More background info: San Servolo was a (mostly Benedictine) monastery, later also a nunnery, for hundreds of years since about the 9th century onwards, but by the beginning of the 18th century only a few nuns were left, so the government of Venice decided to turn the island into a military hospital instead.
This operated for nearly another hundred years, until in the early 19th century the island became Venice
’s central “lunatic asylum”, i.e. a psychiatric hospital. Many patients were sent here not just for mental illnesses; in the second half of the 19th century about half of the patients on San Servolo were suffering from pellagra, a vitamin deficiency disease (lack of niacin, or vitamin B3) usually brought about by bad nutrition. One symptom of later stage pellagra is a from of dementia, and back then, before the treatment with nicotinamide was discovered (in the 1930s), patients were frequently simply sent to mental hospitals like San Servolo.
In the earlier days of psychiatric treatment, this included often cruel approaches such as electroshock therapy or hydrotherapy involving sudden cold baths or prolonged hot baths. Physical restraints such as straitjackets were in common use too. And that’s what mainly constitutes the dark aspects of the history of places like this.
The psychiatric hospital of San Servolo stayed in operation up until as late as 1978, when a change in the law that introduced significant reforms in psychiatric treatment led to the hospital’s closure.
After that the island progressively became a centre of scholarship, especially from 1995 with the founding of the Venice International University. It also serves as the venue for conferences and cultural events.
The “Insane Asylum Museum” about the history of the psychiatric hospital of San Servolo was first opened in 2006. Its full name in Italian is “Museo del Manicomio di San Servolo – La follia reclusa” i.e. ‘Insane Asylum Museum of San Servolo – Madness Locked Away’.
What there is to see: after disembarking at the San Servolo vaporetto (water bus) pier, you first make your way to the reception just opposite under the “Isola San Servolo” sign on the wall. There you get your ticket and then have to wait for a member of staff to take you into the first section of the museum.
When I visited in August 2020, i.e. during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, we were only a small group of about eight, and we all had to wear face masks, but otherwise everything ran as normal.
We were first led to the old pharmacy, which is the most ancient part of the museum. The pharmacy was opened in 1716 and has been wonderfully preserved. The ornately decorated walnut wood shelves contain hundreds of original ceramic jars for various medicine components. And on a central table stand mortar-and-pestles and scales. There are a couple of information panels too, all bilingual in Italian and English. The English translations are at times a bit “idiosyncratic” in style and sometimes grammar, but sufficiently get their content across.
After the pharmacy our group was led into the dissection room of the anatomical department. This is a reconstruction at a different location from the original, but the central dissection table, the various instruments (scalpels, needles, scissors and a saw) as well as the (empty) glass jars for brains are authentic artefacts.
Also in this room are displays of rows of more or less deformed skulls (e.g. that of a microcephaly sufferer), all with the upper cranium sawn through for the removal of the brains. Some plastinated brains are also on display. This is easily the darkest part of San Servolo.
Afterwards we were led to the adjacent church of San Servolo for a quick glance at the interior, then we went up a flight of stairs to a large terrace with a superb view of Venice, and then to the start of the museum exhibition proper. Here we were left to our own devices by the guide so that we could work our way through the exhibits independently at our own speed.
The first section covers on text-and-drawings panels the general history of San Servolo, from its beginnings as a monastery to becoming a mental hospital.
A side room with walls painted a deep red has the first set of physical artefacts. These include all manner of restraints, from shackles to straitjackets, as well as force-feeding devices. In a corner stands a historic shower cage and next to it its control panel, which were once used in “hydrotherapy”. Text panels and period photos of patients undergoing different forms of hydrotherapy accompany the artefacts.
In the main corridor are various pieces of apparatus on display, from microscopes to lab equipment and several electroshock machines. These are the eeriest items here, I found. Quite icky are also the collections of slices of brains between glass plates and some anatomical models.
Along the windowed wall are also small before-and-after portrait photos of patients so you can compare what they looked like on arrival at San Servolo with what they looked like when they were discharged.
Some methods of therapy other than electroshocks or hydrotherapy are also covered, e.g. music therapy, exemplified by a grand piano standing in one corner, as well as “occupational therapy” including creative work, exemplified by a few paintings made by patients, as well as craftwork such as wicker baskets or woodwork items.
Eventually you have to find the stairs back down and that’s it for the museum. As there was plenty of time to kill before the next vaporetto (water bus) back to the main part of Venice, my wife and I also had a good look round the island’s grounds. These are nicely landscaped and in between parts of the gardens are also portraits of former asylum patients, made from original photos but blown up in the form of aluminium discs with perforations for the photos’ black dots. That way you can see through them at one angle, while getting the actual image of a face from another angle. These are the work of a Norwegian artist which is entitled “Back to Light”. It aims at giving the silent former patients of San Servolo a face. Whether this was only a temporary installation or intended to be permanent I don’t know. In front of the reception of San Servolo there are also other large works of art/sculptures worth a look.
All in all
, I found this excursion to San Servolo the dark-tourism activity in Venice
that was worth it the most. It provided unusual insights into a very little known aspect of the city’s history and also a respite from the overtouristification of the San Marco area. Obviously, it’s more for people who have a special interest in medical topics, but it’s not necessarily a prerequisite.
on an island ca. 1.25 miles (2 km) south of the Doge’s Palace in the old town of Venice
, roughly halfway between San Giorgio Maggiore and Lido.
Access and costs: quite restricted, by boat twice a day, weekdays only; but reasonably priced.
Details: There is only one way for tourists to get to San Servolo (other than hiring a water taxi, which would cost a fortune), namely getting the vaporetto (water bus) Line 20 from the San Marco/San Zaccaria waterfront. It’s only one stop but doesn’t run very frequently; the museum’s opening times are hence co-ordinated with two specific boat connections, namely the vaporetto departures at 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m., respectively. The ride lasts ca. eight to ten minutes. Access to the museum then commences at 11:50 a.m. and 2:45 p.m., respectively.
The reception from where you obtain your tickets is in the building right opposite the vaporetto landing stage.
Admission: 6 EUR, concession 4.50 EUR, children under 14 free.
Guided tours, also in English, can be requested as well, at weekends too. To enquire about prices and conditions email sanservolo(at)coopculture.it
Time required: At the museum itself I spent only about 45 minutes, but some visitors may want as long as an hour. In any case you will have time spare afterwards before you can get the vaporetto back to the city so you can have a walk around the rest of the island as far as it is publicly accessible. Given the merely hourly connections by vaporetto this brings the total visiting time to two hours (or three, if you miss the next boat too).
Combinations with other dark destinations:
see under Venice
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The vaporetto going to San Servolo also connects with the island to the south, which is home to an Armenian monastery and library, but access is by reservation only.
Otherwise it’s back to the city of Venice
- San Servolo 01 - arrival
- San Servolo 02 - in the grounds of the former asylum
- San Servolo 03 - inside
- San Servolo 04 - pharmacy
- San Servolo 05 - dissection room
- San Servolo 06 - skulls
- San Servolo 07 - church
- San Servolo 08 - inside the church
- San Servolo 09 - exhibition
- San Servolo 10 - restraints
- San Servolo 11 - hydrotherapy
- San Servolo 12 - more exhibits
- San Servolo 13 - old medical equipment
- San Servolo 14 - electro shock machine
- San Servolo 15 - convulsor
- San Servolo 16 - hand casts
- San Servolo 17 - brain slices
- San Servolo 18 - cafe
- San Servolo 19 - giving victims back their faces
- San Servolo 20 - looking back towards the main island
- San Servolo 21 - looking towards a neighbouring island