaps?

Whether or not the ‘mad son’ part of the story is true, the Nursing Sbertoli for Nervous Diseases was indeed founded by Professor Augustine Sbertoli in 1868. The hospital took in patients from all over Italy; people suffering from everything from psychiatric illnesses to epilepsy and alcoholism.


Looks like someone wanted to sit close to the heater

During the Fascist period in Italy, Villa Sbertoli was apparently converted into a prison for political detainees. Later, after World War II, it was turned into a mental institution again until its eventual abandonment around 1990. These days, it’s mostly home to squatters, apart from one wing that’s used to archive medical records.

These stairs don’t look particularly safe.

One of the most important benefits offered by Villa Sbertoli during its days as a hospital was discretion. Wealthy families could book their ‘unwell’ relatives in for treatment, safe in the knowledge that they would be looked after and, perhaps just as importantly, kept out of sight. The Villa was soon receiving patients from all over Europe.


A rather creepy mural. Painted the patients, maybe?

The range of conditions that might get you committed to an asylum in the 19th and early 20th centuries was pretty broad. For women, it was not unusual to be certified as a result of stress, marital problems, post-natal depression, or even for having children out of wedlock. Men were frequently poor or lacked a wife to take care them, with alcoholism another common contributing factor and, following the First World War, so too shell shock.

We wonder who used to be locked in here.

Psychiatric care in the 19th and early 20th century was quite different from the far more carefully regulated and monitored field it is today. For example, the treatment for “General Paralysis of the Insane”, a condition brought on by syphilis, was deemed to require the use of mosquitoes infected with malaria as a treatment.


Another scary looking staircase

In the heyday of the lunatic asylum, it was considered important to keep patients peaceful and occupied. They were given simple chores such as gardening, cooking, laundry, or needlework. Even the piano seen earlier might have been used therapeutically. Of course, if patients did get aggressive and attempt to harm themselves or others, they were physically restrained with strait jackets and bed restraints, and on occasion were locked in the infamous ‘padded cells’. The heavy doors of such restraining rooms can still be seen at the Villa today.

At least you could chat with a friend if you were being restrained in a bathtub.

Another way of restraining patients involved putting them in a warm bath, with their body submerged and only their head and shoulders poking out through a sheet that covered the tub. Not exactly the kind of soothing soak you might enjoy at the end of a hard day. Perhaps the bathtubs pictured here were used in this manner.


Something tells us that might not be the correct time.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and lobotomies are two of the more notorious treatments for psychiatric illnesses employed prevalently during the first half of the 20th century. ECT involves an electrical current being passed through a patient’s brain that induces seizures. This technique has been used particularly on people suffering from depression. Although ECT has been judged to be quite an effective treatment, at least in dealing with certain severe disorders, it has also be known to result in injury.

Some soothing music probably helped troubled souls.

A lobotomy procedure involves cutting out connections to and from part of the frontal lobes of the patient’s brain. It was prescribed for patients suffering from schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive behavior, chronic anxiety, and other non-schizophrenic conditions. Despite the mixed results it achieved – and its common and often severe side effects – lobotomy remained popular until the 1950s.


An ominous looking hallway

Today, procedures like lobotomy may appear primitive and even barbaric, but to the doctors who administered them, they were no doubt considered innovative and cutting edge. Although perhaps misguided, methods like these were earnest attempts to cure patients of their psychiatric problems.

An incongruously stylish looking railing

In Italy during 19th century, there was a call for reforms to the laws governing asylums and how they treated their patients. Until then, institutions in the country had been largely autonomous. An inspection by a government minister at the time revealed inadequacies such as decaying premises, a lack of proper medical instruments, unsanitary conditions, a lack of good record keeping, and overcrowding.


Doors, probably to patients’ rooms

The biggest change in the treatment of mental patients brought about during the 20th century was the introduction of effective medication. The first drug to have a major impact was Chlorpromazine, an antipsychotic discovered by a French naval surgeon. The use of sedatives and other drugs also changed psychiatric wards by lessening the need for physical restraints.

Light streams in through large windows.

Eventually, towards the end of the 20th century, reforms in mental health care in Italy, Europe and the rest of the world led to the closing down of many old-fashioned mental asylums. Emphasis was placed on treating patients at home, if at all possible, rather than on keeping them in institutions. The Villa Sbertoli had closed its gates forever to psychiatric patients by 1990 and has been virtually abandoned ever since – excluding the record-keeping wing mentioned earlier.

A fire, possibly the work of arsonists, destroyed a building in Villa Sbertoli in May of 2012, adding to the facility’s decayed ambiance. As these photographs show, it’s a creepy place, but there are also touches of faded beauty, such as the old murals, and of course the mixed emotions associated with its time as an asylum and prison, which seem to permeate the very walls. One thing’s for sure, though: it definitely looks like a perfect place for some fascinating urban exploration.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11