From a place of meditation and peace it was transformed into an island of pain, first as a military hospital and then as an asylum, it is now reborn as an island of culture and thought, as well as historical memory of the hospital past.
It is the only island in the lagoon to have been recovered by a local authority.
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The origins and the first settlements
It is assumed that the very first settlements on the island date back to the end of the year 600, when a group of Benedictine monks, driven out of the Franks by their first destroyed monastery of Santo Stefano d'Altino, took refuge in San Servolo and founded a convent there .
In the year 819, the Doges Angelo and Giustiniano Partecipazio granted a group of religious to build the Church of Sant'Ilario, located on the borders of the Venetian Lagoons towards the Paduan territory. In the chronicle of the time, it appears that the church was rebuilt in 929 and in 998 the adjoining monastery hosted an illustrious guest, the Emperor Otto III who, incognito, met with the Doge Pietro Orseolo II.
At the beginning of the twelfth century, Benedictine nuns arrived on the island, fleeing the imminent ruin of the city of Malamocco; then in San Servolo, for a period, there were two Benedictine monasteries: one occupied by the Nuns of the Bishop and Martyr San Basso and the other managed by the Regulars, under the title of Saints Cornelius and Cyprian.
At the hands of the Calbana family, the female monastery was renovated and enlarged and continued to host the nuns for at least 500 years, during which they built the bell tower, which a plaque testifies to have been completed on September 15, 1456. The monks left the island around 1100 to reach the island of Murano.
In 1470 the Church was consecrated after renovations which also affected the cloister; in 1615, due to a move by the Benedictine nuns to the Convent of Santa Maria dell'Umiltà, the island appears to be almost uninhabited, with the exception of the gardeners and a chaplain, who had the Church in custody and management. Temporarily, the place was used for public and private grain deposits while in 1630 it was used as a hospital for plague victims.
From 1647, the island was repopulated with nuns of three distinct Rules of Professions: Benedictine, Franciscan and Dominican women who, to safeguard their lives from the Turks, were transferred to San Servolo and lived thanks to public and private individual charity.
During the Candia war, the Republic faced another problem: how to manage the health problems caused by the battles. They decided to open a hospital dedicated to the assistance of the "miserable soldiers" afflicted by "the battles, the long marches and the greed of the officers" and the Island of San Servolo was chosen as a place of hospitalization. In 1700 the nuns were quickly moved and the "militia" hospital was established, where the Hospitaller Friars of St. John of God were chosen for assistance from 1715, then Fate Bene Fratelli.
Only 10 years later, Messer Stefani was hospitalized "as a madman" in this place of treatment. It was a novelty of considerable importance in that, up to this moment, men considered insane were placed in solitary confinement in "fusta", a ship without a mast lowered into the lagoon where convicts learned to row in misery and illness. The Council of Ten therefore accepted the proposal to hospitalize a wealthy madman in the military hospital of S. Servolo, upon payment: thus began the different treatment between the paying mentally ill and others. The difficult coexistence between the insane and the military became increasingly complicated until, in 1809, the military hospital was transferred to the city in the convent of Saints John and Paul. San Servolo therefore began to host only the mentally ill, now not only the wealthy but also the poorest, who were subsidized by the State, and no longer only the Venetian ones but the patients from all the Venetian provinces, in addition to Tyrol and the Dalmatia. As early as 1802, the Austrian government classified the sick into three classes: maniacs, imbeciles and demented.
From 1815, the hypothesis of curability and healing of the mentally ill also began to develop, but many, even those who experienced improvements, could not be discharged due to the miserable family conditions. Poverty, in addition to poor and incorrect nutrition, caused an exponential increase in diseases, not only physical but also mental, often handed down from generation to generation, often aggravated by a high rate of alcoholism. The disease began to be studied with an anatomical-clinical approach, not surprisingly, in San Servolo, alongside the chains and restraint sleeves, there are also anthropometric instruments used, among other things, for measuring the diameter of the skull.
The advent of the twentieth century led to a swarm of complaints and complaints of mistreatment towards the patient, starting to consider the use of specific drugs more effective than trying to discipline, in a forced way, the instincts and behaviors of people in treatment . The scandal in San Servolo led to a removal of the Fatebenefratelli staff who was replaced by the new medical direction of the hospitals of S. Servolo and S. Clemente (where women with mental problems were imprisoned).
The study aimed at the treatment of psychiatric pathologies continued, new methodologies were applied that helped the patient to get closer to normal life and others that tried to treat the patient with a purely medical-scientific approach, some of which were rather violent and painful (think use of electroshock without anesthesia). From 1940, a psychotherapeutic approach began to be applied that would re-evaluate the relationship between doctor and caregiver, considering the patient no longer treated but in custody. These new considerations led to the drafting and approval of law no. 180/1978, also known as the law of the Venetian physician Franco Basaglia, through which psychiatric hospitals were definitively closed.
The island today
August 15, 1978 was an important date for the Venetians, as they were able to regain possession of a beautiful island, previously used only for medical and psychotherapeutic uses.
The island of San Servolo, owned by the Province of Venice, was redeveloped and restructured using the Special Law for Venice and the San Servolo IRSESC Foundation - Institute for Research and Studies on Social and Cultural Marginalization was established, with the primary task of safeguarding and cataloging the enormous archival heritage dating back to the Venetian asylums.
Today the Venice International University (VIU), the Academy of Fine Arts of Venice, the Franca and Franco Basaglia Foundation and San Servolo Servizi, in charge of managing the island's services, operate on the island. They are the latter who organize guided visits to the most characteristic points of the place: the Madhouse museum in which finds belonging to the psychiatric hospital (historical images of the hospital) are visible, the park characterized by the presence of some very old trees and coming from different parts of the world, the church entitled to San Servilio, the apothecary in which medicines were produced and supplied to the militias (in-depth study dedicated to the ancient pharmacy) and finally the library which contains volumes of medical and psychiatric subjects.
The new use of the island, as a cultural production center, allows to host conferences, seminars, public but also private events, to which is also added an accommodation activity.