Lucca’s Very Own Snakepit

A recent email from the Mario Tobino Foundation inviting me to the opening of an exhibition of medical and scientific instruments from Lucca’s ex-mental hospital of Maggiano prompted me to memories of our first visit to this eerie place. We entered the unguarded confines of the former lunatic asylum without any problems and suddenly heard strange voices murmuring from one corner of a vast courtyard dominated by a hemi-circular building. Were there any inmates still lodged in this edifice? Not really. We walked on further and discovered that the voices came from a group of pensioners playing cards in an old folks’ recreational club which was still active within the hospital’s grounds…

Later we managed to see the interior of the psychiatric institution as part of a guided trip. Maggiano was one of the spookiest but most worthwhile sights we’ve seen in and around Lucca.

The idea of segregating lunatics from the “normal” population first took hold in 1772 a little before Lucca’s Napoleonic occupation at the start of the nineteenth century when an ex-monastery was commandeered for this purpose. One set of cloisters was dedicated to the immurement of males and the other to females. Here are aerial shots showing clearly the two cloisters:

These cloisters are still there today and form some of the largest and most gracious courtyards in the province. There is also a fine chapel where the insane would gather regularly to get priestly solace.  The original monastery was enlarged with the addition of the hemi-circular building we saw from the outside and which housed the kitchens with its large ovens and washing tanks still extant.

Lucca’s mental hospital began to be shut down, in line with all others of Italy’s mental institutions (except for those housing criminally insane or dangerous inmates) in 1975 according to the still much-discussed Basaglia law which favoured the integration of mental patients into the wider society instead of segregating them, apartheid like. Lucca’s “Manicomio” finally shut its doors in 1999.

Maggiano is also a place of pilgrimage for admirers of doctor and writer Mario Tobino (after whom the foundation is named) who worked there for over forty years. His best book “Le Libere Donne di Magliano (location name changed for privacy reasons), was translated into English as “The Mad Women of Magliano” by Archibald Colquhoun and vividly describes the alternative world created by psychosis with its own strange but apparently totally logical rules which transform the world into an arcane surrealist actuality, rather like some of our own worse dreams.

Here is a photo of part of Tobino’s living quarters showing the desk where he wrote his prize-winning books on an Olivetti Lettera 22, and also two pictures of him in the hospital grounds.

Mario Tobino has been criticized by some as being a better writer than a psychiatrist but it must be remembered that he appeared on the hospital scene when psycho-drugs like largactyl had not yet been developed, where the usual form of restraint was the straight-jacket, where the response to severe disturbance was a sequence of electroshock treatment and where the answer to extreme mental confusion was a lobotomy operation.

Tobino left the hospital in a much more humane condition. Lobotomies were cut out and the use of the new generation of tranquillisers reduced the need for electro-shock treatment. Most of all, Tobino encouraged patients to express themselves through painting, singing and writing as forms of curative therapies.

I thought of “the Snakepit”, that terrifying film-noir from 1948 starring Joan Fontaine and based on Mary Jane Ward’s semi autobiographical novel, which echoes the history of Maggiano before and after the arrival of more compassionate doctors and more effective care.

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(Still from the film, with Joan Fontaine in a straightjacket)

During our visit to the haunted, empty and dilapidated wards of the institution and to its former arts studio we saw evidence of strange graffiti on the walls and other creative expressions of the hospital’s former inmates. It was difficult to take photographs of the interiors since these were severely discouraged. Indeed, one of the group we were with complained about this quite strongly and I thought for a moment he might be detained within the walls because of his outburst, but fortunately he calmed down after a little while and this was not deemed necessary by our escort.

At its height Lucca’s asylum for the insane was a veritable town with one thousand two hundred patients who, together with doctors, nurses, cooks and cleaners, made up a total population of two thousand.

Unless one is particularly squeamish or has had bad experiences of  such places I strongly recommend a visit to one of Lucca’s less well-known attractions and Italy’s oldest mental institution. Situated a few miles to the north west of the city at Maggiano visits to it can be booked at

Certainly, the exhibition at Lucca’s newly restored San Francesco campus will be worth seeing.





5 thoughts on “Lucca’s Very Own Snakepit

  1. What a pity that we never managed to meet Mario Tobino. In my view he was a great Humanitarian. He understood humans and human nature fully. The idea of doing all these ghastly manoeuvres on human beings was truly abhorrent unnecessary and harmful and to think that not so much was known then about the human brain and its function in those days as today. Even pills, although temporarily, can help in some cases they too can be the cause of long term illness. A recent article in the Evening Standard stated that, in fact, in the UK half the citizens at one time or other has taken anti-depression drugs. Some remain permanently on these whilst others manage to improve and it is only a passing phase. However, it seems to me that there is still that stigma attached to people with so called mental illness despite the fact that it seems to be a common fact that most people are labelled as belonging to one illness or another in the mental stakes paranoid schizoid manic depressive (now known as bi polar illness highs and lows) and whatever else!. What is amazing is that when researching into all this is that the most talented of people in life are of one type or another. For example, Charles Dickens was bi-polar. So what is normal, so called normal? What is more spooky is that the draughts board was engraved into the pietra serena in the cloisters at Maggiano and I have seen several of these around and about in Longoio one wonders!

    • I truly appreciated your comment on this institution. I think it would be of great benefit to society if several politicians, which I am too polite to name, were sectioned there. The views from the ‘struttura’ are truly breathtaking and they would well out of the world’s harm way……

  2. Hi really interested to read your blog, can you tell me how you found out about the tour of the asylum, I’m going to Lucca late July and would love to see this place to shoot in it. If you can recall any contact details that would be great.

  3. Pingback: Madness comes to Lucca – From London to Longoio (and Lucca and Beyond) Part Three

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