The red roofs of San Salvi
A story of madness.
"I look at the steep rocks of Falterona, feeling oppressed: I'll have to climb and climb".
(Dino Campana, Canti Orfici, La Verna).
"The deep and infernal bottom is my guide".
(Dino Campana, Quaderni).
"Dino Campana is a poet who was shut up in a mental home for several years".
"It became necessary to send him to the Florentine Institute for mental disorders (San Salvi, editor's note). He arrived there on January 12th, 1918. On January 28th he was moved to Castel Pulci, five miles to the West. He was thirty-two."
Carlo Pariani, a psychiatrist at Castel Pulci asylum, reported the conversations he had with the poet in Vita non romanzata di Dino Campana. He confirmed the diagnosis of hebephrenia, an untreatable form of schizophrenia.
It was nicknamed "red roofs" because of its tiles soaring beyond the city walls. San Salvi psychiatric hospital opened on September 9th, 1890.
"The gentle and learned capital of Tuscany too has a new and grand asylum", announced Doctor Algeri in the opening speech. In those days Florence had 170thousand inhabitants, 4thousand people were shut up at San Salvi: hence there was a "madman" every 40 Florentines.
The "Bianchi Law" ("Law on mental homes and the mentally ill" of 1904) stated that «people affected with mental disease of any cause must be kept and treated in mental homes if deemed dangerous to themselves or to the others and the cause of public outrage».
On the eve of the Great War, 59 public mental homes were operating on the national territory (3 of them judicial), 30 private ones, 31 institutes for the rehabilitation of the mentally ill and 4 institutes for the disabled.
The health and sanitary conditions the patients lived in were dreadful. Crammed on camp beds, along the wards or in containment cells, they were the target of several diseases such as cholera, smallpox, tuberculosis and pneumonia.
10% of them would die every year and the patients' life expectancy had dropped to 47 years only.
San Salvi was dedicated to Vincenzo Chiarugi, an outstanding personality in the world of psychiatry, the author of a famous treatise where he explained that "madmen" must be kept within an artificial, orderly and rigorous facility to contrast their mental diseases, described as "passion disorders".
The gigantic asylum was designed by Giacomo Roster with psychiatrist Augusto Tamburini as a place "to put back order into orderless minds".
San Salvi was a village with an elliptical structure and "annexed pavilions connected by tunnels". On the shorter axis were the buildings for Administration and General Services. From there two parallel tunnels would reach the wards destined to "the disabled and the paralytics". The "raving lunatics" were confined to the most outward pavilions. Men to the West and women to the East.
A rational and hierarchic lay-out, as shown in Alinari’s photos, where the spaces are rigorously geometric and even patients are posing, impeccable in this careful composition.
Patients were distributed into the wards according to their health conditions and to moral as well as economic considerations: quiet, disabled and paralytic, semi-wealthy, dirty and epileptic, wealthy, retired and paying.
Then there were the poor (especially women and single mothers), the homosexuals, the dissenters from the Fascist regime, the alcoholics as well as all other destitute and outcasts.
For many years patients, mostly dressed in loose shirts, would live at San Salvi in large dorms protected by bars and locked up.
They had little exercise outdoors, confined to small enclosures and controlled by psychiatrists from the gangways above.
Usually the quietest patients were allowed to work, as part of the therapy called "ergotherapy".
In the early 20th century chemical shock therapy was introduced. In the fifties treatments included insulin therapy, malaria therapy, lobotomy and physical containment, later partially replaced by considerable amounts of psychotropic drugs.
Electroshocks (electroconvulsive therapy or TEC) generate an epileptic-like fit caused by the electrical discharge. Positive effects were observed in the treatment of depression.
"My name is Dino, and as Dino I am called Edison. Edison, the inventor of the introspection machine whereby one can discover coal and metal deposits".
"Do you hear voices in your ears?"
"I am always hearing voices, I am a switchboard operator".
(…) I can live without food, I am electric, I am Edison".
(Carlo Pariani, Vita non romanzata di Dino Campana).
A rowdy loner he was arrested several times. "Campana's "obscure evil", "that had already emerged in 1900 with brutal, morbid impulsiveness in the family and in particular towards his mother" *, led him to live a wandering life, in the Apennines woods and in remote regions.
His existence was a sorrowful path, dedicated to study and poetry. On September 15th 1906 he was placed in the mental hospital in Imola. The physicians officially declared him "insane" and consequently deprived of all civil rights.
* Letter by Giovanni Campana , Dino’s father, to the head of Imola mental home.
"The physician in charge of filling out the application the law required to place someone in an asylum, regarding the physical and moral causes of Dino’s disease stated as follows: -Addicted to coffee which he drinks avidly and enormously abuses-."
And he goes on: "Psychic exaltation. Impulsiveness and roaming life."
(Carlo Pariani, Vita non romanzata di Dino Campana).
"They broke my mind so much that I lost my poetic vein."
The poet died on March 1st 1932 in the chronic ward, reserved to untreatable patients, because of "extremely acute, primitive septicemia or virulent direct microbial blood infection". He probably hurt himself with barbed wire during an attempt of escape.
He was buried at San Colombano churchyard "within the enclosure of the poor who died insane". His remains, recovered in 1946, were then moved to the church at Badia a Settimo.