The Mental Asylum Complex of Mombello

Particolare del giardino pertinenziale del padiglione Biffi dell’ex ospedale psichiatrico (Fototeca ISAL, fotografia di Ferdinando Zanzottera)
Detail of the laundry room and warehouse for the custodians of the ex-psychiatric hospital (ISAL Photo Archive, photograph by Ferdinando Zanzottera)

In February 1865 the newly formed Province of Milan acquired the huge complex of Villa Crivelli Pusterla from the Fiori family, its last owner. In those years there was an ongoing debate about where to put the new asylum of Milan since the existing complex, known as Senavra, was no longer sufficient. At the proposal of Cesare Castiglioni, the director of the asylum, Villa Crivelli Pusterla with its vast park appurtenance was identified as the ideal location. Subsequent to the unification, there was a tendency to decentralize public assistance institutions on a provincial basis and in the case of psychiatric hospitals, to ensure treatments taht focused more on the relationship between the patient and nature.

The first group of patients were transferred in 1867 to the villa restored by the engineer, Francesco Lucca, under the guidance of Castiglioni. In October of that year all 300 patients were evenly divided between women and men.
The first guests, defined as “tranquil,” were employed in productive activities such as farm work in the agricultural area organized on the lower edge of the garden of Villa Crivelli Pusterla.
Over the years the complex became the largest psychiatric hospital in Lombardy especially after the final closure of Senavra in 1878, when the number of patients exceeded 1,000 individuals.
In 1911, Professor Antonini became director and remained in Mombello until 1930; he made a lot of improvements to the hospital complex by building many new pavilions. For many decades the hospital in Limbiate aroused the interest of European and American psychiatrists, and was often visited by international delegations of doctors, scientists and administrators.
During the First World War, the former Psychiatric Hospital of Limbiate assigned two pavilions for veterans traumatized by the war in the trenches, and whose extreme drama was clearly shown by recent studies. Here the soldiers were subjected to clinotherapy or rest therapy and a re-energising diet. The hospital also believed in occupational therapy and was responsible for the construction of an internal road to connect the pavilions. The soldiers were not the only casualties of the Great War. After the defeat of Caporetto, there were also those evicted from asylums in Venice; Antonini, the director, decided to create the Venetian pavilion to accommodate 200 displaced patients. This trend was repeated for the Second World War refugees and victims of the flood of the Po river in 1951.
In the following years, at the behest of the director, Antonini, the hospital also established surgical services, gynaecological counselling, dental care and the patients who concentrated on artisan activities were organised in a building called the ” Work House”.
Care for the sick was promoted even through music, exercise and art, which served to advance art therapy in psychiatric hospitals in Lombardy and in other parts of Italy; in Mombello it was through the restoration of figurative decoration of some rooms of the original country residence and its appurtenance.
The years immediately following the Second World War was a period of profound debate within the psychiatric care field that slowly saw the assertion of the “primacy” of the Psychiatric Hospital Paolo Pini in Milan, over the historical and glorious structure of Limbiate. The new guidelines for the cure of mental illness imposed stronger links with the hospital clinics, casualty wards of the area and university research: all of which conspired to connote the remoteness of the hospital from the city as an extremely negative factor.
The importance of Paolo Pini increased due to the agreements signed between the Province of Milan and the University of Milan for the establishment of a chair for psychiatry and the establishment of a specialisation course in psychiatry by Professor. C. G. Riquier.
With ups and downs, therefore, the psychiatric facility of Mombello remained active until 1996, when the Lombardy Region approved the plan for the closure of the former psychiatric hospital “Antonini” of Limbiate as contained in Law no. 180 of 1978, known as the law of Basaglia.